La Quinceañera: A girl’s coming-of-age celebration is a rite of passage

Story and photos by SARAH SAIDYKHAN

It could be said that most people have at least one tradition or celebration they carry with them throughout their lives. Weddings, family reunions, bar mitzvahs, cultural holidays, coming-of-age celebrations and more. These traditions become a safety net; a way to keep focus in a sometimes crazy world. No matter where you live, it can be important to keep traditions alive.

In Latino communities, one of the many traditions is the Fiesta de quince años or the quinceañera. When a young Latina girl turns 15, she is celebrated with a party unlike any other event in her life. According to an article in the Journal of New York Folklore, this birthday is a rite of passage.

For young Latino men though, there are no special coming-of-age celebrations. Alejandro Garcia, human resource director at the Marriott City Center in Salt Lake City, said he remembers back to when he asked his mom, “When do I get my quinceañera?” Garcia said his mom chuckled and explained, “It’s just for girls.”

In a quinceañera, the girls are honored through this special celebration and then introduced back into their communities as young women. This event is a milestone in Hispanic culture, but not all young girls feel they need to have such a lavish party.

La Bella Piastra

La Bella Piastra

Mercy Garcia, who works at La Bella Piastra on Gallivan Plaza, said, “I chose to have a quinceañera, but my sister decided not to have one. She is very shy and didn’t want all the attention this type of celebration brings.” Garcia said she loved her quinceañera and wants to carry on the tradition.

Before the young Latina girl turns 15, she is given a choice as to what she wants for her special day. The girl’s parents could throw her a birthday party extravaganza or almost anything else she would like to do. If she chooses the party, the only issue is finding a space big enough to hold the possible hundreds of guests — families, friends, neighbors and more — who will join in the celebration.

The quinceañera ceremony today typically has six main parts to it with dancing and meals throughout the event. According to Bella Ballroom, first is the formal entry where the young girl makes her grand entrance. Second, one or both of the parents or godparents make a toast to the birthday girl. Next is the first dance, usually a waltz danced with the girl’s father. The events move on throughout the celebration with a group dance for the immediate family and then the preferred song and dance, which is going to be a favorite of the birthday girl. Last is the final dance, often a waltz. Some families also choose to add other components to the ceremony depending on local traditions and desires of the birthday girl.

According to one published history of the quinceañera, the tradition has changed over the years. Before the 20th century, girls were considered for marriage once they turned 15 and potential suitors would give gifts to the girl’s family as dowry. This is when the idea of a quinceañera started — a small party to celebrate the transition into womanhood. While mingling with family and friends, the young girl would be able to meet and visit comfortably with these potential suitors.

In preparation for the girl’s birthday, Q by DaVinci, a company that specializes in quinceañera dresses, said the women in the community would pull together and plan the event. They would spend time teaching the girl the responsibilities she would need to know, like cooking, cleaning, laundering and even details about childbearing. Then, these older women would bestow upon this new young woman their inspirations to help her throughout life.

During the Chicano Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, more Latino families were traveling into and around the United States. As they moved around, their traditions were carried and shared with others. Over time, the quinceañera changed into a celebration that young girls experience today — elaborately themed attire, ballgowns, home-cooked or catered feasts, plentiful drinks, delicious cakes along with family, friends and lots of dancing.

You Are InvitedSalt Lake City resident Emily Thompson recently attended her first quinceañera and said, “When I walked into the room, the decorations were as extravagant as any wedding I had ever been to. The girl’s dress was beautiful and almost matched Cinderella’s ballgown.” Thompson said the event was mostly in Spanish. Even though she’s learning the language, she said it was a little too difficult for her to fully follow. But she said, “I couldn’t control my tears when they did a portrayal of the daughter growing into adulthood.” Thompson said it reminded her of being both a young woman and also being a mother of two young women. “This moment touched my heart and helped me understand the entire meaning of the event.” With watery eyes, Thompson smiled and said, “This celebration was about the love for their daughter.”

Ermy Jaco, who also works in the hotel industry, said she prefers the quinceañera over a larger wedding celebration later on, due to the special traditions. “The surprise dance, the changing of the shoes and the last toy,” Jaco said, “these are all part of the special change into womanhood.”

In the book, Once Upon a Quinceañera: Coming of Age in the USA. Julia Alvarez writes about the traditions of the shoes and the last toy as symbols of leaving childhood and entering womanhood. The shoe ceremony allows the young girl to go from wearing flat, dress shoes to wearing heels. Because girls are wearing heels much younger than 15 nowadays, Alvarez said this is now done for symbolism.

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Eventos Reception Center

The last toy is meant to signify the last doll the young girl will receive. Alvarez also explains the clothing on the doll should match the quinceañera and during the ceremony, the girl will usually cradle the doll to symbolize the end of her childhood. In addition, the doll may represent the child that she herself could be having in the not-too-distant future.

But what happens when the birthday girl decides she doesn’t want this huge celebration? “A lot of girls are deciding not to have a quinceañera and are choosing things like a new car,” Jaco said. “My daughter chose the new car.” Jaco said girls today have different priorities and need different things. “And at 15 they’re definitely not looking for a suitor!”

Now, not all girls want a new car. Blogger Grecia Hernandez writes on Quinceañera, an online party-planning resource, that some girls just want something different. They might choose a VIP dinner at their favorite restaurant with their best friends or a girls-only weekend. Some will choose to visit a theme park or even take a family vacation instead. Hernandez said, “A quinceañera is not about spending tons of money but more about celebrating such a special moment in your life, your coming of age [party].”

The last step after the ceremony, according to the Joyful Event Store, is when the parents give thanks to the young girl for being beautiful. They also thank God for bringing her to them. The girl then acknowledges her parents for everything they do and for giving her the party and then tells the guests she appreciates their presence.

It doesn’t matter what theme the girl chooses for her party or if she even wants to be honored with this celebration. A quinceañera is about celebrating the young girl as she grows into womanhood.

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Eventos — Hours

Planning for this special event takes time. Multiple event centers in Utah specialize in catering and hosting quinceañeras, including Eventos Reception Center, Arcoiris Reception Center, Villa Magnolia Eventos or the Colonial Reception Center. Event coordinators understand the importance of this celebration and work hard to make the day memorable for the birthday girl, her family and the friends who have come to celebrate her.