Rites of passage for the Costa Familia

When I designed the Tribal Rites of Passage workshop I wondered if any of the young people would choose to imagine their tribe along ethnic lines. It wasn’t something I actively wanted to avoid or encourage, but during mentor training I mentioned that to help their partners think about the tribes they belonged to (or wanted to belong to), they should be somewhat creative in asking questions. Where do you fit in? What type of people do you admire? Do you participate in any sort of community? Whatever tribe they chose, I wanted it to be something deeply meaningful, rather than just an automatic or default answer.

C. was the only one in the group (aside from one of the adults, and I’ll get to that later) who wished to define her tribe ethnically. She declared that it would only be for “Spanish” people. Her mentor, however, was quick to respond: “But I’m not Spanish! What if I want to be in your tribe?” Although the two of them have only recently started their mentoring relationship, they are quite close, and C. immediately retracted her statement and decided that her tribe (still named “Costa Familia”) would be open to all U.S. citizens between the ages of 18 and 20. (I can’t help wondering about C.’s strong sense of national belonging.) Initiates must undertake four different tasks, and if they fail once they can repeat the ritual. If they fail a second time, however, they face the consequence of not being able to get a job. (We’d talked about how many tribal rites of passage are set up so initiates cannot get married or take on any adult responsibilities in their tribe if they don’t complete their ordeals, so I think some of that is resonating here.)

I really loved the tasks that C. chose. First, she had a community service component, where initiates either had to volunteer 40 hours for an organization or charity of their choice, or they could raise $200 in donations (incidentally, what does that say about how she values her time?). I overheard C.’s mentor talk about doing a breast cancer walk, and C. decided to show that on her poster.

The second task was to participate in a talent show. Everyone has to come up with an original and creative number to perform. It can be a song or dance, of course, but C. allowed that for those without an artistic bent, they could show off their aerobic skills, for example.

C. defined the third task as one of “strength,” but it was more properly a wilderness survival test. Participants are dropped into the “forest” for three days, where they have nothing but access to a lake, a fishing rod, a tent, and a sleeping bag.

The fourth was called “family values.” This was the only task differentiated by gender. Boys had to learn how to construct things, while girls had to learn how to cook. You would be correct to guess that it caused a bit of a stir among the adults in the room (that evening, none of the men were present, but I assume that the reaction would have been the same). The group is extremely supportive, so all of the objections were couched very politely. One mentor, for example pointed out that she thought it was just as important for boys to learn how to cook because they might not have a woman in their life to cook for them. (This was A.’s mentor, and as I mentioned, A.’s passion is cooking.) C. held her ground, however, and we didn’t have time to linger on the topic, so we let it go after a minute. In our post-workshop meeting, the facilitator said that she wasn’t surprised by C.’s views because she gets the sense that her upbringing has instilled in her very conservative views on gender roles, and that it was something she has been trying to work on with C.

C. ended her presentation by saying that those who complete the ritual successfully are deemed to be mature by the tribe. They can go on to marry and start a family. She represented the entire ritual rather elaborately on poster board with the help of her mentor. On one end she drew a girl and a boy dressed up in Knicks gear (though she said that you didn’t have to be a Knicks fan to join). Then she drew a tunnel that symbolized the succession of tests they would undergo (I forgot to ask if it had to be in a strict order). At the other end, the boy and the girl emerge in purple dress clothes. The young woman in heels, and the young man in a suit, carrying a briefcase. We talked a bit about the significance of the shoe ceremony in quinceañera celebrations and this has really seemed to stay with them. And dress or interview clothes also really seem very meaningful to them.

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