photo: Corbis

When Justin Bieber threw a surprise quinceañera for a young Latina this summer I wondered: Have quinceañeras finally jumped the shark? I didn’t think so quite yet, but then I read about a woman who threw a quinceañera for her cat! “Since she is my very best friend, I felt that she was very well-deserving of a very memorable party," she said. Oof! If that’s not an indication that quinceañeras have become a mainstream phenomenon that no longer apply just to Latinas (or humans for that matter) then I don’t know what is.  

Growing up, one of my favorite telenovela reruns was actually called, Quinceañera, starring Thalia. The theme song was all about feeling confused and different and how the woman inside her was finally awakened. I always wondered if, at 15, I would have all of these feelings all at once like the song said. It didn’t happen like that for me. Now, it seems everyone is familiar with quinceañeras through movies or reality shows like MTV’s Quiero Mis Quinces, and if you're Latina, through your own family history.

For some Latinas, quinceañeras are a rite of passage. Various cultures have significant ways to present their children to the world as a young adult, whether through a bat mitzvah or a debutante party. Quinceañeras aren’t just about the party (although that’s the main attraction), the significance is in the religious ceremony and the ritual, which can involve a mass, dances, and all that good stuff. How and when this tradition began, however, is kind of a mystery.

photo: Corbis

Dr. Norma Cantú, a feminist scholar and professor at the University of Missouri Kansas City who’s also done extensive research on quinceañeras, said Latino coming-of-age celebrations date back to the pre-Columbian era before 1400. “In Europe the court presentations also date back,” Cantú said. “Truth is, most cultures have coming of age rituals to mark the change in status of young women.”

The ritual, like most coming-of-age ceremonies, is supposed to indicate when a young woman has gone from little girl to a young woman and also indicate sexual maturity. Although some traditional elements have changed, key factors have stayed in place that depict this change in womanhood. 

One tradition involves a madrina giving the young woman a doll, representing the last doll she will ever play with. The mother of the birthday girl then takes the doll away and changes her flat shoes for her first pair of high heels. The quinceañera also has a court made up of seven boys and seven girls, counting the birthday girl the whole court equals 15. The court’s main duties is to be part of the waltz.

“The first song, selected by the honoree and her parents, is usually a waltz, which she dances with her father,” Cantu states in her essay. “Then, if appropriate with her grandfather(s). It used to be "Sobre las Olas;" now it is more likely to be "A Ritmo de Bals" that the honoree dances with her father. Immediately after ending the "first dance," with her chamberlán, she along with the group dance a choreographed piece; thechamberlán and the damas and their escorts join in.”

photo: Corbis

I asked a group of women in the Wise Latinas Linked group on Facebook about their experiences with quinceañeras. Most Latinas said their family gave them the choice of having a quinceañera, getting a car, or taking a trip.

“I chose not to have one because I thought it would put too much financial pressure on my parents. I didn't want them to feel like they had to do it. I said to my dad ‘just get me a car when I'm old enough.’ I also, personally, didn't want all the attention that came with one,” commenter Joelly Mejia, wrote. 

Quinces seem to have evolved from small-ish family gatherings decades ago to the huge ordeals that we see today. At Quinceañera.com, a site dedicated to helping you plan for the big party, they even have ideas for themed quinceañeras. Personally, I'd opt for the Frida fiesta. For some, the main dilemma is contemplating whether you’ll have one of these elaborate birthday throw downs or not. Opting out of an all-eyes-on-you party then leads to another special teen category: How will you define your coming-of-age moment? For the most part, the choice of having a quinceañera is left up to the birthday girl. 

“Even in 1962, some of my friends were given the option of a trip to Mexico City or Europe instead of the party. I didn’t have that choice,” Cantu said. “They have always been held according to the means available. But certainly 75 years ago the fiesta was much more low-key. Mine was in 1962. No damas, just a party at home after the mass.”

photo: Corbis

Professor Cantú said that hosting a quinceañera is tied to class even though some families can’t afford to have them. The cost of a quinceañera starts at around $10,000. “I don’t know of any case where someone got a second mortgage to go on a trip or buy a car, but I know of several who did it to have the celebration,” Cantú said.

At a quinceañera I attended years ago in Mexico, the invitation had a list of about a dozen padrinos and madrinas that helped pay for the party. There was a padrino for the DJ, limo, photography, champagne, and more. Cantú calls this a system of compadrazco, which indicates that everyone involved has become family and is united by the act of being the teenager's godparent.

“Of course, when a family is financially well off and chooses not to have padrinos and madrinas, it is taken as both an affront--showing that they need no help from the family and friends--or as a sign of self-sufficiency,” Cantú said. “For this reason, even those families who can foot the total bill, will invariable have some madrinas and padrinos. So, the system does not just work to provide financial support, but to cement social ties with family and friends.”

Some women who commented on our Facebook quinceañera thread said that even though they were hesitant to have one, whether because out of cost or shyness, their party was a major highlight of their lives.

“I'm 47 now and my family didn't have much money but I'm so thankful my parents did this for me,” Mayra Hernandez said “Birria, rice beans, Mexican music, family, running around in my big ‘ol dress., my Godparents, my catholic blessing, mass. Wouldn't change it.”

For the rest of us who didn't slow dance with our dad (which my mother reminds me to this day) or get to ride in a limo wearing a poofy dress, turning 15 was still a very big deal, whether we had a quinceañera or not.