Onlookers might take the elaborate dress for a wedding, and indeed some girls consider it the biggest day of their lives. The time-honored custom has the symbolism of a debutante's coming-out party, a bat mitzvah and the prom all wrapped up into one.
Add the disc jockey and custom invitations, decorations and cases of Bacardi rum, and soon the Santiagos had spent upward of $8,000 on their precious teenage twosome. It is a hefty sum of money for them. It can be expensive for many Hispanic families who will shell out a large fraction of their salaries to throw a lavish party the day a daughter becomes a woman. Juan Santiago, who moved here from Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, 30 years ago, has been working double shifts at the National Rolling Mills Factory in Malvern to do it. The girls' mother, Esther, who works for Yves Rocher cosmetics manufacturer, has spent the last two years putting this party together, one amethyst-hued ribbon at a time.
A day earlier at the Santiago house, as the sisters tried to quell their pre-party nerves while family members chopped onions and cooked rice in preparation for the fiesta, there were bits of concern for harmony at the party. At a quinceanera at the West Chester Community Center just two weeks earlier, the West Chester Police and 12 other police departments were called to break up a fight spilling into East Market Street. After the police used Mace and nightsticks to disperse the crowd and arrested two teenage girls, several witnesses complained that the police used excessive force.
"No one's going to start trouble because the police and the mayor will be there," Sennid reassured herself. "I'm more worried about everyone having fun and seeing my friends before school starts," she added. Both girls will be freshmen at West Chester East High School this fall.
"It's like a dream you've been having, and now it's, like, coming real . . ." said Sennid.
"We've been planning this since I was 12," said Ennid.
Family members were coming in from Puerto Rico, Boston, New York and Florida, as well as West Chester and Downingtown. The Santiagos had sent out more than 200 invitations, 100 in Spanish and 100 in English, for a total of 300 guests.
"Some of my white friends, their families have never heard of a quinceanera before," said Sennid, "but we're going to have everybody there."
"Everybody" was indeed a multi-racial bunch, and did include a fashionably late Mayor Cliff DeBaptiste. The mayor, who is black, prides
himself on being a lifelong friend of the Santiagos.
DeBaptiste said he looked into the police response to the July 30 quinceanera and deemed it appropriate. "People in the community said they didn't have any problems with us, but maybe with some officers from the other departments," he said. "We're just concerned with how our officers behaved."
The Santiagos rose at 6 that Saturday morning to decorate. The end product was complete color coordination, a ceiling iced with crepe paper and bevies of balloons, a dais decked with legions of dolls, and other party favors in white, purple and lavender.
Esther Santiago was transformed into a polished and alluring redhead in classic black and white gown. She had styled her daughters' long tresses by pulling their hair back tightly and curling it high above their heads. When she was done, twin ringlets of black silk hung at either side of the girls' heads. Even their white gowns were identical, save the ribbons at the gathers of their Southern belle-style skirts; to help guests tell them apart, Sennid's bows were lavender, and Ennid's were deep purple.
By 4 p.m., their small living room was awash with a perspiring sea of girls in lavender and purple satin and hair spray and with guys who had traded in their too-baggy jeans for lilac and violet-tinted cummerbunds and bow ties.
Pairs of tots in formal wear paraded out the door, following by couple after couple, for spectators waiting on now-jammed East Nields Street. Finally, the twins came out of the rowhouse, with Sennid leading the way and Ennid following, the opposite order in which they came into the world. With cameras flashing and video cameras rolling, the girls and their escorts - friends who had come from Puerto Rico for the party - slipped into the black stretch limousine. The procession began.
Led by nine men on motorcycles, the limousine made its way through the streets of West Chester. The court followed, riding in Toyotas, their bumpers kissed with homemade purple-sparkle Sweet 15 signs. Scores of cars filled with guests followed, honking and flashing hazard lights. As the motorcade wound past housing projects and stately Victorian homes alike, West Chester residents seemed to peer from its porches in wonder at the endless procession booming with the sounds of beeping and merengue.
They assembled at Everhart Park. With the park's gazebo blocked off for repairs, they stood on the basketball court, hoops contrasting with their ornate dresses. There, the Rev. Frank Lewis offered prayers.
Father Lewis, who leads Spanish services in West Chester and Coatesville, has performed a few such ceremonies before, mostly for Puerto Ricans.
As he blessed the two girls, their large dark eyes and round faces looked upward in an angelic tilt, waiting for the sprinkles of holy water to fall upon their light brown skin.
"We thank you, Lord, for the great gift of these two children . . . becoming women," said Father Lewis. Esther's eyes began to tear; Juan beamed. The crowd stood silent, mouthing the words of the Hail Mary in Spanish.
Mary Burgos, the twins' sister-in-law, recalled being in her friend's court. "It's a way for parents to bring their young virgins out into society," she said.
Later at the community center, as the '90's hip-hop music started up and the lights went down, it seemed a challenge for the twins to look anything but traditional as they danced in their crinoline-puffed floor-length gowns. Their dance, with crinoline gathered in each hand, was more a swish back and forth. Dancing would be easier in a few minutes, when their dresses would be a little higher off the floor.
After the court made its grand re-entrance at 9 p.m., the audience watched as little girls brought Juan Santiago lacy baskets carrying white heels. He knelt down and removed each of his daughters' shoes, satin ballet slippers, and replaced them with the white pumps. A painless rite of passage, so long anticipated, was over in a minute. Symbolically, they were now women.