How Quinceañeras Work

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].