Our oldest daughter, Bella, just turned 14-years-old which means next year is her quinceañera. That means this 1/2 first-generation Latina is planning my first ever quinceañera for my 1/4 Latina. I never got to celebrate my quinces and I regret that. The planning process is exciting and overwhelming but I love that my daughter and I get to do this together with a little help from our village. It’s bringing us closer in ways I hadn’t considered.
It is not the same as a sweet sixteen in American culture. Is it the same as a Bat Mitzvah? Closer, there is definitely a religious aspect to it. Because I didn’t get to celebrate the quinceañera tradition myself, I’ve always secretly hoped my girls would want one.
Most cultures celebrate a young girl coming of age, in the United States that’s usually done by throwing a big sweet sixteen party. For Latinas, ideally, we celebrate our becoming a woman when a girl turns 15-years-old, the age of maturity in the Catholic church. (Similar to a Jewish girl who celebrates her Bat Mitzvah at 12-years and one-day-old; the age of religious maturity in the Jewish religion). As Latinas, we celebrate this birthday with a mass followed by a huge celebration with family and friends. It’s a time-honored tradition and a big part of our culture.
I didn’t have a quince because, quite frankly, my parents couldn’t afford it. It’s expensive for a birthday party. I always wanted one and I promised myself that if my girl wanted one, I’d find a way to make it happen. That’s what I’m doing. It’s a bit overwhelming since I’ve never planned one before. My mom is not Latina and I don’t live near any of my Latina friends or family so everything is a work in progress but 100% worth it to see the excitement in my daughter’s eyes.
It’s hard to explain the entire idea of a quinceañera to people who didn’t grow up around the culture. Basically, it’s celebrated like a wedding, often referred to as a mini boda, minus the groom and the honeymoon. If you’re not raised in the culture, from the outside looking it, it looks a lot like an extravagant party for a fifteenth birthday but it symbolizes so much more than that. It’s the celebration of a girl becoming a woman and I think that should be celebrated like this for every little girl.
For Latina girls, the 15th birthday marks the most lavish celebration of their lives. Symbolizing a girl’s transition from childhood to womanhood, the quinceañera is a two-part celebration consisting of a religious celebration and a reception that traces back to both indigenous and European cultural traditions. Parents often spend more on their daughter’s quinceañera than their actual wedding. In fact, quinceañeras are often referred to as mini bodas, or miniature weddings. A low-key quinceañera in the United States can easily cost upwards of $3,000. The key is to set a budget and stick to it.
When you see the quince girl (nickname for the quinceañera honoree) on her special day, the high price tag makes sense. A prom-like gown (quinceañera dress) like the ones found at PromGirl.com is the central quinceañera tradition. They’re often made of satin with lace overlays and rhinestone accents, not unlike a wedding dress. Think Cinderella dressed for the fairytale ball. Traditionally white or pale pink floor-length gowns were worn, but in modern times dresses in all colors of the rainbow are acceptable. The quince girl wears a delicate tiara or crown (corona) and during the mass, she carries a Bible or book of prayer.
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The Quinceañera celebration traditionally begins with the religious ceremony. We’ve already booked our mass and priest for next year. Before anything else happens, the quince girl attends a special Mass in which she reaffirms her dedication to God and receives a blessing from the priest. The Quinceañera will also leave a bouquet of flowers at the altar of the Virgin Mary to symbolize her purity. As a symbol of her transition from childhood to becoming a woman, a quince girl gives away a porcelain doll (ultima muñeca) to a younger sister.
A reception is held following the mass at home or a banquet hall. We reserved our hall in December, well over a year in advance. The celebration includes food, music, the quinceañera dress and most often, a choreographed waltz and baile sorpresa (surprise dance) performed by the Quinceañera and her Court de honor (honor court).
Quinceañera custom calls for 14 damas, or maiden attendants, to accompany the quince girl and symbolize the past 14 years of her life. And a group of young ladies needs a corresponding group of escorts, which means the quince girl must also select 15 chambelans, or male attendants. Less formal quinceañera celebrations typically use 7 or 4 damas and chambelans.
At the reception is where the quince girl is officially presented to guests. She can pick a quinceañera theme of her choice. I’ve seen everything from Disney princesses to Great Gatsby. Similar to cotillion and debutante traditions, quinceañeras serve as a young Latina’s official entrance into society and womanhood and incorporate a host of unique elements and rituals that celebrate a young woman’s coming of age as well as her Latino heritage.
One of the final rituals of a quinceañera, and most sentimental, is the changing of the quince girl’s shoes. After the party is in full swing, 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. This symbolizes that the 15-year-old girl who arrived at the quinceañera will leave a young woman. This pays cultural homage to coming out ceremonies orchestrated by Aztec high priests in the early 1500s.
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Aztec Indians considered young girls marriage-ready at the age of 15. As a result, ceremonial rites of passage including parental speeches begging their daughters to become wise, upstanding women. When the Spanish invaded modern-day Mexico and overthrew the Aztecs in the 1520s, they brought their European influence to the indigenous people. The upper-class debutante aspects of quinceañera emerged as a result.
Today, there were certain privileges associated with the quinceañera. Being that it is a celebration of her transition into womanhood, the quinceañera might be allowed to attend adult parties, pluck her eyebrows and shave her legs, wear makeup, jewelry and high heels and maybe even start dating. Whoah! We will have to wait and see about this “dating” business. I mean, she’s still my baby.
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 first 14 years of her life, her quinceañera party officially marks her coming of age and therefore, requires appropriate gifts and apparel to carry her through that transition.
The quinceañera itself is the present for the birthday girl from her parents. Sometimes, parents may give their daughter a regálo sorpresa, or surprise gift. However, 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 gifts may be given by a combination of grandparents (known as padrinos), other relatives and friends, and each of them carries a special meaning:
Quinceañera dresses 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.
Considering everything that goes into planning for your quinceañera, it’s understandable that they only happen once in a Latina girl’s lifetime. Though the rite of passage may vary slightly from country to country, the heart of the quinceañera remains constant. Whether it’s lavish or low-key, these extraordinary parties allow young girls to become fairytale princesses for one day on their way to becoming grown women and embracing all the responsibilities and duties that come with it.
We’ve just begun planning my daughter’s quinceañera but we’ll be sharing it all here and hope that you’ll join us on this exciting journey and celebration from little girl to young lady. We’ll be sharing everything we learn along the way and all things quinceañera.