In Latin American cultures, the transition from girlhood to womanhood is a special time, not only for a girl herself, but for her family and even community. Traditionally, in the eyes of Latin American communities, the 15th birthday has marked the point of a girl’s maturity. So, to celebrate this significant birthday, families throw elaborate birthday parties called quinceañeras. This is similar to a “sweet 16” party in the United States, but the quinceañera tradition has older roots and religious implications, making it more similar to a bat mitzvah from the Jewish tradition.
Curiously, scholars aren’t quite sure where the quinceañera tradition comes from. Some believe it was an adoption of a tradition brought over by the Spanish. For instance, one theory postulates that the tradition started in 18th-century Spain, when the Duchess of Alba invited teenage girls to a party at the palace and dressed them in mature adult clothes for the first time. By the next century, the Empress Carlotta of Mexico was doing the same for the daughters of the members of her court to present them as eligible for marriage. Others say the tradition is far older, stretching back to the Toltecs and Aztecs of ancient Mesoamerica [source: Stavans]. Perhaps the quinceañera was ultimately a blending of the two traditions.
Whatever the origins, the quinceañera has become very important, taking on many significant traditions as part of the elaborate celebration.
The quinceañera celebration traditionally starts off with the family celebrating a Catholic thanksgiving Mass. The birthday girl, also known as the quinceañera, enters the church in a procession, not unlike the traditional marriage procession. She may be accompanied by a court of young men and women, as well as her parents and godparents. (We'll talk more about the court on the next page.)
She may be allowed to pick out the readings of the Mass ahead of time and ask a family member or friend to read them, or she may choose to read them herself. After the readings, gospel and homily, the young woman renews her Baptismal promise and commits herself to God and the Virgin Mary. The parents or godparents may choose to give the girl special religious gifts at this time. After Communion, the quinceañera can make a devotion to the Virgin Mary by presenting a flower or bouquet of flowers to the church's statue. The priest then blesses the quinceañera before concluding the Mass.
After the Mass or service is over, the quinceañera celebration has just begun.
As we mentioned on the last page, a quinceañera may have a court of young men and women to support her during the special celebration. The court may accompany her down the aisle in the church procession, but it also has customary roles in the reception afterward.
Traditionally, a full court is made up of 14 girls (damas) and 14 boys (chambelans), in addition to an escort for the quinceañera herself, with each couple representing a year of the girl’s life. However, for simplicity’s sake, some people choose to halve this. Some families opt for seven girls and seven boys, while others have a court of just 14 damas or just 14 chambelans.
The quinceañera will typically ask friends and family members to make up her court. Like a wedding party, the girls will be expected to wear matching gowns, and the men will be asked to wear tuxes. So, etiquette experts recommend that a quinceañera fully prepare her court for what it will involve. When she asks someone to join her court, she should let him or her know what to expect when purchasing or renting a gown or tuxedo.
Also, the court should be prepared for a special dance during the celebration, which is another favorite tradition that we'll explain on the next page.
According to custom, a quinceañera’s first dance is with her father. It's usually to a song of the father’s choosing that has a certain significance to them. Traditionally, it also represents a girl’s first public dance. Afterward, the father can hand the quinceañera over to her escort.
One of the most popular quinceañera traditions is the waltz, an elegant, choreographed dance performed by the birthday girl and her court. If this is also the first dance of the celebration, the quinceañera will take her father as her partner. It can often take months of planning and several rehearsals to prepare a court for the choreographed dance. And some families choose to hire a professional dance choreographer to guide the party.
The quinceañera gown is just as important as the wedding gown is. Just like the custom started by the Duchess of Alba in Spain, this will be the first adult dress for the young woman.
Traditionally, quinceañeras wear elegant ball gowns, often with layers of tulle netting to achieve a princess look, or some opt for a gown of taffeta or silk. White and light pink are both traditional colors for quinceañera dresses, but the girl may instead opt for another color -- but colors usually stay within the pastel family. Author Olda Nájera-Ramírez points out that pink and other pastels are common in Mexico, Central America, Puerto Rico and Cuba. But in certain parts of Mexico and the United States, white is considered more traditional [source: Nájera-Ramírez]. In fact, in communities that prefer white as a symbol of virginity, a girl’s family might be scandalized by any other choice.
Similarly, many families value modesty in the design of the dress, especially for the Mass part of the festivities. As a compromise, some quinceañeras wear shawls or jackets over spaghetti straps or sleeveless dresses during the Mass, and remove them afterwards.
No celebration would be complete without a feast. Traditionally, the family and perhaps neighbors in the community would all help prepare a home-cooked array of dishes for the reception. However, this has largely shifted over to the practice of hiring a caterer to provide the meal -- another aspect that makes the quinceañera similar to a wedding.
As researchers have pointed out, the kinds of food at a quinceañera celebration will reflect the particular culture, as well as the social class and financial resources of the family. Mexican-American quinceañeras will usually include a variety of foods, including enchiladas, tamales, chicken mole, and staples like rice and beans [source: Candelaria].
Of course, another essential element to a classic quinceañera is the cake. Large and often elaborate in design, the cake is a centerpiece of the celebration. Common varieties of cake for a quinceañera include almond meringue cake, or a spongy cake known as tres leches, which, as its name implies, is made with three types of milk [source: Castella].
We’ve already mentioned one important role the parents have in the quinceañera celebration, which is the tradition of the father dancing the first dance with birthday girl. This special father-daughter dance represents her transition to womanhood and highlights the importance of the father as the first man in her life. But the parents also have other significant roles.
Another popular tradition is the changing of the shoes. In this ritual, one of the parents will take off the quinceañera’s flats and replace them with elegant heels. This will be the girl’s first pair of heels, representing her growth and maturity. Finally, the parents will give a toast to their daughter, often emphasizing her personal accomplishments and virtues [source: Kernecker].
And, of course, we can’t overlook one of the most important roles of the parents -- paying for the celebration. However, this often doesn’t fall completely on the parents’ shoulders. Traditionally, a quinceañera will be at least partially funded by others, as we’ll find out next.
As quinceañeras have grown in extravagance, the families who throw them have begun to rely on others to help them bear the brunt of the costs. They'll seek assistance from older family members or friends of the family. When people agree to help pay for a portion of the celebration, they are known as padrinos or madrinas, which literally means “godfathers” and “godmothers.”
One customary way of handling such sponsors is to ask them to cover a particular element of the festivities. For instance, an uncle may agree to pay for the DJ or band, while a neighbor agrees to take care of the cost of the cake.
Many quinceañeras include a candle-lighting ceremony in their celebration. This can be a very moving ceremony, as the birthday girl takes time to honor people who have been especially important in her life.
The quinceañera herself selects 15 people, often including her parents, siblings, other family members and close friends. Some girls simply choose their 14 damas and one extra person, such as her mother. During the ceremony, she devotes a candle to each one of them.
The DJ will call up members individually and perhaps play a special song as the quinceañera presents each with a candle. While she presents the candle, she'll also give a prepared speech about how each of them has been important to her and helped her reach maturity. Some girls decide to do the opposite, however, and have the selected people say something about the quinceañera.
Because the quinceañera is a celebration of a girl growing into maturity, it is fitting that the celebration is full of traditions that mark several “firsts.” For instance, we’ve already touched on how the quinceañera marks the girl’s first public dance.
This tradition of the first public dance shares similarities with debutante balls in other cultures, which are dances that mark a girl’s “coming out” in society for the first time. Although the quinceañera celebration was traditionally meant for introducing girls as eligible to marry, 15 is now generally considered too young for that. However, some families allow a girl to date for the first time following the quinceañera.
In addition to many firsts, a quinceañera will receive what's known as the "last doll." Some say this tradition came from Puerto Rico, while others claim it originated in Mexico. This is usually a porcelain doll, often dressed like the quinceañera. Once again, it's presented to her as a gift that signifies her passage into adulthood. Some families choose to have ribbons pinned to the doll that bear the name of the quinceañera and the date of the celebration. The birthday girl hands these ribbons out to guests as they leave.
Other gifts might include a Bible, a rosary, a cross or a medal, which are religious gifts that would customarily be given during the thanksgiving Mass. Also, during the Mass, grandparents might give the quinceañera 15 red roses, with the stems signifying strength and the petals signifying sweetness [source: Mills]. The family might choose to give the birthday girl a tiara and scepter, signifying responsibility. In some cultures, a birthstone ring and a bracelet are traditional gifts that represent femininity and coming of age.
Although quinceañeras and their families often pick and choose which traditions to use and which will be important to them, they obviously have plenty to choose from, each rife with symbolic meaning.
HowStuffWorks explores the differences between terms like Hispanic, Latino, Chicano and Mexican-American.
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- Candelaria, Cordelia, et al. "Encyclopedia of Latino Popular Culture." Greenwood Publishing Group, 2004. (Aug. 1, 2011) http://books.google.com/books?id=STjcB_f7CVcC
- Castella, Krystina. "A World of Cake." Storey Publishing, 2010. (Aug. 1, 2011) http://books.google.com/books?id=GLa2Gn1YRd4C
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- Stavans, Ilan. “Quinceañeras.” ABC-CLIO, 2010. (Aug. 1, 2011) http://books.google.com/books?id=xKI3hgLWnkwC
- United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. “Fifteen Questions on the Quinceañera.” (Aug. 1, 2011) http://www.usccb.org/liturgy/quinceanera.shtml
- United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. "Order for the Blessing on the Fifteenth Birthday." (Aug. 1, 2011) www.usccb.org/liturgy/Quinceanera.pdf