Quince parties evolve to keep up with the times in Miami

Maraya Rivera, a month away from her 15th birthday, knows the exact date she decided to break with family tradition.

“I had been to some of my friend’s quinces, and I thought to myself, I want a quince, a real quince,” she recalls. “I want to have a long dress and my own party where I can pick my own music.”

It didn’t matter that her mother and her mother’s mother had never hosted one. Hers would be a big celebration, with fancy flower centerpieces and a DJ spinning her favorite tunes.

Across town, Maria Chouza spent a good part of the past year planning her daughter Samantha’s quince celebration, held Saturday at the Renaissance Banquet Hall in Miami. Back in the day, Chouza, now 38, thought turning 15 meant fewer restrictions — not a big birthday bash. But for Samantha, a ninth-grader at Youth Women’s Preparatory Academy in Miami, it was all about the party.

“It’s a tradition that I wanted to experience,” Samantha says. “It’s about celebrating with your family.”

For Hispanic girls everywhere, the centuries-old tradition of a quinceañera is still alive and well, whether it’s at a lavish banquet hall or on the family’s backyard patio. In fact, these coming-of-age parties have become increasingly popular in the United States as a result of the growing Latino population and a couple of reality TV shows that focused on this romantic rite of passage.

“I’ve heard people say they are more important than a wedding because a quince is all about the girl and just about the girl,” says Silvio Herrera, who, as a comparative sociology graduate student at Florida International University, completed a thesis on the tradition. “That may be especially true in Miami because of the influence” of Hispanics.

Herrera, who was born and raised in Miami, spent many a weekend going to friends’ quince parties, including those of his two older sisters. “I don’t think it’s a tradition that is ever going to disappear,” he adds. “It may be expressed in other ways, maybe interpreted in a more modern fashion, but this is something that is uniquely ours and will stay that way.”

Experts believe the modern quinceañera traces its roots to Aztec and Mayan initiation rites, but the origins are obscure and there is no hard evidence that a girl’s 15th birthday coincided with the age of marriageability in those cultures.

“We can’t draw a straight line that says this started because of this particular ritual from this particular culture at this particular time,” says Michelle Gonzalez Maldonado, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Miami who has lectured extensively on the subject.

Somewhere, somehow these native American traditions met with European court life and soon prominent families in colonial Latin America were introducing their daughters to society in debutante balls. You can still see vestiges of these colonial customs in some of the party rituals — the father-daughter waltz, the girl’s tiara and long gown, her entourage of damas (ladies) and chambelanes (escorts).

In Cuba, the lavishness of a girl’s quince depended on her family’s economic standing. During his research, Herrera found that parties on the island ran the spectrum, from a sumptuous ball at the Havana Yacht Club to a simple brindis (toast) in the family’s living room. “In Cuba, you didn’t have those over-the-top quinces by people who couldn’t always afford them,” Herrera says.

Those blowout celebrations blossomed when the tradition jumped the Florida Straits and “confronted and adapted to the consumer society of the U.S.,” says Gonzalez Maldonado.

Now, there are destination quince parties and quince cruises and ritzy quinces that include, in addition to the traditional 14 couples who dance with the birthday girl, a choreographer, a florist, a DJ, a live band, a caterer, a videographer and a still photographer.

“Quinces have become a way for families to show that that they‘ve made it. It’s like a showcase,” Gonzalez Maldonado says.

But they’re also much more than a display of status. “It’s usually the first chance for a girl to express herself, to show what she likes, what she enjoys,” explains Michele Salcedo, author of Quinceanera!, a comprehensive guide to the celebration. “It’s an opportunity to show responsibility, to strengthen family ties and learn to negotiate. It doesn’t matter the socio-economic level of the family, there has to be a lot of give and take to produce the party.”

Indeed. Some of those negotiations involve everything from what music to play — hip-hop or traditional Latin — to the cut and color of the dress. “In the end,” adds Salcedo, “you have to have a lot of compromise to please everybody.”

Maraya Rivera, who will celebrate her quince on her birthday, June 9, knows all about compromising. She toured various banquet halls with her father John before they settled on one in West Kendall. Then they had to negotiate the guest list. Later, with the help of her paternal grandmother, she selected the dress, a white Vera Wang strapless with a drop waist. Her dad is footing the bill for the event, which he estimates will top $8,000.

Her mother, Monica Medina, didn’t have a quince — “I wanted jewelry” — nor did Maraya’s maternal grandmother, and Medina admits she would’ve preferred the money go toward a trip or her college fund. But Maraya was adamant about a party with all the trimmings.

“I think she was influenced by her friends,” Medina says. “A lot of them, especially the ones who go to private schools, are having quince parties.”

Rivera, who remembers his sister’s quince, views the party as “a special day to celebrate my daughter with everyone. It’s a way of making a statement: You are now a young lady.”

Though the quince is only a month away, Maraya and her parents still have plenty of details to settle. The father-daughter dance, for one. Maraya doesn’t want to waltz with her father. Nor has she agreed to the other quince standby, Julio Iglesias’ De Niña a Mujer, or her father’s recommendation, When I see you smile, by rock band Bad English.

“She’s threatened to dance with her mother, so we’re still trying to figure that out,” laughs Rivera, who expects the night of Maraya’s quinceañera to provide her with a lifetime of memories.

And that it will certainly do, say women who celebrated their quinces decades ago.

“We had three consecutive days of parties,” gushes Miriam Rodriguez, Samantha Chouza’s grandmother. “It was very beautiful.”

Maria Dorta, then known by her maiden name of Aguiar, celebrated hers in November 1958 in a small town in the Cuban province of Villa Clara. Originally planned for the town’s Casino Español, the festivities were moved to her family’s house because of threats from pro-Castro rebels. The party then ended abruptly when a man showed up at the front door and “suggested” the celebration be cut short at midnight.

“Even with all that, it was still memorable,” says Dorta, now 69. “For me, it was like I was in the clouds. I’ve never forgotten it.”

Miami Herald staff writer Andrea Torres contributed to this report.

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