Whenever someone would ask my mother what a quinceañera party was, she would always say it’s just like a wedding, but without the groom.
There’s some truth in her statement. A big elaborate dress is worn, a ceremony is held and parents end up with sore wallets.
So why it was decided that I was going to announce my arrival into the big wide world of womanhood in such a grand way was beyond me.
The answer was simple.
“It is tradition,” my mom said in Spanish as I was fitted into a blue and crème colored Mexican-style ball gown in 2005.
It was later in my life that I learned how important coming-of-age events are in Hispanic communities, especially in the United States. Quinceañeras endure because of how they tie families to their cultural identities. Those trying to hold on to the customs of their homeland turn to this centuries-old ritual to reaffirm their connection to Latin America while also bringing family members together.
Even though my quinces didn’t include a Mass at a Catholic Church, which is typical in Mexico, there was plenty of symbolism in the banquet hall where it was held: Several of my friends were damas (ladies) and chambelans (escorts), which would be the equivalent of a bridal party; my father danced a waltz with me; and mariachis brought back a little bit of the old country in a serenade to me and my 80 guests.
Of course, there were also unnecessary parts like a small fountain of water attached to my multilayered cake. But no matter which part of the Americas they’re from, families end up passing along certain traditions through quince parties.
In places like Puerto Rico, part of the ceremony involves the mother or father changing the birthday girl’s shoes from flats or slippers to high heels. Lipstick might also be applied on her or one tiara might be switched for a more elaborate one. Whatever ritual is used, the main theme behind each of them is change.
Mayling Marquez, a choreographer who has been organizing quinceañera parties for five years in West Palm Beach, says some families have the girl give away a porcelain doll.
“She would hand it down to the last sibling to show she was leaving her childhood behind,” Marquez said. “One time, I had a mother handing a scepter to her daughter, which represented responsibility.”
In some cultures, it’s customary for the girl’s relatives to be padrinos, or godparents in charge of paying for different aspects of the party; an aunt could be la madrina del vestido, the godmother of the dress, and an uncle in charge of the cake as el padrino del pastel. In the past, how elaborate festivities were usually depended on the economic status of the family and how many padrinos were able to help. Today, with more families spending an incredible amount on a quince, the sponsorship by family members tends to help out.
The 15 candles
Along with the transition to adulthood, the party is meant to celebrate the people who guided the girl throughout her life. Some families present 15 lit candles to family members. The ceremony could be as elaborate as making a speech for each person to only handing them out, according to Marquez.
“The candles are given out to uncles, grandparents, friends and teachers,” said Elvira Vellio, a Cuban-American who organized the upcoming quinceañera celebration for her daughter Chakira. “She’ll give them out in order to honor the people who are important to her.”
A waltz with the father figure is probably one of the most significant parts of the celebration. It’s also one of the most emotional because it’s the first dance for the girl as a woman.
Yvonne Saldraga, a Cuban-Panamanian who organized her daughter Angelica’s quince celebration in 2010, knew she wanted the event to follow certain customs, like her own quince party in the early 1980s, including the dance.
“It was a very special moment,” Saldraga said. “Traditions like these bring family together, from grandparents to distant cousins.”
According to Marquez, it’s becoming a trend for Hispanic mothers in South Florida like Saldraga to turn to others for guidance on what is customary or allow the daughter to choose what she would like to highlight.
The result: modernized quince parties where no one nationality or tradition is prevalent.
“Because they’re not in their country of origin, the customs are changing,” Marquez said. “The differences between each culture are diminishing.”