How Quinceañeras Work


A quinceañera celebrates a girl’s 15th birthday.
A quinceañera celebrates a girl’s 15th birthday.
Jack Hollingsworth/Getty Images

For Hispanic girls in Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, the United States and elsewhere, the 15th birthday marks the most lavish celebration of their lives. Designating a girl’s transition from childhood to adulthood, the quinceañera is a two-part festivity that traces back to both indigenous and European cultural traditions and has become an increasingly opulent affair in recent years. Parents may even spend more on their daughters' "Sweet 15" quinceañeras than their weddings, in fact, which is why some refer them as mini bodas, or miniature weddings. Not counting the birthday presents a young girl might receive, a low-end quinceañera in the United States can easily cost about $3,000 [source: Colloff].

One look at a quince girl (a nickname for the quinceañera honoree) on her special day, and the high price tag makes sense. First off, there's the outfit: Often made of satin with lace overlays and rhinestone accents, quinceañera dresses, the visible centerpieces of these celebrations, mirror what Cinderella might’ve worn to her fairytale ball. The floor-length gowns are traditionally white or pale pink, but the revived quinceañera culture accepts dresses in a rainbow of hues. Perched on the quince girl’s head is a delicate tiara or crown, the symbolism of which we’ll discuss later in the article, and in her hands -- at least at the beginning of the ceremony -- she might hold a Bible or book of prayer.

Although its emphasis is more on the party than the prayer, the quinceañera starts at the local Catholic church. Before any birthday cake is cut, the quince girl attends a special Mass in which she reaffirms her dedication to God and receives a blessing from the priest. Afterward, the Sweet 15 reception gets underway, typically involving some combination of choreographed dance sequences, limousine arrivals, sumptuous spreads of food and desserts, and an official presentation of the quince girl to fiesta attendees. Similar to cotillion and debutante traditions, quinceañeras serve as young Hispanics’ official entrance into society and womanhood and incorporate a host of unique elements and rituals that celebrate girls’ birthdays, as well as their heritage.

Quinceañeras Traditions

By tradition, a quince girl must have an escort.
By tradition, a quince girl must have an escort.
Erin Patrice O'Brien/Getty Images

The prom-like gown may be the central quinceañera tradition, but it isn't the only fancy dress featured in the celebration. Quinceañera custom calls for 14 damas, or maiden attendants, to accompany the quince girl and symbolize the past 14 years of her life. And of course, a group of young maidens needs a corresponding set of escorts, which means the quince girl must also select 15 chambelans, or male attendants in tuxedos.

The first stop during a quinceañera is the Church, where a quince girl must receive a special blessing from the priest and commit herself to protecting her sexual virginity and spiritual devotion. There, she will also leave a bouquet of flowers at the altar or near a statue of the Virgin Mary to further symbolize her purity. Symbolically abandoning her childhood and becoming a woman, a quince girl gives away a porcelain doll (although looser quince celebrations might substitute a stuffed animal or another childhood trinket) to a younger sister or female relative.

Once the quinceañera Mass concludes, a more typical birthday party ensues. What happens during the rest of the quinceañera largely depends on the parents’ budget. In lower income families, relatives and community members may pitch in together, acting as padrinos and madrinas, or godfathers and godmothers, to finance the quinceañera. Beginning in 2007, business owners and non-profits groups in Mexico City began sponsoring annual city-wide quinceañeras, to allow girls from poor families to enjoy the special rite afforded to wealthier Hispanics [source: Llana].

One of the final rituals of a quinceañera is the changing of the quince girl’s shoes. After the eating, drinking and dancing, the quince girl’s father will remove the flat-soled slippers his daughter wore to the party and replace them with a pair of heels. Thus, the 15-year-old who sashayed into the quinceañera as a girl will stride out and back home as a young woman. And as we’ll learn on the next page, this highly stylized rite of passage isn’t a recent invention, but rather a cultural homage to coming out ceremonies orchestrated by Aztec high priests in the early 1500s [source: Alcarez].

History of Quinceañera

Quinceañera traditions trace back to the Aztecs.
Quinceañera traditions trace back to the Aztecs.
Erin Patrice O'Brien/Getty Images

To visually trace the origins of quinceañera festivities that happen in the United States, run a finger down a map of the Western hemisphere into the heart of the Mexico. In that ancestral home of the Aztec Indians, whose empire thrived during the 1400s and early 1500s, young girls were considered marriage-ready at the age of 15 [source: Alcarez]. As a result, they went through ceremonial rites of passage that included parental speeches beseeching their adolescent daughters to become wise, upstanding women [source: Alcarez]. Then the Spanish invaded modern-day Mexico and overthrew the Aztecs in the 1520s, bringing their European influence to the indigenous people. The upper class debutante aspects of quinceañera likely emerged as a result of that [source: Alcarez].

Quinceañera as we know it today, celebrated by thousands of girls around Central America and the estimated 400,000 Hispanic girls who turn 15 every year in the U.S., actually didn’t become ingrained in the Hispanic cultural fabric until recently. Prior to the 1960s, quinceañeras were occasions reserved for the upper classes [source: Alcarez]. As more Latinos have immigrated to the U.S. and their communities have assimilated into American society, quinceañeras have spread across all rungs of socioeconomic classes as a newfound expression of ethnic pride both in the United States and Latin America. In the same way that American rites and customs easily traverse state lines, quinceañeras have also become a shared tradition throughout Latin America, including cordoned-off Cuba. In this way, these Sweet 15s have become as much a way to commemorate the past as celebrate the future.

The growing popularity of quinceañeras hasn’t always sat well with the Catholic Church, however. A quince girl’s public commitment of faith is an integral part of the event, but the surrounding regalia has threatened to completely overshadow any religious spirit, especially as quinceañera budgets often balloon beyond $25,000 [source: Plummer]. In 1990,the Los Angeles Archdiocese issued stricter guidelines for permitting quinceañera Masses, including rules that attempt to limit the size of the quinceañera parties at Mass and allow priests to bless multiple quince girls at once, since the parties were beginning to constrain the number of weddings and baptisms churches could perform [source: Legon].

But even the protestations of priests haven’t stopped the swell of Sweet 15s. The quinceañera industry now tops $400 million in the United States, which makes sense since -- in addition to invitations, venues, cake and beverages -- these birthday affairs naturally revolve around gifts galore [source: Moreno].

Quinceañeras Gifts and Meanings

A quinceañera girl and her gown, crown and Bible.
A quinceañera girl and her gown, crown and Bible.
Jupiterimages/Getty Images

From surrendering the last doll (ultima muñeca) during the Catholic mass to the shoe ceremony before the final father-daughter dance afterward, the quinceañera is full of symbolic gestures and gifts. Unlike the ordinary birthday parties that the quince girl might’ve enjoyed for the prior 14 years, her 15th extravaganza officially marks her coming of age, and therefore requires appropriate gifts and apparel to carry her through that transition.

Often, the quinceañera itself is the present for the birthday girl, rather than a bounty of wrapped packages. Parents who can afford big-budget fiestas may give their daughter a regálo sorpresa, or surprise gift, but the emphasis of traditional quinceañera presents -- including the prayer book, rosary and Bible needed for Mass -- is on what the quince girl will wear and carry to her ceremony. These may be given by a combination of grandparents, other relatives and friends, and each of them carries a special meaning:

  • Quinceañera gowns represent femininity.
  • Quinceañera rings represent a girl’s bond to God, family and her community.
  • Quinceañera crowns and tiaras represent her superior morality.
  • Quinceañera cross necklaces emphasize a girl's devotion to the Catholic Church and virginity.

In a way, quinceañeras are more of a giant gift to the invited guests than to the quince girls. After the ceremonial Mass, a quinceañera celebration migrates to a reception with food, drinks and lively music for attendees. While they’re there to help welcome the quince girl into adulthood, guests also receive special keepsakes. Decorated champagne flutes are handed out for a toast to the quince girl’s future joy. Tokens called cápias or cerámicas, may be imprinted with the quince girl’s name and date as a memento for guests as well.

Considering the pomp and circumstance, as well as the months of preparation, that go into a quinceañera, it’s understandable that they only come around once in a Hispanic girl’s lifetime. Though the rite of passage may vary slightly from Puerto Rico to Panama to Palo Alto, the heart of the quinceañera remains constant. Whether lavish or low-key, these extraordinary Sweet 15 fiestas allow young girls to become fairytale princesses for a day on their way to becoming full-grown women.

Related Articles

Sources

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  • Colloff, Pamela. "Sweet 15." Texas Monthly. March 2009.
  • Legon, Jeordan. “’Sweet 15’ Dispute: Archdiocese Hit for Guidelines on Quinceañeras.” Los Angeles Times. April 12, 1990. (July 22, 2011) http://articles.latimes.com/1990-04-12/news/ti-1220_1_quinceañera-ceremonies
  • Llana, Sara Miller. “Quinceañera costs rising, Mexico City hosts a free party.” Christian Science Monitor. April 28, 2008. (July 22, 2011)
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