- Associated Press - Sunday, March 19, 2017

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - The aroma of chopped onions and freshly ironed clothes wafted through the bustling house with the day’s big festivities just hours away. A group of teenage boys loafed in the living room to watch a soccer game, their tuxedos risking wrinkles the longer they slumped into the couch. The grandmother who had traveled over 2,000 miles for this day diced chiltepe peppers in the kitchen, while other relatives and friends scurried about with final preparations.

But the commotion halted as Betty Barrios sauntered into the living room, the edges of her wide and colorful dress brushing both ends of the entryway. Her blushing face was hidden by her makeup as she bit her bottom lip in an attempt to hide a shy smile.

“So beautiful,” remarked Barrios‘ close friend Yesenia Lopez, who raised her phone, captured a photo of the dress and quickly posted it to Snapchat.

The diamond corset and beaded blouse topped the flowing dress that was layered like a shingled roof. The deep red and blue hues of Barrios‘ dress acted as a siren for Jose Maldonado, bringing him back to his childhood in Guatemala.

“It makes me feel something in my heart; it’s something special,” said Maldonado, Barrios‘ godfather who immigrated from Guatemala to Oklahoma City nearly 20 years ago.

Quinceañeras are a fundamental part of Latin American culture, the defining moment when a girl becomes a young woman at age 15. It’s a custom that has been imported over the years as thousands of Guatemalan immigrants have moved to Oklahoma City, especially in the northwest part of the city where a recent surge has led to the opening of Guatemalan restaurants and grocery stores, shifting demographics at local schools, and a rise in customary festivities like the recent quinceañeras, The Oklahoman (http://bit.ly/2mxJI0L ) reported.

Barrios was determined to make her quinceañera as traditional as possible. She wanted the food, music, ceremony and even her dress to be a glimpse not only of the Guatemala many of her family and friends had left behind, but the new Oklahoma City those immigrants are building today.

“I was debating about whether to have just a regular dress,” Barrios said. “But then I wanted to do something that was authentic. I wanted it to be Guatemalan.”

Barrios was born in Oklahoma, but her mother, also named Betty, left Guatemala as a young woman.

“I never had a quinceañera,” said the mother, recalling her family’s poverty as a barrier to throwing a big party. “But for my daughter to have this quinceañera is my dream come true.”

Each local quinceañera is a balance between Guatemalan and American customs, the two distinct cultures pulling on opposite ends.

Planning for the event had begun almost a year earlier and included a trip to Guatemala last summer to be fitted for the dress. Family and friends pitched in to make decorations and food, which were being gathered in a U-Haul truck parked in the driveway to deliver the accessories to the dance hall where most of the quinceañera was held.

As relatives grabbed boxes of flowers, table centerpieces and other decorations, Betty’s mother poured some tomatoes into the giant pots of salsa that sat on the kitchen counter.

“They are just a bit too spicy,” she said. “But now it’s time to go.”

Following an afternoon Mass at Holy Angels Catholic Church, a dinner kicked off the festivities at a west Oklahoma City dance hall.

“In the early 1990s you would maybe see a couple hundred people at a quinceañera,” said Hilda De Leon Xavier, a Guatemalan immigrant who is a dance instructor and coordinates local weddings and quinceañera. “But today they are very large with hundreds and hundreds of people.”

The majority of Oklahoma City’s Hispanic residents are of Mexican descent - 80 percent, according to 2014 U.S. Census figures. But the second largest local Hispanic bloc are Guatemalans at 5 percent, a number that has risen as the overall wave of immigrants from Central America to Oklahoma City has more than doubled since 2005 topping 24,000.

New immigrants continue to arrive, often attracted to Oklahoma City because they know a family member or friend who has already established a new life. But like newcomers of all types, Guatemalan immigrants to Oklahoma City are also attracted by the region’s affordability, relatively stable job market and ease of life compared to some of the nearby mega cities of Dallas or Houston.

“The (Guatemalan) community has really grown fast,” Maldonado said. “It’s easier to be a Guatemalan in Oklahoma City today than it used to be.”

But a large portion of the Hispanic growth is not from foreign-born immigrants, rather the children of immigrants who are born in the United States.

In fact, 40 percent of Latino residents in Oklahoma City are under the age of 18, which is the second-highest percentage among America’s 60 largest cities.

The evidence of Hispanic growth in Oklahoma City is hard to ignore as several neighborhoods have transformed into cultural melting pots and the city’s main school system has a student enrollment more than half Latino.

South Oklahoma City has long been a hub for the region’s Mexican immigrants, but the majority of Guatemalan families who have arrived in recent years have settled in the northwest part of the city, especially in the neighborhoods surrounding a stretch of NW 23rd Street that has become known as the Windsor District.

“There are a lot more (Guatemalan) restaurants now,” said Yeison Maldonado, 27, who moved to Oklahoma from Guatemala when he was a young child. “It’s like going to your grandmother’s house to eat.”

The differences between Guatemalan and Mexican culture may appear subtle to non-Hispanics, if they are even able to spot the differences at all. But the variances are obvious to Yeison.

“Hear that?” Yeison asked as a band played at the event hall as guests were arriving for the quinceañera. “That’s a very Guatemalan sound.”

The bouncy tune had a tropical feel with the sounds of the marimba, Guatemala’s national instrument that resembles a xylophone, but has notes that echo a tad longer.

The meatless tamales being served to the guests were another Guatemalan feature.

“Even though we speak Spanish, we have our own festivals, we have our own food,” Xavier said.

Xavier worked with Barrios and her court of friends to perform a waltz at the quinceañera, which included a mixture of traditional and modern flair.

Following the dance, Barrios‘ parents presented her with a doll - the last one she will receive as she becomes a woman - and a new car, which sparked a leap of joy from Barrios when she discovered the keys inside a package.

Also in accordance with tradition, Barrios and her father took center stage for a dance, her red Converse All Star shoes visible as the end of her dress flowed off the ground.

For those who had grown up in Guatemala and come to Oklahoma as an adult, the quinceañera offered a glimpse of the traditional sights and sounds of home. But to the next generation of Guatemalans who have only known an American lifestyle, the grand party was a lesson in ancestry.

“We don’t want to lose the tradition, but that can be easy to do,” said Yaseli Zuniga, Barrios‘ older sister who left Guatemala when she was just three months old.

Zuniga had her own quinceañera almost 15 years ago, but it lacked the deep cultural details of her sister’s. She said coming to her sister’s traditional quinceañera was a chance to celebrate her heritage and continue to introduce it to her young son.

“I want to show this to my son because I don’t want it to get lost,” Zuniga said. “This is his people, his family.”

___

Information from: The Oklahoman, http://www.newsok.com

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