An Oakland Prom Night Celebration

Girls and guys get decked out for the prom, Oakland style.


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Photo by Michael Short

Students dance at Oakland's Scottish Rite Temple.

 

It’s not easy to pose for prom pictures if you absolutely cannot stop laughing.

“Do we just smile at each other or what? This is so weird!” said Beatriz “Betty” Avila, a senior at Oakland High School, as she stood awkwardly with Jason Cortes, her date, while a fellow student took pictures amid the palm trees and fountains at the Mormon Temple.

“Jason, put your hand on her chin,” said Beatriz’ best friend, Fatima Andrade. “Look down at her. Pay attention! We have to Snapchat it.”

Jason was momentarily flustered.

“I can’t look down at her, because then I’ll have a double chin,” he said, prompting all four of them to explode into giggles.

Beatriz, Fatima, and their friend Daisy Matias were in full prom regalia—a whirl of sequins, spaghetti straps, and false eyelashes, with wobbly 3-inch heels and smiles that lit up all of Oakland. 

The girls—all of whom live in the Fruitvale District and two of whom were born in Mexico—had saved for years for this night. Fatima had helped her mom clean houses. Daisy had babysat. Beatriz had done chores and saved her allowance. All three had joined their classmates for four years of fundraising to help reduce the cost of prom tickets, which at some schools tops $250.

In the end, Oakland High’s Class of 2015 was able to keep prom tickets to $65, and the girls were able to treat themselves to a day of pampering that started with 10 a.m. hair appointments on International Boulevard. After that it was nails, and makeup, and finally gathering at Fatima’s house to get dressed. The gowns had come from a quinceañera shop in the Fruitvale. The long, colorful, fitted dresses transformed them from teenagers into glamorous 1940s Hollywood stars.

“It was a little awkward with my dad,” Fatima said. “He kept hovering. They don’t have proms in Mexico. He was like, ‘What are you doing?’ He finally said he was OK with it if my mom was OK with it.” 

Oakland High’s prom was in the grand ballroom at the Scottish Rite Temple, bedecked for the evening with white tablecloths, white flowers, dim lights, and a DJ. The students had planned it all, from choosing a caterer to picking a venue.

About half the class attended, or 185 boys and girls, in a jumbled array of couples and groups. There were no limousines, but one time-honored prom tradition was well represented: the white tuxedo. Specifically, white tuxedos with black piping, red bow ties, and, in at least one case, gold aviator glasses.

“The boys, you hardly recognize them,” said social studies teacher Amy Dellefield, who, as the school’s leadership adviser, has attended more than 20 proms. “Every year I love watching how excited they get. They’re playing at grown-up.”

Earlier, at the Mormon Temple, Fatima, Beatriz, and Daisy said they feel grown-up already. In fact, they can’t wait to graduate and move away. Fatima is headed to UC Santa Barbara, Daisy is going to Chico State, and Beatriz is headed to UC Merced—not a moment too soon, they said.

But then Fatima hesitated. 

“What am I going to do without Betty? Or Daisy’s sarcasm?” she said, her smile fading a little. “And I’ll miss my mom.”

“Yeah, my mom. My siblings,” the other girls said.

Jason, a junior, might be the most bereft of all when the girls move away. Although he went to the prom with Beatriz, he loves them all, he said.

“They’re all really funny,” he said. “They’re together all the freaking time. If one knows something, the other knows it, and then the other knows it. That’s how I ended up here. Fatima called and said, ‘You’re going to ask Betty to the prom.’ I was like, OK. But then Betty asked me before I could do anything. She already knew.”

He didn’t seem to mind that the girls were posing for pictures as a trio, giggling incessantly and not paying much attention to him. He seemed happy just to be there.

“This is really their night,” he said. “It’s about them.”

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