La fiesta Quinceanera is a rite of passage for Latina girls turning 15. Quinceanera literally means “one who is 15” and the one word alone has come to stand for the entire birthday celebration which the current generation simply refers to as the “quince.” It is a ceremony full of meaning when a young girl is symbolically accompanied into womanhood by her family and community. The custom and ritual re-ignites ethnic, faith, and family ties. This planning guide reveals its major elements and shows how the Latina celebration varies across countries with some taking on more colorful, festive or religious overtones. The ceremony as we know it today in the United States is based on the Mexican version which became popular in the 1930s. It continues with great popularity in communities where it is far from a static event but changes dynamically with the times.
This special birthday celebration has its roots in the Aztec culture and characteristics of that culture play into the essence of the modern-day ceremony. The Aztecs date back to around 500 B.C. when they originated in the area of the United States where present-day Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and Colorado meet. In the late twelfth century they began to migrate south where they reached modern-day Mexico and became the prominent culture there by the late fifteenth century. The family was a major aspect of Aztec life and girls learned household and child-rearing chores from their mothers, and at around sixteen, a girl was introduced to the community as ready for marriage. Religion was central to the Aztec people as they worshiped hundreds of gods and goddesses, representing various aspects of life. In their religious rituals, music held an important place as flutes, drums, and rattles were played along with chanting to worship their gods. In addition, the dress was an important part of both Aztec religion and daily life. Thus, family, faith, celebration, and dress defined Aztec life.
Combine those Aztec cultural elements with traditions the world over to celebrate the transition from the life stages of childhood to adolescence to adulthood. While in ancient times girls were educated in social graces and domestic skills, by 15 or 16, they were ceremoniously presented to their community as young women ready for marriage and, with menses, ready to bear children. Today, in the Latin American culture, age 15 is chosen to symbolize the start of a girl’s life as a young adult, of being able to date and of learning about culture, tradition, and religion through middle school, high school, and for some, planning for college or career. For her, there are privileges and responsibilities to look forward to, like driving, money management, working, training, and even legal drinking. It is the pivotal point in which things are changing in terms of relationships with family, friends, and social institutions.
A Latina enters her Quinceanera event as a child and emerges as a young woman. It sets the path she will take as an adult. Those who know her treat her differently from that day forward. As a symbol of her coming-of-age, the ceremony represents the shift in her relationships with her parents and her friends. The teenage girl will start to assume responsibilities that her parents had taken for her first 15 years. She may begin to manage her money, do more chores around the house, make her own doctors’ appointments, and manage her time for homework, chores, and play. Friendships with peers may change as the 15-year-old girl may see multiple friends less frequently than in middle school, yet her interests are solidified as close friends influence and support her decisions about the church, work, sports, and social activities. This stage of life evolves with important decisions about what interests her in terms of choosing a life path. She will likely focus free time on one sport, one talent or hobby or preparing for one profession, one choice for career training, or making college applications. In any case, the 15-year-old girl will begin to spend more time away from home and her family structure, poised to create her own path and family.
The history of Mexico again influenced the evolution of the Quinceanera celebration when the Spanish conquered Mexico in 1521 and they blended Catholic religious traditions with those of the stage-of-life ceremonies of Aztec and Mayan natives. Shortly thereafter, the birthday event included a thanksgiving Mass during which the young girl would reaffirm the baptismal vows made for her by her parents and confirm her Catholic faith and her choice to devote herself either to marriage or the church. The ceremony would take place in the community’s gathering place if there wasn’t a church for the Mass.
In ancient times, when ballgowns didn’t exist, the 15-year-old girl would still have been attired in a manner that would distinguish her from everyone else at the ceremony. Attire gained in importance and today’s Quinceanera celebrations begin with the girl’s preparation of makeup, hair-styling, and a manicure. The birthday girl dresses in a formal evening gown for the Mass and the following fiesta. In the past, the dress had been pink but in recent decades white has been the choice to symbolize purity. Decorative embellishments, such as embroidery, sequins, pearls, and lace, may adorn a dress style that reflects both current trends and the girl’s fashion sense.
Like many personal celebrations, the individual wishes of the birthday girl and her family’s social class and family status impact the extent of the 15th birthday celebration. But there are some aspects that are common to most of them:
Celebration of the Mass:
- The young woman will arrive at her parish church, likely in a limousine, accompanied by her parents, godparents, and her court of honor who are chosen girls and boys, respectively known as “damas” and “chambelanes“ (ladies and chamberlains). Typically, there are 14 or 7 pairs.
- The girl will walk down the church aisle with her entourage to remain at the altar during the celebration of the Mass.
- Music will accompany the Mass and any portions of the birthday ceremony held at the Church.
- At the ceremony, a rosary, a bible, prayer book, or across or necklace with a locket or pendant depicting the Virgin of Guadalupe is blessed by the priest and presented to the teenager by her godparents. Other optional gifts bestowed at the ceremony or given to the girl to wear may include a scepter, a bracelet, a ring, or a pair of earrings.
- Two optional paired ceremonies at the church may include a “Changing of the Shoes” and a “Crowning with a Tiara.” Two children are chosen to join the girl’s entourage in the procession down the aisle. A boy carries a pillow with the shoes and a little girl carries a heart-shaped pillow with the tiara. At a specified time chosen around the celebration of the Mass, the father switches his daughter’s shoes from the flats she arrived into the high heels in which she will leave. The mother then places a tiara on her daughter’s head. These ceremonies play a major role in the girl’s transformation from girl to the young woman in the eyes of the community. The tiara also reminds all that the girl will always be a princess before God and the world.
- At the end of the Mass, the birthday girl will place her bouquet on the altar in honor of the Virgin Mary and her family members may distribute gifts to the attendees.
After the Mass, guests gather for a fiesta or a reception where other special birthday events take place. The reception includes dinner and dancing and may be held at the girl’s home, at an event room at a hotel or a restaurant, at a casino, or sometimes it may be a public block party. Music is a big part of life in Spanish, Aztec, and Mayan history. Everyone would have danced, sung, and chanted prayers along with the music, and it is the joyful background for the birthday celebration. Today’s Quinceanera event includes live music and/or a DJ and recorded music. With this in mind, the birthday celebration may be planned with a choreographer, or at the least, the dances and the program are practiced for weeks or months in advance. The party program will include most of the following:
- The grand entrance of the birthday girl and her entourage occurs once most guests have been seated or gathered together at the party location.
- An optional formal toast, typically made by the parents or godparents to the birthday girl, may be held upon arrival or later, after dinner and when the cake is cut and served as dessert.
- The first dance is a waltz of father and daughter.
- If bestowing a crown, or tiara, upon the girl was not a part of the ceremony at the Mass, then, towards the end of the father-and-daughter dance, the mother dances with her daughter while they make their way to a special chair or a make-believe “throne.” A tiara is put on the birthday girl’s head by her mother, while the girl is seated on the “throne.”
- If switching the shoes was not done as part of the Church ceremony, the father comes to the seated birthday girl after she is crowned with a tiara by her mother. The father takes off his daughter’s sandals, flats, or low-heeled shoes and puts on her high heels, symbolizing the girl’s passage into maturity. Then the father takes his “princess” daughter out to dance again and the party continues.
- The birthday girl waltzes with her “Chambelan de Honor” (Chamberlain of Honor, or Chief Officer of the Household), which is her chosen escort and part of her court of honor.
- A family dance is held which is usually a waltz in which all the girl’s immediate relatives, godparents, closest friends, “damas” (ladies) and “chambelanes” (chamberlains or officers of the household) participate.
- The birthday girl’s chosen song is played and danced to by the girl along with her entourage. Today, this may be any modern song.
- A general dance is announced and is usually a waltz, where everyone, young and old, is asked to dance.
- An optional “La Ultima Muneca” (The Last Doll) ceremony is held. It is based on an ancient Mayan tradition. The chambelan de honor is designated to present the girl to society at the party and is the one to give her the ultima muneca as well. The birthday girl will dance with the doll which refers to the last toy in her life since, after this special birthday event, the girl is now coming closer to adult life and eventually to marriage. Traditionally, the doll was handmade but in recent years it has been a Barbie doll, and some used in the ceremony are made of ceramic or porcelain and are hand-painted. These more elegant dolls are often sought after as collector’s items.
- Another option is the 15 Candle Ceremony. It is the opportunity for the birthday girl to thank 15 of those who helped her to develop and grow by giving a candle to each as she explains their influence and her appreciation. This touching tribute is also known as the Tree of Life ritual.
- Dinner courses may be interspersed throughout the program of dances and ceremonies, or, once all of the programs is finished, dinner may be served. Music is played while the guests dine, mingle and dance.
- Breakfast is served the next morning for the family and closest friends, especially as some are staying with the family. It might be a recalentado (re-warming) of food not consumed the night before and is warmed again for a brunch.
What is defined best by the Mexican birthday festival has been developed with some differences from other Latin American and South American countries. Many of the celebrations are similar but not all girl’s 15th birthday ceremonies include a Catholic Mass since, in fact, most–but not all–Latinas are Catholic.
In Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay, where the celebration is referred to as a fiesta de quince, the party is divided into segments around serving the various courses of the dinner. The program may include a video playback of earlier segments of the party, a 15-candle ceremony, and end with a cake-cutting ritual where each female guest pulls a ribbon out of a bunch. Each ribbon has a charm attached and one has a special prize ring. The party concludes with a festive Carnival-style dance.
In the Dominican Republic, the birthday girl usually wears a brightly-colored long dress while the other young ladies in her entourage also wear brightly-colored dresses and the young men wear colorful ties with their dark suits or tuxedos. It is customary for the birthday girl and escort couples to perform several choreographed dances, which may include rhythms like merengue, pop, and salsa. One of the main attractions in the Dominican Republic is the traditional quince cake which is of immense size and beautifully designed with very colorful decorations.
In Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela, after the first dance, the choreography begins with a dance performance by the birthday teenager and her friends. After that, music is performed by live bands, a famous guest performer, DJs, food and drink. Late at night, a “crazy hour” commences. The party attendants put on masks and funny wigs. They make noises with whistles and rattles while fast-tempo music is loudly played. Optionally, the birthday girl may make a final surprise dance performance, either alone or accompanied.
In Cuba, 15th birthday celebrations were very popular until the late 1970s. Unlike most Mexican and Latin American Quinceanera events, the tradition partly entered Cuba via Spanish and French influence. Wealthy families would rent expensive dining rooms and private clubs to hold the birthday party, which they call the quince. The party would typically include a choreographed group dance in which 14 couples waltz around the birthday girl who is accompanied by one of the main dancers.
In Brazil and in the Portuguese language, the girl’s 15th birthday party is called “festa de debutantes” or “debutante’s party,” and in Peru the event has become less popular among teens who think of it as old-fashioned and too expensive for their parents.
In the United States, Latinas are still growing their Quinceanera celebrations whether their fathers are well-heeled businessmen and attorneys, or taxi drivers and construction workers. Latinas and their families pull together tens of thousands, to hundreds of thousands, of dollars for the dinner, drinks, party place, dresses, jewelry, limousines, gifts, DJ’s, bands, musicians, choreographers, videographers and photographers. Padrinos (patrons, godfathers), who are family and friends, are asked to pay for the birthday festivities. They become “numero uno” in the planning process, at least as far the parents are concerned. Websites like “My Quince Favors” guide the birthday girl and her parents about whom to ask to be Padrinos. Luckily, the barter system is also welcome, so some families barter and exchange favors. Rather than raise money, they will find limousine services, rental halls, bakeries, food and drink services to participate among their poor and middle-class colleagues and friends. Yet, for the poor and middle-class Latina, it is a question as to how many may develop false expectations that the future holds a supply of Padrinos willing to lavish tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands on her education, wedding, new home, new car and her guaranteed rosy future.
However, just as in the fifth century B.C. to the sixteenth century A.D., when Aztec girls approached fifteen, the impetus for the Quinceanera celebration is alive and well and is a family day of happiness and memories to cherish forever. It is a revered coming-of-age tradition that got wrapped into the Catholic faith, its beliefs and antique rituals. As a girl moves out of the protective family unit and approaches dealings in the world to create her own life and family, her elaborate birthday celebration can open a conversation about how relationships and people change. Facing life’s stages can offer insecure parents a way to embrace change instead of dread it and a special birthday ritual that focuses on both the joy of childhood and the transition into adulthood can satisfy both parents and the birthday girl.
Despite blending rabid commercialism with Catholic and cultural rituals, Latinas from many social classes embrace the 15th birthday celebration to leave childhood, enter teenage adolescence and head toward adulthood with a sense of cultural roots that date back centuries and find their place in family and faith. While social studies point to the breakdown of traditional family life in a world of changing cultural mores, in whatever form it may take, a Quinceanera is a very special event happening only once in a girl’s life. It is a time to rejoice in the miracle of life and reaffirm one’s commitment to family, friends, tradition and community.
(c) 2012 Elizabeth McMillian