Quinceañera

A few weeks after my joining Automattic, WordPress turned 15 years old. It’s a birthday that has a special meaning to me.

The fiesta de quince años, or a quinceañera, is a popular celebration of a girl’s 15th birthday with roots in Latin America. It’s a coming-of-age event, traditionally marking the transition from childhood to young womanhood. I like to think of it as a celebration of what is to come.

Often when I explain quinceañeras to people, I find that comparing them to a sweet sixteen party, a bat mitzvah, or a debutante ball, falls short. A sweet sixteen party lacks the distinct cultural spirit (and tulle!) of the quinceañera. The bat mitzvah makes it easier to explain why some aspects of a quinceañera might be religious, but the celebration isn’t really rooted in religious tradition. The debutante ball certainly helps explain the whole gown thing, but that tradition is strongly associated with “polite society,” or, upper-class families.

It’s that last bit that really made me think about WordPress itself as having its own quinceañera.

Families of all means throw parties big and small, all special and meaningful in their own way. Resources are pooled from the extended family to throw the party. Some pick up the tab for flowers, while others may hire a DJ. I’ve picked up the bill for invitations before (a fitting task for a designer). In the end, part of the reason you go, and stay as long as you can, is because you helped make it happen. A quinceañera is built on a spirit of inclusion, not exclusion. In these ways, it is the anti-debutante.

This makes a great analogy for an open source project. There is something very special about using something that a community made happen.

Some people, particularly those outside the Latinamerican community, see quinceañeras as ghetto, gauche, and antiquated. Many people find open source software to be unrefined and pedestrian too. I see similarities between these two observations as well. For example, this article in the OC Weekly (a local paper from where I grew up), describes negative sentiment towards the quinceañera shops in Santa Ana, CA, coming from developers who feel that the small businesses are stifling economic development in a hot real estate area.

They’d prefer for one of their more trendsetting, attractive (and more profitable) businesses to use the space–regardless of the effect that would create on the existing community. Basic gentrification stuff.

It’s similar to how the GLP license is viewed as being detrimental to innovation. Similar, but non-open source publishing products have the funding to move faster to build a product of the moment–whether or not it delivers is irrelevant–it just needs to provide a payout to its investors. So like the homogenous bars and wellness shops that could be here today and gone tomorrow, I wonder if this is a mode of gentrifying the internet.

I had a quinceañera myself. Reluctantly, I must add. There was a negotiation about the whole thing with my parents. In return for agreeing to the whole traditional, Mexican…situation, my dad would help me get my first real computer. Real as in, it could connect to the internet and had a normal OS. Up until then I had a 286 running Windows 3.1 that I bought for $150 from a man that smelled of heavy cologne who ran a shop behind a car repair place and had placed an ad in the Pennysaver. But I had been secretly saving up my allowance since I was six years old to get a real computer. I didn’t have enough, but I was close. My dad promised to make up the difference if I promised to let my mom plan my party.

So for about ten years–really, since the age where you start remembering things, I was waiting for this moment to come, albeit not the party itself. This was the computer where I would go on to build my first website, and actually, run WordPress on for the first time too. Turning 15 really would be a major coming-of-age moment for me, and I would not fully understand how until years later.

Quinceañeras are long parties. Not just the day itself, but the preparation too. There’s a whole ballroom dance number you perform in front of everyone with your peers, which has to be choreographed and rehearsed. After your single performance, there is little time to dwell on the mistakes. It’s hard to move around in that dress. While it looks cool, as its occupant, you are aware of the fragility of it all–from the pins in your hair to the callouses on your feet from the shoes you haven’t broken-in.

Whatever phase we may be in right now as a team, or a product, I do know one thing. When you’re fifteen, things are pretty awkward. You’re not a kid anymore, but you don’t know quite who you are either. But you felt mighty special–and even powerful-in that gown.

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