Quinceanera at Duke Chapel. Photo by Samia Serageldin.

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Three Quinceañeras in My Family

Even though the car windows were down, it was a typical stifling ride in July as we motored through the city streets of Barcelona. Our Uber driver took a cheerful guess. “Your family is visiting from the United States, yes? Do you live in New York or LA?” I smiled at the two choices that he presented, as if there were only two cities that existed in the whole country. A little disoriented by jet lag and the question, I smiled and answered, “I guess, New York.” Isn’t North Carolina closer to New York than LA? I didn’t think it mattered and to be fair, I had planned our family vacation thinking in terms of Barcelona or Madrid, when of course, Spain has much more to offer than just those two cities.

His second question was the same one that everyone we encountered on our trip asked: “What brings you to Spain?” I loved answering this particular question. I’d look over proudly at our daughter and beam. “We are visiting your beautiful country because our Quinceañera wanted to take a trip instead of having a party,” I’d answer. That whole year, I took every opportunity to refer to her as our Quinceañera.

Since we were visiting Spain, I never once had to explain what the word quinceañera meant. Every Spanish-speaking person knows that the word can be used in two ways. Quinceañera literally means a “girl who is fifteen years old,” and it is also used to refer to the fifteen-year-old girl’s celebration or party.

In most Latin countries, the custom of celebrating a girl’s fifteenth birthday with a big party or trip is common. It is a long-standing tradition that can be traced from Mayan and Aztecan history when they considered a fifteen-year-old female mature enough to take on full adult responsibilities. As you can imagine, that meant not only washing the dishes and taking out the trash but marrying and starting a family. Some of the elite even sent their daughters to a temple to be educated as priestesses.

The Spanish Catholics adapted some of these traditions when they conquered South America and kept this celebration as the symbolization of a girl transitioning into a woman. I’m certain the modern Latina who is looking forward to a fun fifteenth birthday party would find the history a bit of a shock and would be intimidated by the fact that if she had been born in an earlier era, after the party she’d have to decide to marry or enter the priesthood!

I remember attending my cousin’s quiceañera in San Quintin, Mexico, when I was ten years old. It felt like everyone from my family’s small farming town in Baja had been invited and showed up to the Catholic mass celebrating her birthday. A special quiceañera mass is traditional; the birthday girl dresses in a formal dress, sometimes similar to a wedding dress all in white and with extravagant ruffles. Also similar to a wedding, attendants join the honoree at the front of the church and yes, there are often fourteen couples made up of family and friends, with the birthday girl and her escort being the fifteenth couple. Again, like a wedding, the group is often attired in themed colors with matching dresses and suits.

But I was incorrect in my original impression that everyone from town had attended the mass because so many more joined later at the party that was hosted by the family. The town party hall was packed with guests, ready to celebrate my cousin’s birthday. Every man came dressed in his best cowboy hat, shiny belt buckle, and boots, every woman in her best party dress. The feast that fed the whole town was simple but delicious: carnitas, salsa, tortillas, and most likely tequila and beer. My ten-year-old self was not attuned to alcohol consumption, but no doubt these beverages were in abundant supply. Mariachi music and dancing continued well past my bedtime.

That same year, my older sister had her own quiceañera. At that time we lived in Hawaii, miles away from Mexico, and while our island friends had never heard of this tradition, they were happy to join in. A more formal affair than my cousin’s small-town party, my sister’s was held at the Hilton Hawaiian’s ballroom with full meal service and dancing afterward. She also had a full Catholic mass prior to the party. I remember the hours of practice that my sister’s friends and family, who were her attendants, put into learning the waltz. A popular tradition dictates that the honoree and her court inaugurate the party with a waltz, typically with the quiceañera’s father as her dance partner.

Just as with Christmas traditions, there are many quiceañera traditions for people to pick and choose to include in their celebrations. Here are examples of the most popular ones:

    • Full Catholic mass for the honoree.
    • The present of a first Bible, bestowed by the priest as a symbol of the importance of God’s Word to her life.
    • A flower bouquet, which is usually in the same colors as the celebrant’s dress and left at the foot of the statue of the Virgin Mary.
    • A tiara symbolizing that the quiceañera is both a daughter of God and a princess in the eyes of those who love her.
    • A formal dress.
    • A court comprised of the birthday girl’s family and friends.
    • A big party, complete with food, dance, and entertainment.
    • The waltz, which introduces the dance portion of the party.
    • The gifting of the “last doll” where the father presents the quinceañera with her last doll that she’ll have as she transitions into womanhood. Sometimes the quinceañera gives the last doll to a younger sister or relative.
    • A new pair of zapatillas—changing from children’s shoes (flats) to women’s shoes (first pair of high heels).
    • Family speeches.
    • Photos and videos of the honoree.

Because these parties can be as expensive as weddings, some families opt for a trip or vacation instead. There are actually companies that have quiceañera tours where friends of the same age can travel and tour together to different parts of the world. My daughter chose to take a family trip to Spain. We were able to celebrate together her special year during that memorable vacation.

Whether we celebrate it formally or not, the celebration of coming of age is a passage that is recognized across cultures. In the United States, it can be symbolized by the tradition of prom night or, less common today, the introduction into society with a debutante ball.

As a Mexican American who has lived in and traveled to many states, it is easy for me to assimilate to the mundane day to day and forget time-honored traditions. It is easier to try to fit in instead of standing out, but I am passionate about sharing stories from my family’s heritage and a life lived across the cultures of Hawai‘i, Mexico, and the South. I feel these traditions offer us strength and a reminder to embrace who we are. The treasured art of celebrating the moment comes from knowing that certain moments are milestones.

I treasure my Mexican identity. After all, I was born on Mexico’s Independence Day! But though I am exactly and joyfully in the center of this rich heritage, like so many others, I am also somehow on the outside looking in. Through a twist of fate, I never had my own quiceañera. In spite of that, the light from this beautiful celebration of the feminine shines just as brightly for me.