At first glance, Once Upon a Quinceañera, the debut novel by Monica Gomez-Hira ’95, looks like a youthful summer romance. Don’t believe it. Gomez-Hira expertly weaves a tale of complicated family dynamics that transcends generations and is told by a charming narrator who is not without her faults.
The novel opens in Miami, following Carmen Aguilar’s senior year of high school. Instead of enjoying salt air and freedom, Carmen must spend the summer interning as a Disney party princess with an event company to earn one last credit for her high school diploma. An internship that was going to be unpleasant at best—imagine being bogged down by miles of taffeta in the Miami heat—is made even more challenging when Carmen’s ex-boyfriend, Mauro Reyes, joins the team as Beast to her Belle. Sparks are rekindled.
But bad things come in threes, and the situation worsens when the company is hired to perform at Carmen’s cousin’s quinceañera. Anyone who has been on the back end of planning this celebration of a girl’s 15th birthday, marking her passage from girlhood to womanhood, knows that the thrill of finding the perfect dress and venue is ephemeral. The heart and soul of every quinceañera are family and friends, with well-intentioned tias and primos always managing to complicate the event.
Narrators like Carmen, with families like Carmen’s, are still few and far between in the world of contemporary young adult novels. Having been on the receiving end of harassment, microaggressions, and the effects of financial instability her whole life, Carmen has had to grow up fast. She is strong-willed, not afraid to call people’s bluffs, and does not forgive easily. She is stubborn and willing to admit that she is jealous of the opportunities her peers are given on a whim. Carmen demands that her trust be earned by family, friends, and romantic interests alike. She is resilient and loyal, but her veneer of indifference toward her own dreams after high school conceals a fear of taking a risk on herself. “Maybe it was time to force the world to reject me,” she says, “instead of rejecting myself.”
With riveting prose interwoven with Spanish, Gomez-Hira has us rooting for Carmen to get her degree (and her man), for a family’s divide to be healed, for happily ever afters, and—last but not least—for the inventor of the air conditioner that makes summers in Miami bearable.
I have read so many books where the climax of the plot is the heroine attending a sweet 16 or a prom. Finding a character like Carmen who is similar to me and with a family that I can relate to is wonderful. Not every Latina story is an immigrant journey. Other aspects of our lives are worth telling, and Carmen will resonate with a broad audience of young women who rarely encounter stories about one of the key moments in their lives.
Martinez lives in Washington, D.C., and is a voracious reader of young adult fiction.