On the day she turned 15, Kim Ramos sat still, trying not to giggle, as a member of her church layered makeup on her face. She’d soon be ready for her quinceañera, complete with long fake lashes, lipstick, a red tulle dress and a bedazzled crown.
A quinceañera is the traditional celebration of a girl’s transformation into a woman for southern Mexican and Central American cultures. It’s an extremely important moment for some families. For Ramos, it almost didn’t happen.
Last year, her mother’s husband, Fernando Piedra, was arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and imprisoned after 18 years living in the U.S. He spent eight months in Aurora’s privately run immigration prison. The government released Piedra in June and allowed him to stay in the country, he told Denverite. While he’s glad to be back with his family, the time he was absent took a toll on his wife and three children. His earning power and his ability to help take care of the family was gone, and things like Ramos’ party became out of reach.
It’s not an unusual result of detention. People who enter ICE custody, even if they are released without facing a deportation order, can lose their homes and businesses while they’re gone.
Ramos’ quinceañera was almost a casualty of her stepfather’s detention, but her church stepped in to make sure the day was special.
“We started planning it two weeks ago. Usually they start planning a year in advance,” said Joanna Barbaran, whose father is the pastor of Iglesia Presbiteriana De Valverde in Athmar Park. “It didn’t even seem like it was an option for them until we were like, yeah, let’s do it.”
Members of the congregation took Ramos to the mall to buy her the dress. They cooked beef, pork and beans in the church’s kitchen. They supplied an elaborate two-tiered cake, a chocolate fountain, macaroons and candy. A few assembled onstage to sing as the religious part of the ceremony took place in the sanctuary. They watched as Ramos entered and was led to a chair decorated with fabric and a red bow. She took communion and as Barbaran’s father, Rafael Ballares, anointed her with holy water.
Ramos’ mother, Erika Piedra Avendaño, said she felt fortunate that the community came together.
“Here at church we are considered a family,” she told Denverite in Spanish. “I saw how everyone has Christ in their hearts.”
Barbaran said this kind of support is not out of the norm at her family’s church. They help out with quinceañeras and weddings when it’s needed. Many in Iglesia Presbiteriana’s congregation are immigrants who live on the city’s west side, and she said a lot of people struggle to make ends meet. The church needs extra help from the governing Presbyterian body to continue operating since they can’t rely on donations from their members. It’s a combination of issues related to legal status and the rising cost of living, but she said people stick together to make sure nobody is left wanting.
“When her husband was in jail, we were all helping take her to the grocery store and helping do the basic things,” Barbaran said. “If you don’t have the person that helps you with that, then it’s very very hard living in Denver.”
In between applications of lip gloss, Ramos said a quinceañera wasn’t that big a deal to her. Though she added she was nervous and couldn’t quite say why.
“Before, I didn’t want it,” she said. “It was a waste of money.”
She said she thinks a lot about how much things cost.
Her friend from school, Sandra Escobedo, said she was planning to pass on her quinceañera. She knows other girls who feel that way, too. Though, after attending Ramos’ on Saturday night, she might change her mind.
After the ceremony, the food and cake-cutting, Ramos conceded: she would have felt like she missed something big had the community not come together to make it all possible.