Quinceanera Narrative Essay
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I end my narrative with some very warm, cozy, soothing and pleasant memories in my heart that my pen is not being able to convey to the paper very efficiently. What I felt that day is being impossible for me to describe in words. Whenever I see those pictures that we took in the park, I miss my friends and most of all, my father. He was there with me that day and became the biggest reason why that day was the most special day of my life. Last but not the least, I thank my mother to arrange such a wonderful celebration for me on my fifteenth birthday and making me feel like a
This essay focuses on how Cofer's notions of identity and language function as associated with the predominant theme of women and women's roles and identities in particular cultural contexts in the texts Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhood (1990) and The Latin Deli (1993). Cofer's plays on linguistic markers such as mother, marriage, virginity, and prostitute, in Spanish and English, invoking multiple stereotypes and connotations associated with both the island and the mainland. However, based on a notion of identity that relies on movement and oscillation, Cofer maintains the language associated with women in a kind of semantic flux in which critical analysis of any linguistic marker, either in Spanish or English, is limited because meaning builds, shifts, and contradicts throughout these two collections. For example, a Western reader might be inclined to call Cofer's texts feminist and assert that the author problematizes and subverts terminology used to describe women and women's roles. However, such terminology proves subversive because the connotations of even a single word continually shift to include both positive and negative valences. These continual shifts indicate how, as an observer, Cofer can identify how women both conform to and belie cultural constructs. The very complexity of women's experiences belies singular portrayals and, as a result, while Cofer participates in an Anglo feminist tradition of reinterpreting the roles to which women are assigned, she also participates in a tradition articulated by Chicana feminists such as Gloria Anzaldúa, who cites the "pluralistic mode" as a strategy used by women, as members of multiple cultural communities, to circulate a wealth of terms that define women and their experiences (79).
Silent Dancing opens with the essay, "Casa," which grounds the entire collection in a community of women associated with the oral tradition. In "Casa," the women gather for the afternoon ritual of café con leche, where they tell stories meant to entertain but also to "teach each other and my cousin and me what it was like to be a woman, more specifically, a Puerto Rican woman" (14). While many of the cuentos narrate real events, they are also thickly embellished "morality and cautionary tales" (15) from which the narrator learns appropriate behavior for women. As participant and observer, the narrator becomes the "cultural chameleon" (17) who can blend into crowds and, when she returns to the mainland, repeat these stories to connect herself to a cultural heritage she associates with women. Additionally, readers are grounded in the tradition of storytelling as it is associated with the Spanish language. While the text is primarily in English, the use of Spanish words to articulate the traditions of café con leche and cuentos maintains the connections between the traditions, the language, and the island. The term casa is one many English speaking readers can define as house, home, or household but which, in the context of the story, refers not to a physical structure but to a sense of home the narrator associates with Puerto Rican women, their traditions, and the island. Since the narrator continually moves between the island and the mainland, however, her community of women is not fixed in either locale. Home may signify the narrator's connections to Puerto Rico, but it also suggests a displacement as the narrator moves away from that culture to the mainland.
The very name Marina also plays on a linguistic translation and cultural pun: while marina refers to a seacoast or shore, in the essay it invokes the masculine marino, which refers to a marine or a sailor. Despite learning that Marina is actually a man, the townspeople still refer to him as the feminine Marina who appears to suffer no ill feelings in his community. While "Marina" represents a nontraditional example of what it means to be a woman in Puerto Rico and what it means to marry, "Marina" also indicates a second pun as associated with one of the most positive portrayals of marriage in both collections. While previous examples of marriage suggest that women and men marry to legitimately bear children and that women seem to be responsible for securing marriage, "Marina" presents an alternative. In "Marina," wo(men) talk about their sexuality openly, and the example set by the couple results in a story that can be told to other women. More than a union to bear children, the story of Marina and Kiki fosters the notion that sexuality need not be associated only with procreation, and that marital unions may be grounded and based in friendship.
"Marina" reveals not only a nontraditional example of marriage, it also hints at the dangers of sexual knowledge and the lack thereof. One of the issues Cofer points to in the essay is that the Marina and Kiki met at a river with other girls to discuss the forbidden topic of sex. The narrator asserts, "they [girls] were betrayed by their own protective parents who could bring themselves to explain neither the delights, nor the consequences of sex" (155). Sexual knowledge is complicated in Cofer's work because it is something that is both celebratory and threatening. In the poem "Quinceañera," the arrival of the narrator's period signals a Spanish tradition of celebrating her fifteenth birthday, which suggests not only her coming of age into sexual knowledge, but also the dangers associated with sexual knowledge. Because she has begun to menstruate, the young girl's dolls are put away "like dead children" and she, not her mother, is expected to wash her own clothes and sheets "as if / the fluids of my body were poison, as if / the little trickle of blood I believe / travels from my heart to the world were / shameful" (Silent Dancing 50). The coming party is ironic because, while it translates as a celebration, it clearly indicates a shameful mourning as indicated by the mother, who has "nailed back" her daughter's hair with black hairpins (50). Even so, the narrator recognizes the contradiction and wonders why her blood is shameful while the blood lost by saints or men in battle is "beautiful" (50). Only in the former case does blood have negative connotations, primarily because it represents the potential for young women to marry and to become pregnant. The quinceañera invokes multiple connotations the daughter must mediate successfully if she is to grow into womanhood and maintain respect in her family. Because her entrance into womanhood is fraught with responsibility that is both celebratory and threatening, she must navigate her entrance into womanhood by learning to read her body as well as others' responses to it to arm and protect herself.
What is most significant are the sensitive lines between cultures that define sexuality in very different terms and elaborate what it means for a young woman to be responsible for the behavior and attitudes of men in general and of men toward women. In the essay "Quinceañera," the daughter returns to Puerto Rico for a visit where she learns, as a member of her "mother's matriarchal tribe," what it "meant to become a woman in Puerto Rico" (Silent Dancing 139):
Whether as nuns, prostitutes, wives, or mothers, the women in Cofer's work have a support network of other women who are vital to their survival. If one woman's example proves unbearable to her, there are other examples to counteract this. If one woman subverts notions of womanhood, as in "Fulana" or "Marina," there are both successful and unsuccessful examples of this. There are enough choices and options, in other words, to provide each woman in a community with increased possibilities for autonomy and agency. The truth of individual situations, definitions, or interpretations remains and rests in the dynamic female-identified community that creates multiple possibilities. The very word truth resists a literal translation in Cofer's work, particularly when she combines the poetic form with the essay form, which is meant to distinguish fictional from lived experiences, but which the author melds through shared subject matter. The truth of the form is as unstable as the truth of the subjects regarding the multitude of representations of women as both negative and positive. There is no characterization of women that embodies the truth. Instead, there is a series of truths that resists singular interpretations and judgments in the same way women both conform to and resist the roles their cultures assign them. While the Virgin Mary is a holy figure to whom young girls aspire on the island in "The Latin Deli: An Ars Poetica," she is simultaneously a real woman "who was never pretty" when her image moves to the United States (3); while the prostitute represents the worst of all possible options to young girls, in the poem "Why Providencia Has Babies" (Silent Dancing), the narrator, like her mother is forced to work the streets to provide for a daughter who becomes "the welfare madonna" and "the women's joke" (114). In "Orar: To Pray" (Latin Deli 28), women often seem at the mercy of unfaithful or abusive husbands; as wives, they also make proactive choices about their own lives and bodies. In the poem "Claims," for example, the grandmother, without any ill feelings on her or her husband's part, claims "the right to sleep alone...for the luxury of stretching her bones" and to avoid pregnancy (29). 2b1af7f3a8