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A Hispanic Girl's Coming of Age
Article first published in Vol. 10, 1992.
By Alina Adauto, Jerome Ballard, Victor Manuel Correa and Linda Tarin.
The Aztecs didn't consider a woman human until her 15th birthday at which time she was admitted into tribal society with elaborate ritual. This tradition later became Christianized and is still followed by many Catholic Hispanic families on the border.
Presentation of the court at the dance. Photo courtesy of the Jesus Rodriguez family.
A young lady makes her debut before the church and society at the age of 15 in a rite of passage known as the quinceañera , celebrating the girl's transition from childhood to adulthood. Hispanics on the border have continued the custom of making a girl's 15th birthday one of the most important and memorable events on her life.
Preparations for the quinceañera often begin a year in advance, for it is usually done on a grand scale. There are guest lists and menus to compile, invitations to order, the mass, the celebration hall and band to schedule, flowers to order and, as in wedding, attendants to select.
The young lady carefully chooses 14 of her girlfriends and/ or relatives to be in her court. Each of the 14 girls, or damas, represents one year of the honoree's life, with the 15th year represented by the debutante, or Quinceañera, as she is referred to, herself. Escorts for each one of the girls are also chosen.
The Quinceañera wears a dress similar to a wedding dress but with a few differences. On the border, the traditional dress is white, with a snug top and a bell-shaped floor length skirt, but this dress does not have a train. Some girls may choose a pink dress and in the Mexican interior, the Quinceañera's dress may be any pastel color with white reserved for her wedding dress.
Her escort, or chambelán as he is known in Spanish, wears a white or black tuxedo. The other chambelanes in the court wear black tuxedos, and the damas wear the style and color of dress the Quinceañera selects.
After the clothes have been chosen and the couples have been matched according to height, the court starts meeting on a regular basis in order to practice dance routines, one of which is the waltz that is traditionally performed at the dance.
In the meantime the Quinceañera is required to take a class at her church before her 15th birthday. This class deals with her relationship with God and the Catholic community. Aurora Legarreta, an El Pasoan who had a Quinceañera six years ago says, "This class was helpful in teaching me that having a quinceañera is not just one big birthday party. It is a celebration of being accepted into the Catholic Church as an adult."
When the day for celebrating finally arrives, everyone involved is filled with excitement and relief. This is a culmination of all the practice and preparation.
That morning the chambelanes take care of the cleaning and decorating of the cars in which the Quinceañeras and her court will be riding. The cars are decorated with streamers and flowers made of colored crepe paper that matches the color of the attendant's dresses.
The Quinceañeras ride in the first car, usually white, which is decorated in white and the color of the damas' dresses. Everyone is filled with excitement as they board the cars for the trip to the church, each car following behind another, forming a caravan.
At the church they participate in a special mass where the 15-year-old girl renews her baptismal vows in the presence of God. The parents offer this mass of thanksgiving in honor of their daughter's patron saint. Under the old tradition, the mass was performed on Sunday since it was the Christian Sabbath, but today, for convenience sake, the entire celebration is held on Saturday.
During the mass itself, the 14 girls and their escorts line up first and are followed by the honoree's escort and her mother, the godparents and finally the Quinceañera and her father. The court walks all the way down the aisle to the altar where the couples then divide. The damas kneel at the left side and the chambelanes on the right so the Quinceañera is at the center of her court and of everyone's attention.
Making her way to the altar, the Quinceañera kneels and the priest blesses her, thus introducing her to the church as an adult. The girl than places a bouquet of flowers, her rosary and prayer books, which are symbols of her childhood, at the base of the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. While giving these gifts to the Virgin Mary, the Quinceañera thanks the Mother of God for being a role model.
This mass is filled with symbolic meanings. During the offertory, the girl receives a sacred medal of her saint, a birthstone ring, a crown and flowers.
The sacred medal symbolizes her religious expression of faith. The Quinceañera is placed under the protection of the saint represented by the image on the medal. The ring represents the ties and the responsibility the young lady has to her community. These two pieces of jewelry are the girl's first adult jewelry , constant reminders that she is a child no longer. The crown symbolizes her victory in trying to live a Christian life in spite of all the problems and challenges of her environment. The flowers represent the new commitment she makes to responsibility in her community.
After the mass is over; the Quinceañera walks out of the church with her escort instead of her father. The court walks out holding hands followed by the parents and her godparents. Following the mass, the court gathers for a photo session, and then it's time to eat. Some parents of the debutante have a sit-down dinner at their home for the family and the court. Others have a buffet-style dinner at the hall for all their invited guests.
The hall is usually decorated the night before by the Quinceañera, her family and the court. At the dinner, guests present their gifts and good wishes to the Quinceañera.
At the reception, a toast is made to the Quinceañera, and she cuts a huge wedding-like cake, often elaborately decorated in her chosen colors and made with as many as seven layers. It is now time to begin the dance which represents the Quinceañera's introduction to society.
The Master of Ceremonies first introduces the damas and their escorts, then the godparents followed by her parents. They form two lines as the Quinceañera and her chambelán make their entrance onto the dance floor. At the moment she hears her name announced, she makes her social debut.
The father of the 15-year-old then stands by this daughter, and the youngest girl in the family, a sister or cousin, for example, goes up to the Quinceañera and hands her doll that is dressed just the debutante. This custom in another symbol that she is leaving childhood and entering womanhood.
Later, at midnight, the Quinceañera will give the doll to her younger sister. If there is no other sister, it is given to another young girl in the extended family. Whoever receives the doll will then go through the same ritual in her quinceañera, resulting in the doll being handed down through several generations in one family.
According to Sandra Aguirre, a UTEP journalism major, after the presentation of the doll, the mother of the Quinceañera walks onto the dance floor holding the girl's first pair of heels on a satin pillow. The Quinceañera, who has been wearing flat shoes throughout the day, takes a seat and her mother kneels before her. She then removes her daughter's shoes and places the heels on her feet.
This act symbolizes the debutante's departure from childhood and she now steps out into the world as a woman. In some rituals, a little girl carries the pillow with the Quinceañera's first heels and a page removes her slippers and places the heels on her feet.
The Quinceañera then takes the hand of her chambelán and they dance a traditional waltz with the court joining in soon after. After a while during this waltz, the chambelán hand the Quinceañera to her father for part of the waltz, and the escorts dances with her mother. The father then escorts the Quinceañera to her godfather who, after a whirl or two, gives her back to her chambelán. After the waltz is over, the lights dim and the dance is open to everyone.
While the tradition of a quinceañera has changed only very little throughout the years, the cost of having one has changed dramatically. Thirty years ago a quinceañera, including a hall, music, food and pictures, would have cost between $500 and $600.
Gisela Torres recalls that her quinceañeras cost almost $8,000. "We planned for months and spent too much money, but I love it. My quinceañera made feel so grown up. One day I was just 14-year-old girl planning my birthday party, and the next day I was an adult."
El Pasoan Jesus Rodriguez has held quinceañeras for three of his four daughters. The most recent one was for third daughter, Jessica, who celebrated her 15th birthday September 27, 1991.
Though most people take several months to plan a quinceañera, the Rodriguez family had only two to three weeks to organize Jessica's. She had previously decided against having one but changed her mind at the last moment.
Even with such short notice, the Rodriguez family was able to rent a ballroom, which included the disco. They also managed to hire mariachis, four security guards for the dance, and they bought the cake, drinks and food, all in time for their daughter's big day.
Maria Rodriguez, Jessica's mother, also crocheted the table decoration herself. The baskets were filled with cookies and placed at the center of each table. She also crocheted a big basket holding the spring bouquet that was presented to Jessica by her court. Mr. Rodriguez, a printer the invitations himself, and Jessica's grandmother, Leandra Diaz, bought her granddaughter's dress as a gift.
Even though the Rodriguez family handled many of the preparation themselves, the quinceañera still cost them about $5,000, a big contrast to quinceañeras of the past. Considering the cost of a quinceañera these days, it's lucky for the Rodriguez family that they only have one more quinceañera to celebrate.
There are some girls who choose to go on a trip or buy a car instead of having a quinceañera. This just depends on the parents and their daughter's desires and the family's adherence to custom.
The tradition of the quinceañera has undergone a few changes as customs and cultures meet and mix. Its influence can be seen at an event sponsored by the Las Cruces Symphony Association. The Fiesta de la Quinceañeras del Valle de Mesilla is held yearly to introduce the 15-year-old daughters or granddaughters of the symphony patrons into society.
These Quinceañeras take six months to prepare for their debuts by attending workshops on community service, career guidance, and social graces and college selection.
While the rituals of a traditional quinceañera vary slightly from family to family and generation to generation, the memories that this tradition creates are never forgotten.
Something comes over an Hispanic girl who is approaching her 15th birthday. As the day of the traditional quinceañera comes closer, a young girl slowly and almost magically changes. Finally the awkward, sometimes silly little girl is left behind, and a beautiful, graceful Quinceañera dressed in white emerges before society.