Strait On: The history of Quinceañeras

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A Quinceañera is much more than just a party for a 15-year-old girl of Hispanic descent.

■ By Rusty Strait / Senior Reporter

If you do not come from a Hispanic background you probably (if you know at all) think of a quinceañera as a coming out party for a girl who has reached the age 15. You would be dead wrong if you think it’s just a party; it’s steeped in tradition.
The word “quinceañera” never refers to anything but the girl. In Spanish it means “fifteen-year-old female.” But it doesn’t start or stop there. While its cultural beginnings are rooted in Latin America, it is celebrated throughout the Western Hemisphere, although not much in Canada.
In days long past a young girl was taught by the elder women to cook, clean, weave and learn about women’s responsibilities in preparation for marriage and becoming a mother. If girls were not married by the age of 15, they were expected to become nuns. Perhaps that’s where Shakespeare got the famous line, “Get thee to a nunnery.”
Some references believe it came from the Aztecs around 500 B.C. In that social setting, boys and girls of 15 were considered to be mothers and fathers of future warriors. A rite of puberty was granted to both just as in the Christian story of Christ, a boy of 12 went about adult duties, giving up his childish ways.
These traditional situations eventually combined Aztec and Spanish cultures which, of course, brought in the Catholic Church. According to some clans the young girl is presumed to be a virgin at fifteen, as a requirement for marriage.
In Mexico both young men and young women have a role to play as damas and chambelanes to dance and entertain the quinceañera. Traditionally a man of honor accompanies the honored young woman. The young men who wish to become potential suitors shower the girl’s family with gifts, each endeavoring to produce a dowry larger than the last.
Traditionally, Mexican girls were never allowed to dance in public until they reached age 15, except in school performances or family occasions. The waltz with her chambelanes was meant to be her first public dance.
The father always accompanies his daughter into the ritual, which is divided into segments. First there is the Mass at a local Catholic Church. After the church portion, partygoers enter the hall accompanied by slow songs in a fashion similar to that of a priest walking down the aisle swinging incense side-to-side as he approaches the altar. There is a lot of eating and dancing, following by dessert and a video playback of the recorded birthday party.
Next is a “surprise” dance, followed by the ritual of the Fifteen Candles, when the girl reminisces with the 15 most influential people in her life and the life she has left behind as a child. This is followed by a third period of dancing, and after that, much like wedding receptions, there is a toast, cake-cutting and a ritual where each female friend or relative pulls a ribbon out of a bunch. The ribbons all have charms on the ends except for one, which has a ring.
In Brazil the ceremony is similar, but shorter. Cuba, Spain and France each have its own variation.
The modern era, as in many other traditional events, has reconfigured the quinceañera. The 20th Century brought about major changes in the ritual. Girls were suddenly permitted to attend adult parties, tweeze their eyebrows, wear makeup, jewelry and high heels, and shave their legs.
And let us not forget, like every other money-making event, religion took a backseat to all the attendant accouterments. A 21st Century quinceañera party can cost anywhere from $3,500 to tens of thousands of dollars, depending upon the wealth and status of the young girl’s family. The food, the hall, gowns and shoes, flowers, decorations, planners and limousines are all expected to be top-notch. There is just as much to do and cost involved as there is in the most exclusive Southern Belle’s debutante ball or even some weddings!
Although the Southwestern United States was a part of Mexico until 1850, the quinceañera did not catch on in the United States until the early 1980s in the state of Texas. As Latin culture became part of the American culture, due to the great migrations from south of the border to the southwestern United States, a new culture developed — Latin American.
The Hemet/San Jacinto area is privileged to have a dozen or more banquet halls that cater to quinceañeras because we have such a large Hispanic population here in the valley.
Anyway, since we are in the spring party season, I just thought you might want to see how others throw parties.

Just sayin’.
rustystrait@gmail.com

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