Once Upon a Cuarentañera

Jenifer is an artist, illustrator, educator, and a member of E43. We were honored to host and collaborate on her humorous spectacle: La Cuarentañera. Having recently disassembled the large cheese, I felt it necessary to process the absurdity with Jenifer to better understand what had happened.

Max: It was dark in the kitchen. I struggled to stack multiple bottles of just-opened Champagne and glasses into my arms before heading back into the crowd. Paolo appeared out of nowhere. “You must really love her,” he said. My mind couldn’t help but downshift into first gear. It played back the time you got your lip stuck in a coffee Thermos lid while driving — it had snapped on like a turtle. “Yes,” I said to Paolo, “she is family, and the one friend I have known the longest.” And this is why I agreed to host a “Cuarentañera.”

Jenifer: The Thermos incident was a dark day that has since become comedy gold. I’ve known you almost 20 years, and you are most assuredly family. I trust you with my life, and I also trust you to laugh at and tolerate my hapless ridiculousness. You understand that one of my key strategies for getting through difficult or awkward times is to apply my sense of humor to them. Hence, the Thermos incident, and the Cuarentañera. I was not at all looking forward to turning 40. Getting older can feel complicated and even a little dreary, on the bad days at least. As this milestone loomed ever-larger, my only two options were to either hide under a rock, or … meet it head-on. I decided to go full-force with the latter, with your and Carmen’s generous support. After all, clichéd but true: laugh, and the world laughs with you; weep, and you weep alone.

Max: Ha! The quinceañera, “one who is fifteen,” and the Philippine debut are both coming-of-age celebrations for young women: fifteen in Latin America, eighteen in the Philippines. In this case, your cuarentañera, “one who is forty,” was more of an absurdist take on the notion that she was now “of age.”

Jenifer: Well, coming-of-age rituals are basically about acknowledging the passage from childhood to adulthood. And absurdity is my middle name. Since I chose a less-than-normal version of adulthood, it seemed only natural to have some fun with notions of what this passage might look like for someone who’s still fumbling with growing up, to some degree. I also wanted to acknowledge the traditions of two cultures I’m fond of and part of, but to re-frame them to suit my preposterous purposes.

Max: Luckily, those cultures involve families that believe in large volumes of tasty food. In our neighborhood, we often can smell carnitas being fried at 9:00 in the morning for later in the day, and huge pickup trucks are regularly double-parked in the street with beds full of aluminum trays for delivery. These neighborhood parties are ongoing, with large families and extended community—your mother, your Tita Lety, and your family fit right in with the food they cooked and shared.

Jenifer: Well, any proper gathering should involve sharing a great meal, such as the abbondanza my family prepared, and often sharing a drink, such as the delightful Tequila Sunrises you served. Since the party theme colors were festive tropical shades of orange and pink, Tequila Sunrises fit the aesthetic!

Max: I will have to look up what abbondanza means. Speaking of orange and pink, what about your dress?!

Jenifer: Which one? There were four! When greeting guests at the beginning of the party, there was the Pepto-pink “terno,” a traditional Philippine gown. Then there was a monstrously awesome pink and orange organza ballgown. Then there was the orange inmate ensemble. And lastly, the vintage white and orange Hawaiian floral number.

But we’re jumping the gun a little. We should probably explain about The Presentation —  the dance performance portion of the evening’s antics — that some of these get-ups were for.

Max: I think the tear- and cheer-inducing slide show of your life paired with Britney Spears’ “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” was a good set-up for the impending dance. Basically, there were two acts and an intermission. Act One was a presentation by awkward teenagers, followed by a communion intermission, and Act Two was liberation in adulthood.

Jenifer: The Britney song choice and video montage was completely tongue-in-cheek: I was a little embarrassed that our guests actually found the slide show so touching! Anyway, the montage was what was played to warm up the crowd prior to The Presentation.

In keeping with the conventions of a quince/debut, I assembled a Corte de Honor—court of dancers—to rehearse and perform a medley of dances with me at the party. Happily, I had a large crew of enthusiastic dance-happy extroverts willing to be part of this: dear friends, fellow artists, former colleagues, and former students, as well as a new friend, a professional choreographer, who was willing to abet this goofy endeavor with real choreographic expertise.

The Presentation was essentially a cockamamie tale of my journey to adulthood in two acts. Naturally, this meant that Act One led with a semi-traditional “entrada” waltz by the Corte de Honor, during which I burst forth from a large cheddar cheese wedge on wheels. The Corte de Honor, all dressed in white, symbolized the dairy product that, collectively, had matured me into fine cheese. Following my cheese emergence, there was, logically, a very lively salsa number. After this, we all exited the dance floor and the Intermission Communion commenced.

Max: You have thought about this a little too much. You were very pretty, even when your dress hoops rose and revealed you on our lift.

Jenifer: You are too kind. And yes, I thought about this too much. It’s not every day a girl turns 40, after all. Plus, given my practice as an artist, I approached this as an art piece as much as a big party, so it needed to feel conceptually solid — if still completely bananas.

While the Corte de Honor made a costume change in back, three High Priestesses administered A Communion of Cuarenta to bring the whole congregation into the fold: the Eucharist took the form of Cheez Balls and pill cups of malt liquor poured from 40oz bottles, as well as a blessing, offered to a long line of all guests.

Act Two resumed with the Corte re-emerging in all-orange outfits inspired by the Dancing Inmates of Cebu Prison. Here I struggled with the chains and hardships of adulthood, before breaking free and ultimately being liberated by my fellow prisoners in a big number incorporating bhangra, Janet and Michael Jackson, zombies, and Xanadu.

Max: I am not quite sure what you are talking about. After the choreographed dance, mock formality gave way to straight-out weird, and then it was time for the cake. We presented a full sheet-sized ice cream cake with fluorescent orange and pink icing framing your head on a 15-year-old girl’s body. And then you ceremoniously cut into it and served yourself. Jenifer, now that you are old, how do you feel?

Jenifer: Well, since I got to pop out of a giant cheddar cheese, dance the dance of Filipino prisoner liberation, and share and eat a cake with my face on it while surrounded by dear friends and family on my fortieth birthday, I think I’m set until my cincuentañera — although, I should warn you, that next milestone party might get a little weird.

Forty’s not so bad, as it turns out: as with many things, the dread and anticipation of the thing is far worse than the thing itself. And anyway, youth may fade, but immaturity can last a lifetime.

Act I


Act II