Monica Yant Kinney: A special date for the prom

Wanda Alicea, left, and her son, Danny Guzman, have their photo taken together at the Edison High School prom at the National Constitution Center. (Charles Fox / Staff Photographer)

Daniel Guzmán gasps a little as his prom date walks down the stairs into the living room.

"Ma, you look really nice," the 18-year-old Edison High School senior tells Wanda Alicea, a vision with magenta hair, a purple gown, and 4-inch turquoise Lady Gaga heels.

Wanda, a 41-year-old mother of five and grandmother of two, blushes while trying not to fall. "Oh, Papi, I hope I don't kill myself in these shoes."

Death was not on Daniel's mind when he asked his mom to accompany him on arguably one of the most important nights in a teenager's life.

"She never got to go to her prom because she dropped out," he explains. "She always told me there's nothing more important than graduating and getting that diploma."

So as winter turned to spring and classmates began focusing on senior rings and fancy dances, Daniel - who will study to become a medical assistant at the Pennsylvania Institute of Technology in Center City and hopes to become a nurse - plotted to honor the woman who encouraged him from birth.

At 15, he had Wanda's name tattooed on his right arm. Why not take Mom to the prom?

"When he told me, he was so matter-of-fact," Edison teacher Sandi Kushner recalls. "He really wanted to do this for her."

 

'Better to be working'

The big day begins before dawn, as they all do for Wanda, who pulls the early shift at the family's Sun Shine Restaurant at Fifth and Tioga Streets. (Try the mondongo; the Puerto Rican pig's-feet-and-tripe stew is the house specialty.)

By 9:30 a.m., mother and son are in North Philadelphia, commencing with beautification and contemplation.

"I dropped out when I was 16 and pregnant," Wanda says as she sits under the Rainbow Beauty Salon's dryer, heating her bubblegum curls. "I was young. I was ignorant."

The wild child named her son Angel, but resumed a lifestyle that would gall the gods.

"I was in the streets, partying hard. I was having so much fun and I didn't want to stop."

Wanda had three babies by 22, but could scarcely call herself much of a mother or even an adult when, at a bus stop at Fifth and Berks Streets, she spied David Guzmán.

A teetotaling Catholic, he asked Wanda out but told her she'd have to get clean.

"He accepted me. He helped me," she says, her voice swelling with pride. "When I met David, I said, 'This is the chance to change my life. This is the line - what side am I going to be on?' "

Together, the couple had two boys, Daniel and David Jr., now a 15-year-old Edison freshman. The entire clan - including Grandma Manuela - can usually be found at the restaurant. "Better to be working," Wanda says, "than on the streets."

The familial devotion is remarkable given Wanda's lapses with her three older children, who grew up with their father, her ex-husband.

Both daughters finished high school, but Wanda wasn't sure they'd want her at graduation. Angel, 24, ended up in prison for drug dealing.

"It's my fault," she laments. "I wasn't there enough."

Today, she has seven stars tattooed on her neck representing her children and grandchildren. Her scared-straight stories are as graphic as her advice is simple:

"Don't be me. Be somebody. Don't move backward. Move forward."

 

Everything just right

Daniel gets a shave and a trim. He picks up his mom's corsage - three white roses for her wrist. He wants every detail to be just right, having selected his mother's gown and stilettos. Wanda's transformation goes way beyond organza.

"Before, I weighed 189 pounds," she shares. "My back and feet hurt. I could never wear those heels."

After Daniel asked her to the prom, she began exercising daily. She walked around Edison's track for hours, lost 20 pounds, and regained her spunk. Last month, Wanda got her lip pierced.

David Guzmán never went to his prom, either, having dropped out of Edison in 1988. He offers to drive the duo in his white GMC Yukon with David Jr. as his copilot. The father-and-son chauffeurs dress in identical black shorts, polos, sneakers, sunglasses, and caps.

"We went to Kick USA, Forman Mills, and the Foot Locker," David Sr. says of what it took to perfect the look. "As soon as we drop them off, we're going to hit Pat's for cheesesteaks."

The SUV inches across Tioga Street amid cheers from longtime neighbors yelling, "Mami's still got it!" The family stops for photos at its church, St. Hugh of Cluny, arriving at the prom precisely at 8 p.m.

Mother and son link arms as they walk up the wide brick path and through the National Constitution Center's glass doors.

"I'm nervous, but I want to get in there and dance," Wanda declares as she click-clacks across the marble floor, up the grand staircase, and into the world she left behind years ago.

Within a half-hour, the woman who took so long to grow up is sitting at a table grinning and gabbing. Just another group of pretty promgoers catching their breath, nursing their aching feet.

"I'm loving it," she says. "But I'm about ready to take off these shoes."

 


Reach Monica Yant Kinney at myant@phillynews.com or 215-854-4670. Visit my web page and connect on Facebook and Twitter at philly.com/kinney.