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Girl, church grow up together with ‘quinceañera’

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A UMNS photo by Allysa Adams

Brianna Zapata is the first teenager to celebrate a quinceañera at Glendale (Ariz.) First United Methodist Church.
July 13, 2005

By Allysa Adams*

GLENDALE, Ariz. (UMNS)—It’s a hot summer day at the Zapata household in Glendale, and the house is in chaos. Relatives are gathered, and kids are playing.

In a quiet back room, 15-year-old Brianna Zapata is oblivious to the hum of the house. Quietly inspecting a white satin gown, she says, “I’m nervous.”

Brianna’s trepidation is understandable because tomorrow she will make the symbolic transition from child to adult, when she celebrates her “quinceañera,” a Hispanic tradition in which 15-year-olds celebrate their birthday and embrace religious traditions, as well as the virtues of family and social responsibility.

Brianna’s quinceañera is unusual because both her pastor and her church, First United Methodist, will be going through rites of passage with the ceremony.

Right now, though, all Brianna can think about is the fact that she has to say a prayer in Spanish, a language she doesn’t know well.

Across town at the church, the Rev. Lynn Hamilton also is getting ready. Brianna’s quinceañera will be the first ever celebrated at the 120-year-old church. Hamilton admits it marks a transition for the church as well, which has grown up as the population of the city around it has grown.

“We know what it’s like to be a rural church; we know what it’s like to be a suburban church,” Hamilton says. “Now we are finding ourselves as an urban church, and we need to be in our community.”

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A UMNS photo by Monica Alegria

Oneida Cantú-Alegría of Corpus Christi, Texas, poses with friends at her quinceañera.
That community is increasingly multicultural and more specifically Hispanic. According to the 2000 census, Hispanics make up 25 percent of Glendale’s population. First Church, like other urban congregations across the United States, is finding that embracing the community means learning new languages and traditions.

The quinceañera originated with the Aztecs and Mayans as early as 500 B.C. to celebrate a girl’s fertility. It has evolved into what is today a primarily Catholic tradition.

Oneida Cantú-Alegría of Corpus Christi, Texas, did not welcome a quinceañera. She tried to hide her ethnicity by not using the Hispanic part of her name because she attended predominately white schools. It was not until she transferred to a predominately Hispanic high school and was confronted by her peers “to start showing your pride in being a Mexican girl,” that she embraced her name and her heritage.

“Once my eyes were opened, I thought, how could I not have a quinceañera? I would be letting down my whole family practically, so I told my mom I wanted one, which was like in March or April (and) I had to hurry. It was so hectic, but yet it was so much fun,” she said of her June celebration at St. John’s United Methodist Church, Corpus Christi, Texas.

Brianna’s parents, Heather and Juan Zapata, originally thought they would have to go outside their church to celebrate Brianna’s quinceañera, perhaps to a Catholic church. But Heather decided to approach Hamilton first.

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A UMNS photo by Monica Alegria

The Rev. Frank Alegria (rt) and the Rev. John Elford celebrate Oneida Cantú-Alegría’s quinceanera in Texas.
“She said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it, let’s bring this to our church,’” Heather recalls. “And she just ran with it.”

“It’s an exciting time for our church,” Hamilton says. “But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.”

The process began more than a year ago, when Hamilton tried to find a Methodist service. She called fellow United Methodist ministers in the area and sent an e-mail to find other churches that may have examples of a quinceañera service. She found that most, like hers, had never performed one. The quinceañera service does not have to be performed in a Catholic church; the only requirement is that there be some sort of religious ceremony to mark the young woman’s acceptance of a life embracing religious values.

With help from the family, Hamilton planned a service that was both traditional and unique for Brianna. In her homily, she implores Brianna to “honor your life and the lives of those you love.” She asks her “to surround yourself with friends who want the best for you and who help you be your best.” Finally, the pastor reminds Brianna that “today is not just about dinner, dance and gifts” but “… about saying – ‘yes, God, I am ready to leave my childhood behind and embark on the journey of adulthood. Be with me Lord, guide and protect me, help me to be all you have created me to be.’”

The service includes many traditional aspects, such as the giving of gifts, including a candle to signify the light of Christ, a ring to signify the continuous circle of God’s love, and flowers to symbolize a beautiful and pure life created by God. Throughout the service, Hamilton tells the congregation to speak in whatever language they are comfortable with. Even Communion is served with a Spanish interpreter.

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A UMNS photo by Allysa Adams

The Rev. Lynn Hamilton blesses Brianna Zapata and her parents during a quinceañera ceremony.
The church is filled with Brianna’s family and friends, and even members of the congregation whom she barely knows. “They’ve been so supportive; they’ve opened their arms to us,” Heather Zapata says.

“I don’t know that this might have happened except for the fact that we now have bilingual families in our congregation,” Hamilton says. “But one of the things that really comes across is the United Methodist ... understanding that we are all children of God, and being able to reach out to another culture and blend this service like we blended this one says who we are as United Methodists.”

Despite her nerves, Brianna performs gracefully at the June 18 ceremony, repeating her baptismal vows and reciting a prayer of gratitude in Spanish as her parents and grandparents look on with tears in their eyes.

It is, her father notes, a bittersweet time. For days before, Juan has been thinking about the shy little girl who once held his hand as they walked to school. Now he admits “she’s almost a woman.”

And on this day, her quinceañera, she holds hands with her mother and father one last time. It’s ultimately a happy occasion as Brianna and her church find they are growing up together.

*Adams is a freelance writer and producer in Tucson, Ariz.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5458 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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