The guy at the door stopped counting Luisa Villa’s quinceañera guests at 422. Despite the massive size of her party, her mother Isaura said everything about it was perfect, thanks to more than a year of preparation. They did most of the work themselves to put a little more sentimental value into it. “We’ve been expecting this day forever. It was exciting. Her energy, her glamour. It was just beautiful,” said Isaura. Luisa danced so much she had to change out of her wobbly high heels and dance the rest of the night in slippers. She stayed calm and unruffled, except one moment during the mother daughter dance. “I cried just a little bit,” she admitted.
It took three cars to take all Luisa’s gifts home, and they were crammed full. But the fact that Luisa made it to 15 was the biggest gift of all.
When I visited them just ten days before the party, Luisa’s dad Luis was scrambling to finish homemade candelabras for all the tables. He used PVC pipe to make the arms, recycled plastic rounds for the candle holders, and wooden bases from the hardware store. He glued them all together, and when he spray-painted them gold, they were transformed into gleaming candelabras, fit for a princess.
He made big wooden stands to hold photos of Luisa at the entrance to the hall. I asked him how he managed to do all this while working. “I’m a truck driver,” he said. “All day I sit, on the road, driving and driving. If I start doing things around here I get all the stress out of my head.”
Others pitched in too. Luisa pointed out the two glimmering gowns on the couch. “The one on the left we’re going to be using at mass and in the father daughter dance, the one on the right, which my godmother got in Mexico, I’ll be using during the dinner.” Friends and family volunteered to make the rice and beans and carnitas. I could tell who was handling the beverages by glancing across the living room floor, which was covered with nearly 100 one-liter bottles of soda.
Luisa was unfazed by all the activity. She had an aura of tranquility and shy wisdom about her. “I’m not really as stressed out as they are because they’re the parents,” she smiled.
But Luisa’s quinceañera was a celebration that almost didn’t happen. She was 3 years old when she was diagnosed with leukemia. Her parents were stunned — and scared. Suddenly, they went from raising a healthy, happy little girl — to traveling regularly from Yakima to Children’s Hospital in Seattle so Luisa could get the cancer therapy she needed. Over the course of three years, she went through spinal, oral and intravenous chemotherapy.
Luis and Isaura’s oldest daughters turned 15 right around that time. Isaura says “Not to make the other two feel bad, but the year that they had their quinceañera Luisa was in her cancer treatment. We were in Seattle where they were treating her so we weren’t involved.” She shook her head. “Financially we helped, but we just kind of showed up for the party.”
Three years after Luisa was diagnosed, her doctors said she was cured. That’s why this milestone in any young girl’s life means so much more to this family, said Isaura. “A quinceañera is a young girl coming of age, turning 15. But with her, to us, it’s celebrating her second chance at life.” Her victory over cancer inspired Luisa to become a hematologist. She was considering a university in Alabama, where she has relatives, but she’s not sure she wants to move that far away from her family. “If I go too far, I can’t be here if they need me,” she said. “So I’m thinking maybe Heritage.”
During chemo she started watching Beauty and the Beast, and that became the theme for her quinceañera. It’s a story of transformation, and the power of love. Her mom said “that’s all she watches at the house now. We know the songs, we know everything by heart.”
Isaura and Luis said they’re incredibly grateful to have the chance to be so involved in this quinceañera. “This time we’re getting hot glue gun burns!” laughed Isaura. “We didn’t know what nervous was ‘til this one!” Luisa smiled, as wise and calm as ever. What was her favorite thing? “Just having everybody I love and appreciate there,” she said.