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jumping the broom

San Jose's first Weddings International extravaganza unveils the saris, bubas and aodais behind the Cinderella dress

By Traci Hukill

In their wedding picture, Keith and Yolanda Patterson appear to have momentarily taken flight, defying gravity with exultant laughter while their friends and family watch. Yolanda clutches her satiny white train in her right hand and holds Keith's hand in her left. They are jumping so high, you can't even see the broom beneath their feet.

That was several years ago, before the Oakland-based couple started Jump Dat Broomstick and Heritage Altars in an effort to introduce some African American elements into an affair that has catered largely to middle- and upper-class white women with raging Cinderella complexes--The Perfect Wedding.

Michelle Hodges, a coordinator of Weddings International, estimates that 30 to 40 percent of Bay Area weddings involve non-American traditions. Small wonder, then, that the Association of Certified Professional Wedding Consultants read the writing on the wall and recently sponsored this, the first "Celebration of Ethnic Diversity for Distinctive Brides of Heritage," at the Scottish Rite Temple in San Jose.

"I am the first person in my family to jump the broom," Yolanda Patterson says confidently, standing before me today arrayed in a dazzling magenta buba and wrapper made from a handwoven Nigerian fabric called ashoka. Keith, resplendent in the white and gold of the wedding agbadas--the long draped tunic worn by Ghanaian men--explains that the miniseries Roots brought jumping the broom back into style. Before that, he says, people preferred to leave slaves' traditions in the 19th century, thank you.

"My family doesn't like to talk about slavery," he concedes. "But we have to recognize that if it weren't for the strength of those people, we wouldn't be here."

African Americans may just now be rediscovering their heritage and infusing their weddings with it, but many of the cultures represented at this year's Weddings International extravaganza have been playing the dicey game of culture-melding in their weddings for quite some time.

Persians are among those ethnic groups who have clung tenaciously to their traditions from the get-go. The Vietnamese are another. As Thuy Le, who married hubby Francis Lu at Saratoga's Hakone Gardens last July, explains, most Vietnamese have two ceremonies: the traditional Vietnamese, in which the bride wears a vibrant red embroidered silk aodai and hat and the groom a similar costume of blue and gold, and then a good ol' American white wedding. It's a sign of prosperity to be able to spring for both.

Indians are another group known for elaborate, traditional weddings. Across the way at this event, Lavina Shah rests on a crimson-cushioned chair, her dainty frame all but swallowed in the swaths of a stiff gold gagrajoli, or Indian wedding dress. Trimmed in heavy, opulent brocade, the dress weighs 30 pounds, which explains why Lavina prefers sitting to strolling about. With her jeweled forehead and gold-draped neck, she probably looks very much as she did on her wedding day two years ago, when friends and relatives brought her gifts of gold after two weeks of feasting and parties. One difference, though: Before the real thing she spent eight hours having her hands and feet painted in intricate patterns with henna.

In Lavina's case, the American influence had little to do with the wedding ceremony itself, which was Hindi through and through. Instead, it manifested in the simple fact that her wedding to Anjan was the first love marriage in her family within memory. Her parents and his were born and raised in India, and although Lavina's parents never believed in the idea of a dowry, I get the idea Lavina considers herself lucky not to have been "arranged" into a less comfortable position.

Minal Patel, who created the ornate mundup, or wedding canopy, under which Lavina now relaxes, will be planning an Indian-Italian wedding and an Indian-Mexican wedding later this year. Welcome to the great melting pot of central California, a cultural climate that produces certain bizarre fruits, wedding-wise: one wedding coordinator tells of a Jewish­African American couple who jumped the broom under a chuppa.

Of course, Weddings International, in true multicultural fashion, includes a few big, poofy white dresses to represent what they call the "traditional Hispanic" wedding. Sure, we can call it that. The Lincoln stretch limo parked outside is probably a California-freeway tradition, as are the cheesy beachside portraits lining the hall to the conference room where all the international symbols and styles of dress mingle. Oh, well--after all, weddings are big business, and cutting deals across cultural borders has always entailed, to some degree, a careful system of compromises.

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From the March 13-19, 1997 issue of Metro

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