The Quinceañera: a Latino celebration of womanhood, family & community
Frilly, poofy dresses. Big hair. Visions of princesses. These are the images that fill my mind when thinking of quinceañera parties. These traditional Latino rite of passage celebrations are steeped with rich history, cultural ties and meaning. Families celebrate young girls turning fifteen or “quince” as a symbolic way to escort them into womanhood. Comparable in production and price to weddings, these coming-of-age soirees wouldn’t be possible without the sponsorship of relatives and close family friends. Quinceañeras might have roots in Latin America but Hispanic families keep the tradition alive across the US, with an American touch.
TELL ME MORE.
In Latin America, the word “quinceañera” is used solely to refer to the celebrated girl but in the US the word is also used to refer to the party itself.
Part Sweet Sixteen birthday party, part debutante ball, quinceañera rituals mark the transition of a girl from childhood to maturity. The origins of the quinceañera are often attributed to Aztec traditions in which rite of passage ceremonies were held for boys and girls to signal their readiness to take on adult responsibilities and become active members of the community. At age fifteen, boys became warriors and girls became women capable of getting married and having children. Over time, the tradition became less about showcasing a girl’s purity to attract marriage prospects and more about being ready to grow up by embracing her womanhood. The quinceañera custom eventually merged with Catholic practices when Spain conquered Latin America, which led to the modern version of having a religious ceremony preceding the reception.
Today, the fiesta de quince años remains a celebration of womanhood, family and community.
Since the quinceañera holds such significance for a young lady, it only makes sense that a posse accompanies her during this special day. In her court of honor there are typically seven damas (female companions), seven chambelanes (male companions) and the chambelán de honor, the quinceañera’s main escort or date. The court of honor usually includes cousins and close friends. Since Hispanic families tend to be conservative, the chambelán de honor is generally a relative and not a boyfriend. But this isn’t the case with each and every quinceañera. The court of honor will normally wear coordinated color outfits chosen by the birthday girl. They will accompany the quinceañera to the mass and perform a number of waltzes and choreographed dances during the reception. The court of honor can be seen as the quinceañera’s squad during her birthday bash.
Having attended countless quinceañeras while growing up, I had the opportunity to be part of one when I was 13 and my friend asked me to be a dama, one of her companions. While it seemed fun at first to be part of a quinceañera court of honor, I soon learned I didn’t particularly enjoy practicing waltzes and dances for two months prior to the party. I also didn’t love that my parents had to spend about $400 on my dress, shoes, accessories and hair. It seemed excessive.
It was during this time that I learned just how expensive quinces are. In the Chicagoland area, the average price tag for these celebrations ranges from $10-15K. But the price increases the fancier the party is.
This experience gave me the certainty that I didn’t want a quinceañera. Because I was the youngest of four siblings and my family was living in the US at this time, I technically could have had one. My older sisters urged me to ask my parents, as they didn’t have the opportunity while living in Mexico due to limited financial resources. They wanted to vicariously experience this meaningful tradition through me. But I couldn’t justify the exorbitant amount of money spent on one extravagant party.
From all the parties I went to and the quinceañera I was part of, it was clear that guests mostly enjoy this special day, as the parents and the quinceañera were unceasingly running around ensuring family and guests were having a good time. I thought the amount of money, effort and stress that is part of planning and executing the event wasn’t worth it. While I appreciated the tradition, I also didn’t feel very comfortable with all the attention that is imbued in the celebration. As I neared 14, I decided against having a quince and went to Cancun instead. To this day, I remain happy with that decision. But I understand that for some girls, a quinceañera carries more meaning than it did to me.
A LOT MORE THAN JUST A PARTY.
The quinceañera party tends to be ripe with symbolism marking a girl’s passage to womanhood. At the beginning of the party, the birthday girl will do an opening dance with her father. Traditionally, girls couldn’t dance in public until they turned fifteen, so this waltz signifies that she is of age as her father passes his daughter to the chambelán de honor, the birthday girl’s main companion.
In the “Last Doll Ceremony,” the father presents his daughter with an ornate porcelain doll wearing a similar dress to the quinceañera. This doll should be gifted to a younger sister or relative, symbolizing that the girl is ready to leave her childhood behind. Perhaps the most popular gesture is the “Changing of the Shoes,” in which the father says goodbye to his little girl by changing her flat shoes to high heels. These are all rituals to honor her entrance into womanhood.
Quinceañeras are similar in scope to weddings, in terms of the cost and time spent planning and preparing for it (at least a year). The traditional celebration begins with a thanksgiving Mass and is followed by a big reception with dinner and dancing to live music and DJs. Quinces typically range from 100 to 400 guests and receptions tend to last about six hours.
While the event can range in size from small and intimate to large and over-the-top, quinces tend to be pricey. Since the median household income for Latinos in the US was about $42,000 in 2014 (according to the Census Bureau), these costly celebrations would be nearly impossible without a system of community patronage. It is common practice for the girl’s parents to invite family, relatives and close friends to help sponsor part of the events, from the gown, to the music, to the venue and so on. The sponsors are called padrinos and madrinas. If an aunt sponsors the decorations, for example, she will be referred to as the madriana de decoraciones or godmother of decorations. The padrinos and madrinas are usually thanked publicly in the invitation and during the party.
Quinceañeras have become very popular in the US because Hispanic families that were unable to afford the celebrations in their countries of origin have the access to do so. While most families save up for years to make the lavish parties a reality, most of them don’t view it as a burden but rather a worthwhile endeavor. The modern quinceañera seems to be a family statement about its new status in American society. The quinceañera is a lot more than just a party. It’s an indicator of upward social mobility. All of a sudden families that come from poor or very low socioeconomic backgrounds are able to give their daughters a memorable occasion she will cherish for the rest of her life. That’s an accomplishment and a sacrifice to be proud of.
THE AMERICAN VERSION OF A QUINCEAÑERA.
When I was a teenager, there were quinceañera parties to attend very often, especially in the summer and fall. But as I became a young adult, it seemed that the frequency of quinceañeras decreased dramatically. I wondered if girls and families were getting tired of the expensive and elaborate events. That might have been the case for the area in which I lived but it wasn’t an accurate reflection of what was taking place across the American landscape.
From experience, I can attest to the idea that the quinceañeras seem to die out by the third-generation. As families assimilate to American culture, the meaning in the tradition starts to vanish. Quinceañeras are most popular with first and second-generation Hispanic immigrants because they are able to make a statement about their newly acquired financial freedom.
With the significant amount of first and second-generation immigrants living and steadily arriving to the US, the quince celebration appears to have a promising and enduring future. With approximately 400,000 Hispanic girls having quinceañera parties each year, the market is thriving more than ever before.
Once a humble and family-centric affair, quinceañeras are now in the big business leagues. In the land of capitalism, the quinceañera celebrations will soon become a multibillion-dollar industry. There are now live expos and publications dedicated to connecting eager families with dress boutiques, venues, event planners, photographers, bakers, caterers, stationery stores, makeup and hair stylists, music bands, DJs and so on. As Maria Bejarano, director of Quinceañera Magazine, says: “The quinceañera business is a monster that keeps on growing.”
The days of the quinceañera as a community gathering are behind. The celebration has evolved into a lavish show resulting in a burgeoning market. There is no denying that the quinceañera has become a bit Americanized. The contemporary quinceañera reflects the changing values of Latinos in the US. Hopefully the original intent of the tradition isn’t lost amid the pursuit for the most overblown celebration.
What do you think about this unique coming-of-age tradition? Have you had one or know of someone that did? | If you enjoy this piece, feel free to share | Make sure to subscribe for bi-monthly updates!