Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Evolving Quinceañeras

By Rachel Jackson 
For non-Spanish speakers, quinceañera can be a mouthful. For a young Latina woman, quinceañera means a chance to publicly step into womanhood and reconnect to her cultura.  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.”

But just like there is not one type of Latina, there is not just one type of quinceañera.
Quintessential quinces

According to, a popular website to help Latinas plan their celebration, a typical quinceañera has two parts – the mass and the reception.  The Catholic mass 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 usually takes place in a venue complete with themed decorations and a dance floor.  Beginning with a grand entrance and ending with dinner and a cake, the reception involves all invited in the celebration.

Though this is a basic sketch of a quinceañera, 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

According to a 1997 article by scholar Karen Mary Dávalos, the quince is said to have originated as an indigenous practice, 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.

“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.”

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.”

Mapping traditions

Estrada, whose father is from Guatemala and mother is from Colombia, says 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.” 

The dress, often a focal point of the event, can range from a layered gown complete with elbow-length gloves to a short, trendy, cocktail dress. In countries such as Mexico, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic, dresses are more likely to mirror Spanish colonial-style ball gowns whereas quince dresses in Colombia are likely to be shorter and cut in a contemporary style.

The traditional color of the dress also differs. Families in Mexico and Guatemala often opt for white dresses while families in Caribbean countries like Puerto Rico prefer pastel colors.

Gift-giving is a staple ceremony in quinces. In many Mexican receptions, the Quinceañera is given a symbolic first pair of high-heels. In Colombian quinces, girls are often gifted a piece of jewelry.

Quinceañeras even have different names depending on the country. In Uruguay, Paraguay, and Argentina, the celebration is called the Fiesta de Quince.  In Brazil, the event can be called the Festa de Debutante, Baile de Debutante or the Festa de Quinze Anos.

Perhaps the part of the quince that changes the most from country to country, food is an important part of the event. A 2006 article published by the Washington Post profiled a Bolivian girl who tried to fly a baker all the way from La Paz so that he could bake a traditional Bolivian cake for her quinceañera.  According to the same article, Guatemalans and El Salvadorians turn to white cake with fruit layers and whipped cream icing while Mexican quince receptions might feature a tres leches cake.
Beyond cake, the dinner served during the reception can also reflect a country’s palate. One blogger insists that Colombians must include lechona, a popular rice dish, in their quinceañera celebration.

Like food, the music played during the reception can change from region to region. A Colombian reception might feature cumbia music, a court in a Dominican quince might choreograph a bachata dance, and Puerto Rican quinces might feature reggaeton.

Dancing during the reception, and important part of most quinces, also changes from context to context. In Mexico, the court, consisting of 7 paired boys and girls and the Quinceañera and her chambelán, dance choreographed dances to kick-off the reception. In Cuba, a few paired girls and boys dance in a circle around the Quinceañera.

At the crossroads of time and place

Though the quinceañera ritual can change from Latin American country to Latin American country, the accepted diversity within the centuries-old tradition signals an increasingly dynamic and multicultural Latina identity.

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