The diverse cultures of the Southwest mark the transformation from girl to woman in distinct ways, from the Sunrise Ceremony of the Apache people to the Navajo Kindaalda ceremony to the quinceañera celebration in Latinx communities. But what are the more personal and individual ways girls mark coming of age? Does it happen at the first menstruation or the first iPhone? Is it marked by a communal celebration or a quiet moment of self-realization? Below are reflections based on interviews by Kimi Eisele from seven girls, all 17 years old and students of David Sudak, a literature and film teacher at University High School in Tucson.
My father is from India and my mom is from Hawai’i, but her side is all Japanese. I didn’t grow up in either of those places. I grew up in Tucson with few of the cultural traditions of my family background. In both cultures there are certain ceremonies or events, like the equivalent of a quinceañera or a bat mitzvah, that I never had. As a result, I’ve never consciously thought about a specific event that defined my transition. I never think about my first period as a turning point, partly because I was early compared to other girls. It was just a funny moment. It wasn’t like, “Wow! That’s me, like, becoming a woman!” But I do feel that throughout high school I’ve noticeably grown a lot as a person. Every year during the summer, I look back and think, Wow, I’m so different than I was last summer. But I don’t think there’s been one moment where I consciously felt a transition. I certainly don’t feel like I’m a “woman” right now. I still feel kind of stuck in that transitioning phase of figuring out who I am and what I value.
I don’t have something that technically fits under the rite of passage. I do have a moment that I feel marked the difference between my being an insecure little girl and a strong young woman. I was out in the backyard just doing soccer drills and I came back inside. My dad had been sitting at the kitchen table and he was watching me. Then he told me–I could hear the emotion in his voice–he said, “You walk like my mother.” I never met his mother, my grandmother. She died before they could take me to China to meet her. I never felt super connected to the Chinese part of my culture because my mom is white and I grew up in the U.S. But hearing him say that something in me made me walk like her–that was the moment when I think fully accepted myself for who I was, because I knew that I had that in me. I didn’t have to do anything, I just was.
I went to a Jewish K-8 school, so I was totally immersed in Judaism. It was my life. My school was small and everyone I knew was Jewish. So, of course, I was going to have a Bat Mitzvah. Everyone had one. Like, you either have one when you’re 13 or you have one when you’re 14, and everyone goes. I knew I was having one. I wasn’t scared, I wasn’t worried. I’ve maybe been to fifty of them. The whole idea is that you are becoming a woman, because, I don’t know, that’s what everyone says: You turn 13, you become a woman. But you just go back to school the next Monday after Saturday’s big party. You just come back and you’re the same person. I went into it thinking, Here I am, nothing’s changing. And, like, nothing did change. I got out and my Rabbi was like, “Wow. Congratulations! I’m so happy for you.” And I think all the adults are under the impression that it’s life-changing, they want to believe that. I left feeling the same way I felt when I walked in. It didn’t feel special because my two best friends had theirs the week before and the week after. The only thing that was special about it was that my whole family came into town. Everyone was there to see me. But no one can remember the difference between me doing it and the person who did it the week before. In retrospect, now that I’m older, I can see maybe was a turning point for me. I grew up a very anxious child and I got up in front of a huge room, around 150 people, and I read so much in Hebrew. So that was definitely a turning point, but it didn’t feel like it in the moment.
I have a very unique transition into adulthood and womanhood. I have a baby. I’m a mom. So that is definitely the biggest change in my life. It completely flipped my entire world. Everything’s different. So, my transition was a very clear line. A line that came out of literally nowhere. It sounds unbelievable but it’s true. I didn’t know I was pregnant until about a week before my baby was born. I didn’t have any symptoms or baby bump or morning sickness or anything. I actually lost weight. I was wearing skinny jeans the day before she was born. I went skateboarding with one of my best friends the weekend before she was born. It didn’t seem like a possibility, because you show when you’re pregnant and you gain weight and you feel kicking and hormones and everything. Nothing was different, but my twin sister knew I was having weird stomach things and that I hadn’t had my period, so she got me a pregnancy test and came into my room and gave it to me and was like, “You need to take this.” So I took it and I was pregnant. I didn’t know how far along I was, so I took a few days to process until it got to the point where I was like, I need to tell my parents. So, I told my parents on Friday night and my daughter Emma was born on Saturday night.
My baby is perfectly healthy. She was 6 pounds 2 ounces when she was born. I don’t know where she was hiding, ’cause she fit inside skinny jeans the day before she was born. When they put on the heart rate monitor and I could hear her heartbeat, I was just overwhelmed with love, just totally amazing. From then on, it was just, yeah, I don’t even know, I can’t describe the feeling. I didn’t realize how much my mom loved me until I had a baby.
I’ve had a few people ask, “Are you still living at home?” Because social stigmas, and all that, “Oh, your parents must have kicked you out,” or whatever. But I have the most loving parents. They were so amazing. Everyone at school has been so kind. But it really changes your whole life. it’s the most coming-of-age, turning-point, womanly thing that can happen to you. I had to get my own insurance and all these just adulty things. Now, legally, I’m an adult even though I’m not 18.
I feel like I’ve always kind of rejected the idea of the coming-of-age point in my life. My dad is Mexican, so obviously a quinceañera was a thing that I thought about. But my dad is very non-traditional, non-Catholic, so it didn’t really make sense for our family. The coming-of-age point, at least a formal one, always felt very forced. I don’t think people go in steps. I think it’s more of like an exponential curve into womanhood that you don’t know it’s happening until it’s already starting to happen and you’re just living life as a new form of yourself. Growing up is something that happens very internally and isn’t always about the way you’re perceived by other people. Just like a change in mindset, like figuring out how you want to approach the world and coming up with your own way of thinking—that felt like coming of age to me. The thing about “coming of age” that never really gelled with me is that I feel like I’m always gonna be in it because I always want to be growing and changing. I think part of becoming an adult is learning to take experiences in your life that either seem insignificant or like hardship and realizing how valuable those experiences are to your growth as a whole, and never disregarding any experience in your life as pointless and terrible because all of it is making you who you will be in the future. And all that we can do is hope to grow.
I don’t think I’m fully an adult or a woman yet either. But I think I’ve definitely begun my journey and I can pinpoint the time that that happened. My mom’s family is Hispanic, and I grew up Catholic. It was a way for me to tie back into my culture because my language and my physical features didn’t really represent it. When I was growing up I just figured my coming of age would be dictated through the sacraments or whatever. We were too poor to have a quinceañera, so I just figured, I’ll be confirmed, get married, and I’ll go up the little ladder to heaven or whatever they show you in Bible school. We eventually kind of gave up on Catholicism, not completely, but we stopped going to church-stopped being active-to give my sister and I the opportunity to be more heavily involved in academics.
I think where I feel I started coming into adulthood is when I saw academics fall from the pedestal that everyone put them on my entire life. My sister started college last year. She was going to her dream school, and we were all so happy. But in her first semester she had a mental breakdown, because the transition was too much for her. She wasn’t able to do any of her work, she would just stay inside her dorm room and like cry all the time, basically. She had to get sent back to our house because she just couldn’t live on her own anymore. Seeing her in that light and also seeing my mom in a different light—because as my sister’s mental health declined, my mom’s dropped rapidly as well—I saw these two women that I had loved and revered basically for my entire life just deteriorate. I always saw them as the pinnacles of strength, because my mom took care of us and my sister was always at the top of her class, always at the top of athletics, at the top of, like, everything. Then I saw them at their weakest point. That was when I felt like I had to step into that woman caretaker role that is usually associated with having children, but I had to do it for the two older women in my family. I had to help them get their mental health state back to where they were functional again. During that transition period in my household is when I felt I had to be a responsible adult. I had to be strong and I realized I could be strong. It was right before I turned 17. Everything’s okay now. We’re all doing a lot better.
When I think of “rite of passage,” I just think of being an adult woman. I feel like I’m still a baby. I’m not an adult yet. So, I don’t know when I’ll be a woman. I feel like for a lot of people it’s the quinceañera, but I never had that. I had a big present not a big party. It was an iPhone, I think. The other day, I told my dad I wanted to major in something that’ll make me money and he told me that he was happy that I’ve finally become an adult. I guess he thinks that making money is more important that something that brings you joy. I mean, he wants a happy medium for me, you know, something that brings me joy and makes me money. I found that interesting.
When I got my period, I remember just crying. Crying because I valued being young and not having to deal with the issues of being an adult and the expectations that come from being a young woman. As a child I had always been able to avoid playing around with makeup and doing my hair or wearing pretty dresses. I just didn’t enjoy it. It always made me feel restrained and icky. My parents always excused it because they thought it was something I’d grow out of eventually. I think the reason sixth grade Ana cried when her period came is because I knew that I’d be getting more pressure to grow up and be a “respectable young lady.” This goes into my old insecurities of being a “young woman.” I’ve always been told by my mother that young women are neat and wear makeup and I just can’t bring myself to be the person she’s imagining. I think today I’m comfortable enough with myself to know when I’ve made the transition into womanhood/adulthood. It doesn’t have to do with being a perfect super feminine girl but rather just knowing how to take hardship and learn from it. I’m not quite there yet, but I’ve already gotten a good start.