South Floridians share their quince tales

05/14/2013 10:20 AM

05/17/2013 6:13 PM

Turning 15 years old for many Hispanic young girls invites a coming-of-age celebration. From the lavish ball gown dress to the traditional waltz with Dad, many quinceañeras living in South Florida can dig up photos of this special birthday.

We gathered quince memories from locals and members of the Public Insight Network, an online community of people who have agreed to share their experiences with The Miami Herald and WLRN. These stories and their quince portraits will be on display in an exhibit during the upcoming Cuba Nostalgia event, which will honor the longtime tradition. We highlighted some of these stories below. Some of them were edited for length and clarity:

Luli McArthur, 49, of Miami Lakes, recalls how her father snuck an invite to her mother’s quince in 1957.

“My mother had just moved into his neighborhood and he fell in love with her the minute he saw her. He heard of her upcoming quinces and somehow finagled an invitation to her huge party. She did not know of him or of the fact that he was at her party that day - let alone that he’d also snuck into a picture. He managed to meet her soon after that and they’ve been inseparable since then - raising a family, moving to Spain and later to Miami, where they’ve been running a business together for the last 35 years. That’s some way to crash a party.”

Isabel Gomez Bassols, 70, of Miami Beach, held her quince in secret in Cuba at the height of the Fidel Castro-led revolution.

“It was December 1958 and we were all living in fear. There were bombs exploding in different parts of Havana and clashes between the military and opposition groups. My quince was in the Habana Hilton. We couldn’t send out invitations for fear of repercussions; we had to go and invite people personally. The man that I danced with couldn’t pick me up at my house. We decided to meet at the hotel. In the party, we forgot about Cuba, the bombings and arrests. During my party, it was wonderful to forget the reality we lived in for a while.”

Angelica Rodriguez, 18, of Miami, exchanged shoes during her ceremony in 2010.

“I had my quinces at Synai Gardens Banquet Hall in Miami. The theme was Mardi Gras because my birthday is in March and I love the bright colors. My mother was not planning to have a big party, but she went to this banquet hall and they made accommodations for us. My cake was the freshest cake I have ever tasted. I had 100 guests, and everyone had a great time. We had the traditional 15 candles by a special member of family and friends. I had the traditional changing of the shoes to symbolize a girl becoming a young lady -- I had silver glitter Converse and changed into little heels. That ceremony was very special to me only because my grandpa got to do that. This was the best party ever. I still see the pictures and wish I could go back to that day. I know my mom worked very hard to give that to me, and I really appreciate and love her for that.”

Cassandra Hernandez, 16, of Pembroke Pines, held her Havana Nights celebration last year.

“My quinces were held at the Don Shula Hotel in Miami Lakes. I had 180 guests and my theme was Havana Nights. The color scheme was black and white with red accents. I did not have a full court, but I had a grand entrance and danced with my father, uncles and cousins. During dinner, we had six Tropicana Showgirls out on a show as if we were all really in a supper club . My party was really special for many reasons. We are a very close family, and my aunts and uncles were the masters of ceremony and introduced all the festivities. My parents presented me with a huge diamond ring. My mom said this was what her father gave her at her quince party and she wanted to continue the tradition. My mom spent two years planning my party to the very last detail. She handmade little cigar boxes with my picture on them and chocolate cigars inside as party favors. She created a special monogram for me that could be found imprinted on the boxes that held the invitations as well as the personalized napkin rings she had made. I have gone to many quinces in the last year and all my friends agree that my party was the one to beat in entertainment, food, decor and ambiance.”

Barbara Alvarez, 77, of Miami, whose mother had saved for years for her quince in 1951.

“My mother had always dreamed of having a little girl and from the day I was born, my mother prepared a piggy bank, and week after week she would deposit money in it for my 15th birthday party. When that moment arrived, she held a grand party in a club at the Linea street in the Vedado neighborhood. She hired an orchestra, my dress was made by a famous seamstress and the photographer, Augusto, took my pictures. I had a great time surrounded by family and friends. Thanks, Mom, I will always remember it.”

Aiza Prince, 47, of Miami, had a quince in 1980 because of her mother’s insistence.

“In all honesty, I was not looking forward to a traditional quince. After truly understanding how significant this rite of passage was to my mom, I finally relented. Choosing a dazzling, white quinceañera dress should not have been too difficult. But, after two exhausting hours of trying on heavy, sequenced, puffy dresses, I finally chose the perfect one. Coming from a single-parent home, I was content to have my pictures taken and to share an extraordinary dinner with my closest family at Le Cage Aux Folles restaurant. I remember clearly the lengthy photo shoot with a photographer that seemed obsessed with ABBA. Even today, whenever I hear the song ‘Fernando’ it takes me back to the hours of forced smiling and that tight and uncomfortable dress. My fondest memory of that day is the funny picture my mother took of my grandfather and me. Right before the snapshot, abuelo swapped his cute, dirty hat with my sparkling tiara. I think that photograph captured my only real smile.”

Martha Castillo, 50, of Pembroke Pines, opted to have an adventure in 1977 that led to her career.

“We rented a beautiful dress and had some studio portraits taken as well as the ever popular pictures at Hialeah Race Track. My parents had a small party for me at home with a few close friends and family. Nothing fancy, just some super sugary cake and bocaditos. I wasn’t really into the party thing. My best friend was also turning 15 two weeks before me, and her mom was taking her to Europe. They asked my mom if I could go, and my mom made the best decision ever by saying yes! I went on the most amazing trip to Europe for almost a month. Walked and toured the city of Paris, rode a gondola in Venice, visited the Coliseum in Rome, blessed by the Pope at the Vatican City, saw snow capped mountains in Switzerland and walked the beach in Monaco. It was way better than any party could have been. Those are memories I will always have and cherish. That trip made me yearn for more travel, and I made the decision to become a travel agent. I was a travel agent for 20 years and ended my career after 9/11.”

Kaitlyn Menendez, 16, of Miramar, won a contest to have her quince in 2011.

“This experience was definitely unlike any other. Till this day I still can't believe it happened. I entered the Verizon My Fabulous Quince contest online after hearing about it over the radio because I always wanted the huge party, big dress, and of course being the star for the night! Truthfully, I didn't think I would win the competition but my mother and sister thought otherwise. I gave up on voting but they stayed up until midnight voting away. I'll never forget that day I found out I won the quince. I was coming home with my sister after a drama rehearsal and I spotted a yellow hummer parked in my driveway. A guy came out with flowers asking for me and told me, ‘Congratulations!’

“I couldn't believe something like this could happen to me. The date of my quinces was Nov. 12, 2011, the theme was masquerade, and the venue was The Doral Resort and Spa. I waited with anticipation for my party, eager to have all my family with me celebrating my birthday. After getting my make-up done, I arrived at the resort in a limo feeling just like a movie star with all the cameras flashing around me. When I finally walked into the ballroom for my big entrance I was in disbelief. It looked like a dream come true! The food was absolutely delicious! There was arroz con pollo, maduros, mariquitas, and croquetas. The music was great, the dance floor was full of people throughout the entire night. The whole party was truly a success, and I'm sure everyone plus myself had a blast!”

Yazmin Perez, 16, of Miami, danced throughout the night with friends and family last year.

“I celebrated my quince at North Trail Park. I had a red wine quince dress because I wanted to break out of the usual. My party theme was Arabian Nights, and we invited about 60 to 70 guests, who were mostly all close friends and family. My brother walked me into the party then I danced with my father to the song ‘ Cartas A Mi Princesa.’ I then danced with my grandfather to ‘ La Niña De Mi Ojos.’ The food was a typical Cuban menu. After dinner, I took pictures with my guests. I had a great time and we went on dancing. I thanked my grandparents for giving me such a great party and the time invested in it.”

Dulce María Castilla, 76, of Miami, took her quince photos in 1952.

“I had a luncheon at our club in Havana, Casino Español, for all my girlfriends. I then had my quince picture at Alembert Studio, one of the most expensive society photographers at the time. My dress was a tea color lace and tulle couture by my aunt Felisa Zanón, a well-known seamstress. Even though I did not have a quince ball, I did want a quince long gown and photo as a keepsake of this very traditional occasion.”

Rachel Gibert, 22, of Pembroke Pines, decided to take her quince portraits and travel to Cuba in 2005.

“I celebrated my quinces in a small backyard get-together with family and friends. I opted not to have a big party even though my mother really wanted me to. I did take my pictures, however. We had croquettas, pastelitos and bocaditos as well as your traditional Cuban food. It was small and intimate, and I had a good time sharing that moment with family and close friends. In the summer of my quinces, my parents and I traveled to Cuba so my family could see the pictures and also have a chance to celebrate with me at my family’s house in Havana.”

Anacely Labrada, 49, of Miami, remembers her birthday in 1978.

“In July of 1978, I was turning 15 and my grandmother who lived in New York passed away July 20. I had no celebration because we were in mourning, but I did have the quince pictures at Hialeah Race Track. I remember at that time I would eat my nails and they would say ‘hide your hands.’ My parents later took me shopping and then to dinner. I still remember that day. It’s a special time for any young girl. It’s a tradition that is disappearing, and it’s a shame.”

Georgina Jimenez de Atorresagasti, 71, of Plantation, held a family reunion at her house in 1957 while in Cuba.

“I had my quince picture taken at the photo studio El Arte in Havana, Cuba. Unfortunately, due to the demise of a very close relative, my parents decided not to hold a large party as scheduled. What we ended up doing was having a small reunion at our house in Marianao, attended by close friends and relatives with the traditional three-tiered cake and other party decorations. I danced the traditional vals with my Dad. That was the only music we had for this occasion and the rest of the reunion was spent talking to friends.”

Alondra Luaces, 17, of Hialeah, celebrated with more than 100 friends and family in 2011.

“For my special fifteen’s, I had the whole big party at Saphire Ballrooms with more than 130 guests including family, friends and the photographer. My party was a night to remember, besides the real reason: I did my party for my mother. I let my mother pick my three dresses: an olive green dress, a white with sparkly gold designs dress and a yellow sparkly beauty dress. She was more excited than I was for sure!”

Juana Garcia, 40, of Miramar, had a dance partner in 1987 who later became her husband.

“My parents held a backyard party for me on July 11, 1987. It was a warm summer night. They served boxes ( cajitas) from Vicky Bakery stuffed with assorted pastries, tamales, and croquetas. I wore a traditional white dress for my grand entrance into the backyard and then changed into a short blue dress. The young man in my picture, Jesus, was my dance partner. Years later, we married. We have been married for 23 years.”

Helen Capote, 58, of Miami, remembers her 1969 party fondly.

“Many people were invited to my house in Güines, in Havana, Cuba. My dress was worn very short. My boyfriend played in a band and he took them to my party. Although I had only cake bocaditos, etc., I had an incredible time. I still remember it. You don’t need a lot of money or things for that special day -- only a loving mother.”

Ada Padron de Martinez, 57, of Homestead, celebrated her quince as a send-off before fleeing Havana in 1960.

“The first year of the Cuban revolution ended and my parents noticed the change communism did to Havana. My parents made the decision to leave Cuba. My birthday was coming up and we decided to have a big party -- in reality it was my goodbye. We picked the Hotel Nacional where we celebrated with my friends and family. I left Cuba the next year with the help of the Peter Pan program. After a long time, I was able to reunite with my family, after I was married.”

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