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The Central Valley News Collaborative includes The Fresno Bee, Vida en el Valle, Valley Public Radio and Radio Bilingüe. The project was announced in late 2020 and began its work in 2021 with the Collaborative's reporters shining a light on how the Central Valley’s communities of color have been disproportionately impacted, physically and financially, by COVID-19. The Collaborative is now exploring how the drought and climate change could reshape the valley, and the lives of the people who work in the agriculture industry. The Collaborative is supported by the Central Valley Community Foundation, with technology and training support by Microsoft Corp.

Young Latinx Women Celebrate Quinceañeras A Year Late Due To Pandemic

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Navarro Family
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Hermila Navarro celebrates her 'Sweet Sixteen' in Kettleman City, California on May 15, 2021.

Hermila Navarro had been anxiously awaiting her quinceañera. She already had her dress picked out and her little sisters loved it.

On a recent afternoon, Hermila’s little sisters sat at the edge of a bed in their apartment in Kettleman City, watching the 16-year-old pull the dress out of its wrapping. The top of the dress is made to fit like a corset, embroidered with gold sequins that flow down the dress in intricate designs. The bottom is filled with layers and layers of tulle. 

Hermila’s mom and older sister didn’t have quinceañeras, so she said they were looking forward to celebrating this milestone with her.

“It was going to be not just my day but their day, too,” she said.

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Credit Navarro Family
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Hermila Navarro and her mom pose for a picture at Navarro's 'Sweet Sixteen'

It was also going to be a special day for Hermila’s grandmother, Maria Navarro. Navarro lives in the same apartment complex and has watched her daughter raise Hermila and her four siblings on her own in the Kings County farming community of 1,100 people. 

“To have a quinceañera is a total dream for little girls,” Navarro said in Spanish. “From a young age they’ll say ‘I want to have a quinceañera’ and it’s our responsibility to complete that dream.” 

But the pandemic forced Hermila -- and many other young women in the Central Valley -- to postpone those dreams. 

In Latino culture, a quinceañera celebrates a young woman’s 15th birthday and symbolizes her transition into womanhood. The celebration, originated in Mexico, involves a religious ceremony where the young woman promises to model herself after the Virgin Mary. After that, the family throws a party. According to tradition, she changes from flat shoes to heels and from a small to a larger crown. 

“It’s a tradition that we bring here for those who want it, because you only turn 15 once,” Maria Navarro said. 

Celebrating a quinceañera as a Sweet 16

 The Navarro family originally scheduled Hermila’s quinceañera for May 9th, 2020. 

“That’s the day of my birthday and it’s a Saturday so we were like ‘oh perfect’,” Hermila said. Not a lot happens in Kettleman City, she added, so she was looking forward to seeing their small community come together for her party. 

But then the pandemic hit. Hermila says her mom started receiving calls from the church and the DJ they booked, asking her what they planned to do. 

They changed the date of the party three times. They moved it to August 15, 2020 thinking the pandemic would be under control by then. But it wasn’t, so they pushed the party back again to January 9. Then, her 14-year-old brother, her mom and her grandma all contracted COVID-19.

Now, with vaccinations becoming more widespread, Hermila re-scheduled her party one more time. 

On the Tuesday afternoon before her party, Hermila goes door-to-door along with her two younger sisters, mom and grandma to nearly every home in Kettleman City to drop off invitations. 

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Hermila Navarro and her two younger sisters pass out invitations for Navarro's upcoming party.

 The front of the invitation reads “Sweet Sixteen.” But following quinceañera tradition, the back lists the people, known as the madrinas and padrinos, or godparents, that helped contribute to the upcoming party. There are 37 names in total. 

Families adapt quinceañera traditions

Hermila’s cousin, Emily Navarro, is also contributing to the celebration by baking desserts for the party. Emily, who lives in Lemoore, also had to postpone her quinceañera. 

“I was really sad and honestly, I didn’t even want anything anymore,” she said.  “It wasn’t going to feel the same since I’m already 16.” 

For two months, Emily wrestled with whether to reschedule the celebration.  But her dad wanted to do something small, since she had already bought her dress.. 

Still, family members pushed Emily’s dad to host a bigger celebration when the pandemic was over. 

“They ended up convincing him and he has always wanted to do something big since I’m the youngest and the only girl,” she said.  

Emily’s party is scheduled for July now, so their extended family can fly in from Oregeon to join the celebration.

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Hermila Navarro poses with her grandmother and her date at Navarro's party.

And Hermila finally had her party last weekend. Instead of a traditional father-daughter dance, Hermila shared the floor with her mom. And the DJ still played a classic quinceañera song, Tiempo de Vals by Chayanne.

The pandemic may have postponed her quinceañera for a year, but she said she was grateful to finally celebrate the day with her sisters, mom and grandmother. 

This story is part of the Central Valley News Collaborative, which is supported by the Central Valley Community Foundation with technology and training support by Microsoft Corp.

Madi Bolanos covered immigration and underserved communities for KVPR from 2020-2022. Before joining the station, she interned for POLITCO in Washington D.C. where she reported on US trade and agriculture as well as indigenous women’s issues during the Canadian election. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism with a minor in anthropology from San Francisco State University. Madi spent a semester studying at the Danish Media and Journalism School where she covered EU policies in Brussels and alleged police brutality at the Croatian-Serbian border.