For non-Spanish speakers, quinceañera is a mouthful. For young Latina women, a quinceañera is a chance to publicly step into womanhood and reconnect to Latino culture. For event planners, florist, bakers, and dress makers, quinceañeras translate into booming business.
“For as long as I can remember quinceañeras were something that I was infatuated with,” says 19-year-old Karla Estrada. “I would dream of the perfect dress, the music, having all eyes on me.”
The growing industry in the United States around the quinceañera, or quince for short, shows the growing influence of the Latino population in the United States. But just like there is not one kind of Latino, there is not just one type of quinceañera.
Popular quinceañera planning websites like quinceanera.com and quincehelp.com provide overviews of what a typical quinceañera ceremony looks like to help young girls and families plan the event.
According to quincehelp.com, the ceremony usually has two parts – the mass and the reception. The mass is often called the Mass of Thanking and allows the young girl, also called the Quinceañera, to thank her family and demonstrate the role faith will play in her transition into maturity.
The reception takes place in a venue complete with themed decorations and a dance floor. The reception begins with a grand entrance by the court which includes the Quinceañera, her chambelán or male date, 7 girls, and 7 boys. The Quinceañera then dances with her father followed by court-performed choreographed dances.
Symbolic traditions that take place at the reception include the lighting of 15 candles, the slipper-high-heel-shoe-exchange, and the presentation of the last doll. The slipper-shoe exchange and the presentation of the doll mark the end of the Quinceañera’s childhood.
Though these might be the more common quince traditions, as Estrada says “Every household and family is different, we all have our traditions that have been passed down for centuries.”
Tracing roots: quinceañera origins
Important to quinceañera traditions we see today is the history connecting the ceremony across nationalities.
“My sense is that rituals tell a people who they are,” says Nicole Guidotti-Hernández, Professor of American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. “Scholars focus on both to historicize the how, the where, and the why of the quinceañera ritual.”
According to a 1997 article by scholar Karen Mary Dávalos, the quince is said to have originated as an indigenous practice, and more specifically, as an Aztec and Mayan tradition. The ceremony is also said to have been a Spanish tradition passed onto present-day Latin America through colonialism.
Though some scholars place the creation of the quince in pre-colonial Mexico, Guidotti-Hernández, notes that “the coming of age ceremony be it the sweet 16 or the quinceañera for 15 year olds is not restricted to one ethnic group.” She points out that “Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and Central Americans also hold quinceñeras.”
Estrada, whose father is from Guatemala and mother is from Colombia, said she changed up a few traditions in her ceremony.
“Guatemalan tradition is that the Quinceañera wears white to show purity and honor,” says Estrada. “I wore a light lilac color dress.” Estrada also says that Guatemalan Quinceañeras are “expected to have a mass or church service 6 hours before the party to get approval of the transformation.” Instead, Estrada had the service during her party.
Estrada also notes that her mother’s quinceañera in Colombia was less a ceremony and more a “small get together with family.”
Not only do traditions change, however slightly, from country to country. Traditions also change through generation.
Rubi Reed, 14-years-old, said that she is still deciding on whether she will take a trip to celebrate her quinceañera or whether she will hold a typical ceremony. Likewise, 18-year-old Gissel Ivanna decided not to have a quince because “I realized my stress level was going to increase and so was my mom’s.”
As Dávalos writes in her article, the Latinas she interviewed in the early 1990s were reluctant to rank quinceañera ceremonies as “more-or-less traditional.” She attributes this discomfort with Latinas acknowledging the financial cost of extravagant quinces and their willingness to accept acceptance diversity in quinceañera ceremonies.
At the crossroads of time and place
“There is something about the U.S. context of the quinceañera that has made it distinct” says Guidotti-Hernández. “What I am most interested in as a scholar is how the ritual has become more pan-ethnic and more embedded in consumption and excess in the last 30 years.”
Though the quinceañera ritual changes from Spanish-speaking country to Spanish-speaking country, it is perhaps making its biggest transformation in its U.S. context. The accepted diversity within the centuries-old quince traditions signals an increasingly dynamic and multicultural U.S. Latina and Latino identity.