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A Girl--and a Family --at the Crossroads

September 04, 1996|ROBIN ABCARIAN

Imagine a great cosmic camera, pointing to Earth, limning the familiar bent shape of the state of California. Zoom. Southern California. Zoom. Los Angeles County. Zoom. The city of South Gate. Zoom. A little house on Southern Lane. Zoom. A white bedroom full of porcelain dolls. We come to a halt in front of a closet. This is our destination, the closet of 15-year-old Ana Esparza.

In our imaginary tableau, Ana stands at her closet looking at two outfits. It is doubtful that Ana sees her life in quite this way, but these two outfits make one powerful and potentially conflicted statement about who she is, about where she comes from, about where she's going. And though it may be grandiose to ascribe such powerful symbolism to mere cloth, the two outfits also say something about our community in this time of high anxiety as we struggle--sometimes successfully, more often not--to reconcile the world as we have known it with the world as it is to be.

Let us peer over Ana's shoulder and examine the closet's contents with her.

The first of Ana's two outfits is startlingly formal, a grown-up version of something her porcelain dolls might wear. It is a Cinderella ball gown, a pink-trimmed white confection of tulle and taffeta. Ana wore it Saturday--prayed in it, wept for joy in it, danced in it, inhaled a Big Mac in it--as she celebrated the centuries-old Latino rite of passage for 15-year-old girls known as the quincean~era.

The second is a serviceable ensemble--dark green pants and a long-sleeved tan shirt with Ana's last name on a patch over the breast pocket. Ana wore the uniform two weeks ago, when she graduated from her first session as an Explorer Scout with the South Gate Police Department.

In her dress, Ana is a dazzling beauty, renewing the bonds of her faith, offering her bouquet as a promise of chastity to the Virgin Mary at a Spanish-language Mass on the city's east side. This is tradition; this is where Ana comes from. In her uniform, she is an aspiring suburban police officer, memorizing penal codes, learning radio etiquette, acquiring the art of the well-written police report. This is the future; this is where Ana is going.

Once upon a time, these might have been irreconcilable choices. Once upon a time, someone who comes from a family like Ana's, where reverence for gender roles is deeply embedded, might have been limited to the quincean~era's puffy skirts and humble piety.

But Ana is the X that marks a crossroads of her family's identity.

As the baby of a family of nine, she is the only child who was born in the United States, the only child who did not experience the hardships of village life in Zacatecas, Mexico. Adolescence for her four older sisters was different, far more limiting. The Explorer Scout option did not exist for them. The oldest ones were not even allowed to finish school, something that is unthinkable for Ana, who started 10th grade this week.

And maybe her parents have changed, or maybe they simply have less energy to exert the kind of vigilance they once devoted to her sisters, but the rules are looser for Ana. The other day, Ana's 33-year-old sister, Guillermina, erupted in mock outrage at their father, Felix, for allowing Ana on an outing with a young man, a fellow Explorer.

"You never let us have lunch with a boy!" Guillermina said.

"She's not a lamb," replied Felix. "I don't need to be chasing her all over!"

Guillermina laughed when she told this story, but in her laugh was a kind of wistfulness, a tinge of envy that her beloved little sister will have the American adolescence she once longed for.

The story of Ana's closet is an eternal story of American immigration, one that precedes today's influx and angry debates by many generations. It is the story of most first-generation children, who strive to satisfy the expectations of Old World parents while adapting to the more liberated ways of the new country.

And it also puts a more complex face on what has become a simplistic way of looking at the immigration "problem," of regarding it in terms of them versus us. For Ana, like so many others, comes from a family that includes both them and us.

Ana honors her family's cultural tradition by donning the fancy white gown; they honor her American aspirations by encouraging her to stick with Explorer Scouts.

In the end, Ana's community--her home, her town, her state--is enriched by her embrace of two vastly different cultures. They might have clashed, but they don't. They coexist--placidly--like two outfits hanging in a closet that has more than enough room for both.

* Robin Abcarian's column appears on Sundays and Wednesdays. Readers may write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Life & Style, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053.

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