“Look at her, my Mariita, she is a young woman now,” said Leticia Garcia, wiping away tears and glancing back and forth between the dance floor and a baby photo of Maria. This was the moment she had dreamed of for 15 years.
On a Saturday evening earlier this month, Maria and 12 other area teenagers wore long, beautiful dresses, impeccable makeup and silver crowns as they marked their quinceañera — a celebration of a Latina’s 15th birthday and coming of age.
For the event, held at the Vansville Community Center in Beltsville, family and friends wore their best outfits in honor of a tradition that marks the traditional end of childhood for Hispanic girls.
For Maria and the 12 other teens, however, the experience was more than a lavish party. For these young women, who come from low-income immigrant families, the festivities were the culmination of 12 weeks of training and bonding that some of the teens said changed their lives.
“These are kids who don’t have very many opportunities, and all they need is motivation,” said Lourdes Sulc, who coordinates the Mis Quince Años — My Fifteen Years — program for the Prince George’s County Parks and Recreation Department. “They need to know they can go to college and find a good job.”
As part of the initiative, the girls learned about etiquette, dance and health. They also took writing and speaking seminars and discussed the college application process and concerns about their families’ inability to afford tuition. And they engaged in service, helping at area community fairs and distributing food to families in need.
The program was designed to get young Latinas closer to their cultural roots and help parents and daughters better understand each other.
“It is important for them to understand their parents and where they come from, Sulc said. “When they put that dress and makeup on, they feel proud. They can say, ‘I am Hispanic. I have traditions that I am proud of.’ ’’
Mis Quince Años, now in its fifth year, has grown into an effort to provide the girls with tools to succeed. It culminates in a quinceañera party for the girls, all of whom have turned or will soon turn 15.
Most of the participants are U.S.-born, but all of their parents are immigrants. Many of the parents struggle with English, and many hold jobs that keep them from helping their children with schoolwork.
The girls’ backgrounds put them at a disadvantage, Sulc said, noting studies that show Hispanic girls have higher rates of becoming pregnant as teens and dropping out of high school than other ethnic groups. Studies also suggest that although Hispanic youths have narrowed the gap in college enrollment, they still are less likely to get a degree.
When Garcia heard about Mis Quince Años earlier this year, she jumped at the chance to help her daughter. She made a commitment to make the lengthy, twice-a-week bus trip with Maria, her 11-year-old sister, Yesenia, and 8-month-old brother, Juan Pablo, from their Lanham apartment to the sessions at the Langley Park Community Center in Hyattsville.