Woman to Woman

¿Todos hablan español? the dance teacher asks the ten teenagers gathered in Alejandra Ramos's garage. "Good."

But one of the boys is still shaking his head no.

"You know you speak Spanish, stop lying," fourteen-year-old Alejandra tells him, pointing her finger at the baggy-pants boy, then looking around at everyone else. "Hey, don't play today, don't play today."



Alejandra's fifteenth birthday party, her quinceañera, is just a month away, and she's preparing to dance her way into womanhood. The other teens, all friends and family members, have been given supporting roles and are at her house this Sunday evening to practice.

Jaider Sanchez, a 28-year-old immigrant from Colombia, has been hired by Alejandra's parents to teach the teens the traditional dance.

"Like 'Hi there,'" Jaider says with a wave, explaining how to pronounce his name in English. He quickly pairs up the five boys and five girls, showing them how to hold hands properly and execute the first step.

"Play," Jaider cues a younger kid in the corner by the stereo.

The music starts. It sounds like a slower version of a bride's march: Dun-dun-de-dun.

"Okay, easy, easy, easy, easy," Jaider tells the kids. "Stick out your chest and stand up," he adds in Spanish.

Jaider takes Alejandra as his partner, and he instructs the other couples to follow them in a line down the concrete driveway. Most of the boys sport sneakers, the girls flip-flops. Some have iPods. All have cell phones.

"I'll call you back," one of the boys says into his phone.

"Hang up," Jaider barks, snapping his fingers.

Jaider lets Alejandra go and takes on the female role himself, grabbing the hands of Alejandra's macho cousin from Mexico. The cousin makes a sour face as he prances hand in hand with Jaider.

At quinceañera practices, the boys are usually better students than the girls. "The girls are always too busy looking at the boys," Jaider says.

Like most of the quinceañera clients that come his way, Alejandra's mother heard about Jaider's dance classes through the grapevine that begins in his beauty shop. Now she's watching the practice. In the distance, past the traffic on I-25, the sun is starting to set.

"Otra vez. Another time," Jaider instructs the teens, having them repeat a step. "What a mess."

Alejandra is acting like she's focused, but she's slipped in one of her iPod earpieces while Jaider wasn't looking. Another girl is staring at some boys walking by.

"They don't have money. Always looking at the boys with no money," Jaider tells the girl, then turns his focus on Alejandra. "Quinceañera, spit out the gum. Pay attention."

The first practice finally comes to an end. There will be three more practices on consecutive Sundays, and Jaider will also do Alejandra's hair and makeup on the big day.

"Next week without gum, without cellular," Jaider warns the kids.

Alejandra tells her friends to show up at 5 p.m. the next Sunday -- an hour earlier than she figures they'll really come. A little after 6, when Jaider arrives at the makeshift ballroom in the garage, almost everyone has gathered. Alejandra screams at two of her girlfriends who are wandering off toward some neighborhood boys.

The girls straggle back. Alejandra rips an iPod earphone out of one friend's ear. She isn't playing around this time.

Two boys Alejandra has asked to participate as chambelanes in her dance haven't shown up yet. Jaider spots a group of men hanging out in the street, watching the practice. He walks up to them and puts his hand out, bending his wrist and his knees, waiting for the men to accept his offer to dance.

They smile, but decline.

The music starts. One of the chambelanes has been in four quinceañeras before, and he learns the moves quickly. But the other boys struggle as Jaider teaches them to spin.

Jaider turns his attention to the girls Alejandra has gathered, her damas.

"Girls, you've got to be more feminine when you turn," Jaider tells them, snapping his fingers.

The shortage of boys is holding up the dance. Jaider returns to the spectators in the street, pleading for a couple of men to at least stand with the damas. Two of them finally do, which allows Jaider to show the group what the dance is like with four couples -- although there are supposed to be five.

The missing teens finally show up at 7:15, when practice is over by Jaider's watch.

Alejandra yells at her friends that they need to be on time. And even though Jaider is leaving, she tells them that the practice will continue. But dancing without their instructor proves more difficult than Alejandra had imagined. The boys quickly move from dance steps to slap-boxing.

Alejandra takes charge.

"You, dance with her," she tells one boy.

"You, take a break," she tells another.

"You get your ass over here. We're waiting for you."

But then her cell phone rings, and all dancing stops when she answers it.

By the fourth week, the final practice, Alejandra has let her hair down and is wearing makeup. Jaider's long black ponytail is even longer now, because he's added an extension.

"She's not dancing, she's just standing, hardly moving her fucking body," Jaider complains. "Dance, chica."

Alejandra cracks her knuckles. She looks mad.

"Stick out your chests," Jaider instructs the girls.

The girl with the biggest chest laughs. The others catch on, and the laughter spreads.

One of the chambelanes is wearing an air-brushed T-shirt with a picture of a gangster pouring a forty-ounce bottle of beer out on the ground. "For my homies," it reads. The kid in the T-shirt has brought a couple of his friends, two recent arrivals from Mexico who already claim Sureños, a Mexican street gang that's spread from Los Angeles to cities across the United States, including Denver.

One of the visiting gangsters has a shaved head, the scalp freshly stitched up with metal rings. It was split open with a bottle in a gang fight a few days before.

"How old are you?" Jaider asks the gangsters. One says he's twenty. The other is 22.

"Twenty-two is nothing," Jaider lectures. "When you're 25, you'll start to see that those people aren't there for you, and you'll regret that whole lifestyle."

There are no cell phones at this practice. No iPods, no gum.

And there's no screwing around.

"Girls, more feminine," Jaider reminds them. "Stick out your tits. More feminine. What the fuck?"

Now he shows them the final dance move, which involves all of the boys going down on one knee, forming a circle around Alejandra and surrounding her in ribbons. But the web of ribbon is a tangled mess.

"Oh, my God, I'm going to kill someone," Jaider says, wrapping his hands around his own throat. Again they try the ribbon-wrapping while Alejandra stands in the middle, proud as a princess.

But after the practice, Jaider will be the queen.

Growing up in Colombia, Jaider never went to a quinceañera. But he did dance a lot. Dancing provided some relief from the horrors of his life at home. The family was poor, and Jaider hated sharing a bed with his three brothers. "Three boys, three girls and me," he says. But he hated his stepfather -- the man who raped him when he was just a kid -- even more.

One of Jaider's sisters made her own clothes, and since Jaider was about her size, she asked him to model them. Jaider liked how he felt in women's clothes. Although he wouldn't go out in public dressed as a girl, he liked to do it at home. Soon he was trying on makeup, too, and checking himself out in the mirror.

"Putting my makeup on, shining my lips, making my boobs," Jaider remembers.

When he was sixteen, Jaider met a 49-year-old psychiatrist from Denver in a Colombian bar. The man helped Jaider get a visa, and he came to the U.S. in 1994. Jaider moved into the man's house and attended West High School for a couple of years. Then he dropped out and got an apartment with some friends. "I broke up with him," Jaider says of the man who'd brought him here. "He's too old for me."

Jaider started checking out the gay scene -- where he became known as La Colombiana -- and wound up at a drag show at Charlie's on East Colfax Avenue. He liked what he saw and started organizing drag shows at other clubs. The first was supposed to raise money for victims of a hurricane in Central America, but one of the club's owners kept the money, he says. At the next show, a birthday party at a club in the Platte Valley, Jaider made $300 in tips. And the owner invited him back.

One of Jaider's favorite parts of organizing drag shows was styling the wigs. People would ask him if he was a hair stylist -- partly because that's such a stereotype of gay men, he says, but also because the wigs looked so good. So finally, Jaider got a job in a salon, then enrolled in beauty school after earning his GED in 2000.

A few years ago, Jaider was talking with a man who owned a clothing boutique that specializes in dresses for quinceañeras; the owner often referred customers to Jaider to get their hair done. Now the man started telling Jaider about the traditional dances, and how there was money to be made teaching girls the steps. He showed Jaider a video of a dance routine.

Jaider realized he could teach that dance. But he didn't like the steps, so he added some of his own.

After Alejandra's final practice, Jaider stands in the family's kitchen, putting on lip gloss. Another cousin from Mexico watches him, laughing under his cowboy hat.

Three hours later, Jaider -- now wearing a dress and full makeup -- pulls his SUV into the parking lot of Club Silverado on Morrison Road. He enters the club and walks behind a blue tarp, into a small room with a pool table.

Two men, both from Mexico, join Jaider. Drinking bottles of beer, they spread wigs and makeup kits across the green felt of the pool table, put on pantyhose and eye shadow. One has a pair of surgically attached 38 DDs.

Jaider enjoys dressing like a woman and the attention it brings, but he says he's perfectly happy being a man. "I have all the tits I need," he explains, emptying his bra of its padding and then shoving it back.

Out in the main room, a live band is kicking salsa music and straight couples are dancing across the floor. But then the music stops and the crowd spreads out, forming a ring.

The first drag queen steps into the circle.

Then out comes Jaider, dressed in a big, black wide-brimmed hat and a red boa. He's wearing fishnet stockings, and his skirt is split high on his thighs. A fan blows his curly black hair. He looks like a female flamenco dancer, but as he prowls through the crowd, he's actually imitating a popular Puerto Rican pop singer, lip-synching into the microphone.

Camera phones come out, and Jaider poses for pictures.

A woman steps onto the floor and tips him a dollar. Jaider pulls a man from the crowd, unbuttons the man's shirt and takes it off, spinning it overhead before launching the shirt into the crowd. The guy tries to get away as Jaider goes for his belt, dragging Jaider across the dance floor as he hangs on to the man's pants. Finally, Jaider lets go and falls to his knees. Then he stands up and shakes out his wig.

In his big platform shoes, Jaider towers over most of the men in the crowd. Someone brings a stool onto the dance floor, and Jaider grabs another straight guy, stripping off his shirt and giving him a lap dance. Then he rips the buttons right off a third man's shirt.

After the club closes, Jaider and his fellow dancers head to the taco stand next door. They flirt with the men who've followed them from the bar. Word of Jaider's show is spreading. He has four "girls" that he mixes and matches for a production he bills as "Divas." They've performed at clubs that are gay and straight, white and brown. But nowadays, most of the Divas shows are in straight Mexican bars. Jaider's just signed a six-month contract with a new bar in Fort Collins, where his girls are a big hit.

"I like J.Lo style," Jaider says. "Shakira style is my favorite. It's sexy; I love it."

He also loves the money he makes with drag shows. Saving tips from shows and haircuts, plus the extra he earned with quinceañera classes, Jaider was able to put away $15,000. And six months ago he bought Expression, the beauty shop on Federal Boulevard where he'd been working.

Every two weeks he sends money home to his sisters and mother in Colombia. His mother has left his abusive stepfather. Jaider's never asked his siblings if they were victims, too. He hasn't been back to Colombia since he moved to Colorado twelve years ago.

When Alejandra was seven, her parents packed up the family and moved from Zacatecas, Mexico, to Denver.

Her father, Alejandro, had spent seven days a week in the fields picking corn, chiles, grapes and beans, often seeing the sun rise and set in one shift. He had two dreams for life in the United States. First, he wanted to earn enough to buy a house for his wife, Eva, their daughter and their young son. And second, he wanted to throw a quinceañera for his daughter.

"Only the people who have money in Mexico can have quinceañeras," Alejandro says. His sisters never had quinceañeras. Neither did Eva.

The family settled into a three-bedroom apartment on the north side of Denver eight years ago. While Eva took care of the family, Alejandro jumped from picking food to preparing it, working two restaurant jobs to help fund his dreams. Now he cooks. He cleans. He preps, washes dishes, buses tables. He does whatever he's told to, seven days and five nights a week. Twice a year, Alejandro takes a whole day off: on Christmas and on the Fourth of July.

Two years ago, Alejandro realized his first dream when he bought his family a house just north of Denver. Then he started putting aside money to pay for a quinceañera, the Latino tradition that marks a girl's fifteenth birthday, when she steps into womanhood.

The tradition dates back to the Aztec days, when young men were celebrated as warriors and young women, who would give birth to more warriors, were feted for their fertility. The ceremony survived the efforts of the Spanish conquistadors to convert the Aztecs to Catholicism, but the focus shifted away from warriors and more to womanhood, as girls vowed to follow God's path.

The religious ceremony is still part of today's quinceañera. But for Alejandra, it's all about the party.

Alejandra starts the biggest day of her fifteen-year-old life in Jaider's hands.

Jaider was up late the night before putting on a drag show in Fort Collins. By the time Alejandra arrives at his salon at 8 a.m., he's already done another haircut.

Jaider washes and conditions Alejandra's hair, then uses a curling iron and hairspray to make it big and poufy at the top, "like a pineapple." He puts foundation on her face and then applies powder, eye shadow, eyeliner, lipstick and gloss. After two and a half hours, he finally proclaims, "The chica is ready."

By noon, seven mariachis have gathered at Alejandra's house, and the sounds of their guitars, violins and a harp echo through the neighborhood.

But the kids upstairs aren't paying attention. They're too busy spraying their hair and putting on glitter. All of the girls except Alejandra are in big purple dresses; Alejandra is wearing white, like a bride. All of the boys except Alejandra's dance partner are decked out in black captain suits, complete with caps; her dance partner also wears white.

Posing for the photographer and videographer the family has hired to capture the day, Alejandra looks like a big doll. Three or four times, she is paraded down the stairs for just the right opening shot.

"I can't breathe," Alejandra says, choking in her tight dress. Every so often one of the boys has to pull it up in back to cover her bra strap.

Alejandra's mother is wearing a new black dress. Her father is wearing a suit -- the first time he's worn one since the day he was married. He and his wife are more nervous than Alejandra.

Then the maroon stretch Hummer limousine arrives.

"Oh, my God, that's fucking big," screams one girl.

"Let's go," another shouts, as the last of the boys shows up just in time.

"Wait, wait, who's got the Bible?" Alejandra asks. A friend hands her a Bible with a purple cover, special for the occasion.

The kids slide onto the black leather seats of the limo, look up at the mirrored ceilings. Ludacris is bumping inside, the music going back and forth as half of the kids scream "English" and the other half scream "Spanish." Ranchero to rap. Rap to ranchero.

Sitting in the back, Alejandra tries to call the driver on the limo's phone -- first because the stereo locks up, then because she can't get the air-conditioner to work. It's dark as night inside the limo, and the temperature quickly rises as the teens bounce around like the hormones bouncing around inside their bodies.

They all slide forward when the driver slams on the brakes outside of Holy Cross Catholic Church.

Of the sixty people gathered inside the church, about half are children. Kids dart in and out of the pews as Deacon Nehemias Ruiz delivers God's message, as well as a bit of his own.

"God tells you, God is asking you to know him, and know another very important person, which is you yourself, because you cannot love even God if you don't love yourself. Love yourself," Ruiz tells Alejandra.

"Accept yourself for who you are, and all that you plan in your life will be accomplished. Because a person who loves themselves will always complete tasks. A person who isn't happy, who doesn't know who they are, is always starting new tasks because they are unhappy. What we're celebrating today here in church you're going to continue outside. Celebrate it in God's name. By that I mean be aware that what you celebrate is a celebration for youth who are right here, standing in this first pew. Youth who are stepping into the world of the adults.

"And you adults, we know it all, we've lived it all and we've earned the right to do whatever you want to. Well, the youth is going to imitate us. So don't drink so many. Keep your head about you, because what you do today, these kids are going to do tomorrow."

Asking for God's grace to be upon Alejandra, the deacon splashes holy water onto the new ring she is wearing to mark the occasion. He also splashes the flower bouquet that Alejandra then offers to the Virgin of Guadalupe, signifying that she will always follow God's path.

But right now, all paths lead to Alejandra's party.

The Hummer takes the kids to Cheesman Park for a photo shoot and then on up to the Fiesta Palace, a dance hall in a shopping center on Sheridan Boulevard. The room is set with white tablecloths and plastic silverware. A Mexican cowboy serenades Alejandra and her family as they pose for pictures. The music is so loud that people have to shout at those standing next to them. Alejandra and her parents expect about 400 people -- some of whom Alejandra doesn't even know -- to come and go through the night.

As the guests chat and drink and eat, Alejandra and her friends stand at the edge of the dance floor, waiting to execute the routine they've practiced for the past month. This is the moment they've been waiting for, and they're nervous.

But the dance is almost perfect, and the ribbons weave magic around Alejandra. As she walks off the floor, she sticks out her tongue, exhausted but relieved that it's over.

Two young men carry a metal bench onto the dance floor. Alejandra takes a seat, and her parents come out and kneel at her feet. They each remove one of the high-heel shoes their daughter is wearing and replace the shoes with fancier high heels laced with glittering stones.

And then Alejandra dances the first dance with her father -- her last dance as a little girl as she moves into womanhood.

After that dance, Alejandra's parents bring out a two-and-a-half-foot doll wrapped in plastic. The doll is wearing a quinceañera dress just like Alejandra's. Some of the little girl is left after all.

Then the spotlights go out and the disco lights come on. A DJ calls Alejandra's damas and chambelanes out onto the floor. The girls have ditched their high heels, and the boys' captain hats are gone, too.

Friends and family members dance into the night. Before the party's over, even Jaider stops by, to pick up some of the money he's owed for his services and to see the girl he's helped transform into a woman.

Because he's so busy with drag shows, Jaider says that Alejandra's quinceañera will be his last for a few months.

"We got what we were hoping for," Alejandro says, a few hours after the last of the cake has been gobbled up. "Everybody had a good, easygoing time. For me, she'll always be my little girl. Even when she's married, even when she's fifty."

The morning after her quinceañera, Alejandra says she doesn't feel different. She doesn't feel more adult after the church service. But she feels like the party was a success.

Many churches will no longer host quinceañeras -- especially for those outside the congregation. They don't have enough Spanish-speaking staff, the churches will say, or their schedules are already packed with weddings, baptisms and other church events. But Deacon Ruiz thinks the quinceañera referrals his church receives may have more to do with the switch in emphasis from vowing to follow God's path to vowing to throw a great party.

"It has been wasted away by people who don't have their values properly in their mind," Ruiz says. "All they use it for is to signify a big, drunken brawl."

Some parents overlook such basic requirements of the quinceañera ceremony as having their daughter confirmed, he adds. Others wind up spending much more than they can afford. A quinceañera is not a sacrament, like a marriage ceremony, and sometimes parents go so overboard on the quinceañera party that they can't afford a proper wedding a few years later. Or sooner. Of the seven quinceañeras Jaider instructed last year, four have already invited him to their baby showers.

"It's a nice tradition when you have money," Jaider says of the quinceañeras. "But a lot of the people do things so backwards."

From his front-row seat in the salon, at the clubs, at dance practices, Jaider has seen it all. He's seen girls grow into women -- sometimes too fast. He's seen men turn into women, too.


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