It was the first Saturday in October 2002, I was riding in a black limo wearing the enormous, poofy, light pink ball gown dress that I wanted- it was perfect. After all, it was custom-made so it fit like a glove. My hair was curled exactly how I had dreamed – soft wavy curls, just like the actress I had seen on the telenovela. My makeup was spot on - nothing about it was clownish or inappropriate, just flawless. I was about to arrive at my church, just 4 blocks away from where we are sitting right now. I was turning 15 and this was the day of my Fiesta Rosa.
In El Salvador, the country where I was born, people celebrate their young women’s coming of age when they turn 15 and we call it a Fiesta Rosa or Pink Party.
For my parents, this Fiesta Rosa meant so much. I was their pride and joy and to celebrate this day with all our family and community was phenomenal. But it was more than their love for me that made this day of my Fiesta Rosa unforgettable. It was also their sacrifice that made this day grand. My family had surpassed many and incredible hardships, both in El Salvador and in this country. They survived poverty, persecution, violence, and whole journey to a foreign land that would later be their new home. My family left their home in the late 80s because of a civil war. It had destroyed so much of their life, their family, their neighborhood, their innocence and their dreams.
When they arrived in the U.S., they didn’t have much in their pockets or much at all, except for hope and a three-month old baby girl who needed a future. They were young parents who needed to make sure that they gave their daughter, now a civil war survivor, the best chance at life. Part of their hope was to do what they never could in their homeland. Having this Fiesta Rosa was one of those things. My turning 15 was important because I would be the first woman in more than 5 generations, both on my mother and father sides of the family to celebrate this rite of passage. The magnitude of that when I was 15 weighed deeply in my heart because I knew that this honor was a new thing for my family. And it was a new thing for our new found church community, as most of the people in our congregation were also immigrants from El Salvador, and various parts of Latin America. They also shared in my parent’s sense of accomplishment.
So they went all out. When I say that, I’m not exactly talking about the ballroom hall at the Hilton, but instead a modest, decent and the prettiest pink party you could imagine in the basement of an almost century old church. With all the fresh flowers you could imagine, with tulle, beautiful linens, and everyone wearing their most elegant outfit. My mother, who has always had an eye for style, always said, that one could hit hard times, but it didn’t mean you’d have to compromise good taste, so the party and the guests all showed up.
The party was perfect. But something wasn’t right. I had a secret. I did not want a Fiesta Rosa.
I was fourteen going on fifteen, in my awkward stage and going through an identity crisis! The last thing I wanted was attention from everyone I knew, for a whole day! Going through high school was plain torture for me. Not only was I trying to survive teenage hood, but during those years, was the first time I realized this inner struggle that I woke up to every day, questioning, if I'm Salvadoran or American, and what portion to whom at what time? Why does my English have an accent or why don’t I know Spanish sometimes. Where do I belong? Whoever said high school was supposed to be the best four years of your life didn’t know what it was like to be an immigrant kid with an identity crisis with an upcoming super Salvadoran party. High school was awful. I was awkward, with frizzy hair, and hairy potter glasses and the thing that pained me the most was my need to belong. This need was so powerful that it compelled my shy, awkward, frizzy haired self to try out for every single women’s sports team at my school. I tried out for swimming, volleyball, softball, crosscountry, soccer and the list went on and to my utter devastation, I never made it to any team. Every single time I tried out, it was the same disappointment, the same pain and rejection. I’d rush to the gym office and when I finally got the list of names, I’d scan all the way down “Vasquez, Vasquez, Vasquez…” and I never saw my name. It broke my heart. I longed for identity, to belong, and on the day that I should have felt all that to the highest degree, I instead felt uncomfortable, awkward and like I didn’t fit in even though it was a party to celebrate me.
Maybe if I had found the right words to express to my parents how I felt, how I didn’t want this party, they would have graciously said to me, “its ok sweetie, don’t worry about it”. But I didn’t say anything. But I couldn’t say that to them and break their hearts. Break my abuelita’s heart, my abuelos’s, my whole community who had survived this war, who had dreamed of days like these.
At the end of my Fiesta Rosa, everyone was at my house and they were all watching me open all my gifts. It was late and everyone was laughing because I received several bath sets, you know the ones with all lotion, the bath gel, and body spray…there’s all this gift wrapping everywhere, all this pink paper and I’m in the center of the room, on the carpet, opening gifts, laughter all around me and still feeling the same. Awkward, isolated and alone.
I finished the day feeling glad it was over. I put the dress and shoes away, put a pair of new pjs on, washed away the perfect makeup and went to bed.
Today, I’m no longer 15 and THANK GOD! I’m actually nearing 30, and I feel great. I’m no longer shaken when I don’t know a word in Spanish, I just look it up. Now, when my Salvi accent comes out in my English, I love it. It lets people know, “this Karla, she’s not from here.” And yes, I’m not – let me tell you where I’m from. Let me tell you about my people, their stories, their pains and their joys. I never made a sports team in high school but I did create a team. After high school, my team was made up out of all kinds of people, young and old who have taught me that comradarie and companionship extends across: occupation, boundaries, borders,
incomes, races, and religion. I love my team. They are my family, friends, activists who champion the struggles of the people, foodies, artists, truth seekers, dreamers and in general people who love life.
If I could do my Fiesta Rosa all over again, I would be so excited, because I know who I am. I know the legs I stand on. I know my strengths. I know my weaknesses and I’ll keep getting to know them more I’m sure. I know how to give. And I know what to offer now. This Fiesta Rosa would be a coming of age for all of us, because it would be a party that celebrates all that we’ve overcome. We’re all survivors. And we survived for each other.
Karla T. Vasquez is a Los Angeles Resident. She was born in El Salvador, and migrated to the States at a very young age. She is a Food Justice advocate in her community in Pico Union. Her passions include community health, food, food history and story telling. On her off time she practices her sign language and her ukulele skills.