Girl, you’ll be a woman soon
Quinceañera combines a modern coming-out party with ancient tradition
Ingrid Vargas looks down at the boxes of gifts for the guests and the symbolic, ceremonial objects placed carefully on the living room floor.
Considering tomorrow is the culmination of a year-long preparation, the 15-year-old girl seems remarkably composed. After all, in some 24 hours, she will be the center of attention.
“Getting all the stuff ready” and “making sure everything’s right” have been the hardest parts. Maybe she’s overwhelmed. Then again, many of her friends have taken part in this rite, and her older sister celebrated hers just a few years ago. Ingrid has looked forward to this special day since she was a little girl. Tomorrow marks the moment that she becomes a woman in the eyes of the church, her family and close friends.
Tomorrow is the day of the quinceañera.
Her family’s home is immaculate—it looks as though they just had the carpets cleaned. Ingrid’s parents, David and Nora, are originally from Mexico City, and although their daughters came here when they were toddlers and were raised in the United States, they seem to embrace both cultures equally, realizing the importance of both new and old traditions. Ingrid’s sister Gisela, who is 17, had a quinceañera, and her parents are seasoned veterans in the planning, preparation and execution of the event.
“I’m not as nervous as I was the first time,” says Nora, smiling shyly. There is a certain nostalgia attached to Ingrid’s celebration, however. She is the family’s youngest, and its last daughter to make the transition to womanhood. With warm, maternal hospitality, Nora offers her guests delicious, homemade hibiscus tea.
The elaborate Latino tradition has taken place in some form from as far back as ancient Aztec times, and although traditionally it signified that a young woman is of marrying age, its modern connotation is the transition from little girl to young woman. To call quinceañera the Latino version of a Sweet Sixteen party would be to ignore the religious symbolism and family bonds that span generations. It’s not a spontaneous event—this is a two-part celebration that requires months of planning and years of saving.Much to do
The first step in planning a quinceañera is reserving the location for the reception and the religious ceremony, which is generally Catholic. Reservations must be made well in advance. “You have to reserve el salon six months early, or else you don’t have a place,” says David Vargas. The family chose the Knights of Pythias Castle Hall, which is close to UNR and has ample room for the 150 expected guests.
The ceremony is performed only during the summer months, which coincides with wedding season. Father Guillermo Arias estimates that he conducts two quinceañera masses per week during the summer. Ingrid’s birthday happens to fall in the same month as the celebration, but girls born at every other time of the year must wait until summer for the official celebration. Once the dates have been set and the locations have been reserved, the next important step is the quinceañera dress.
Ingrid chose her dress at La Milagrosa, a shop on Wells Avenue that specializes in quinceañera attire. Mercedes Arevato, shop owner, estimates that the typical quinceañera dress costs around $500, although some of the more intricate designs can run upwards of $800. She motions to a large poster catalogue showing hundreds of colors and designs. While there are a variety of styles in the store, many girls opt to order from the poster. Either way, when the dress arrives, the store takes the girl’s measurements and alters the garment to make it a perfect, custom fit.
Arevato has helped hundreds of girls find the perfect dress over the years.
“It’s a tradition that has been going on for a long time,” she says. “It means that the girl enters a new chapter of her life.” Each country has different quinceañera traditions. “For example, I am from El Salvador, and in my country [the celebration] is simple.”
Although the religious and cultural symbolism of the quinceañera is the same in each country, there are variations in the party’s customs. As Arevato explains, the Mexican quinceañera is a more ornate and expensive affair than that of other Latin American countries. Even within Mexico, customs vary from region to region. Traditionally, the girl who is celebrating her quinceañera is accompanied by 14 chambelanes (boys) and 14 damas (girls).
As Ingrid’s family comes from Mexico City, she will not have a single dama for her quinceañera. While Ingrid’s quinceañera is quite traditional in every other respect, she will have only two chambelanes, her cousin (who was also in her sister’s quinceañera) and a good friend. “It’s very difficult to find the 14 damas and chambelanes,” says Arevato. “But there are people who manage to do it.”
Ingrid may have simplified one aspect of her quinceañera, her dress, but its matching decorations and gifts reflect the full splendor of the celebration.
Ingrid’s dress is breathtaking. Although it’s not evident, the gown is actually a two-piece garment consisting of a fitted bodice and a full, ruffled skirt. The lower part of the dress is at least four feet in width. For all its ruffles, the dress does not have the ornate sequin and beadwork that some other dresses have. It doesn’t need to since the deep, royal purple satin is so striking that any extra adornment would detract from the elegance of the dress—besides, the girl who is wearing it shines with the natural radiance of a beautiful young woman.
There are a number of symbolic items that accompany the quinceañera dress. They generally are purchased at the same store as the dress and are designed to match it in color and theme. In addition to a Bible and a magic wand or scepter, the girl may also have a tiara and a cross. Another important element is the “last doll,” which signifies the last toy she will receive as a young girl. The beautiful ceramic doll has a dress that matches the one the girl will wear during her quinceañera. Ingrid’s doll sits in a gilded carriage, and the entire ensemble is covered in plastic to preserve it for years to come. Ingrid will also wear a tiara. In Mexico City, only the youngest girl in the family wears the tiara for her celebration, whereas in other areas of Mexico and Latin America, girls opt to wear a tiara regardless of their place in the family order. Ingrid also has a traditional pillow, which she kneels upon during parts of the religious ceremony.
The day before the event, Ingrid wears a purple shirt, the same color as her dress and all the frills that accompany it. She doesn’t need much prompting to show the dress off and disappears into the back room to change. It looks like a ball gown, and even without the help of a hair stylist and makeup artist that Ingrid would have the next day, she already looks like a glowing princess. One would think the process of picking out a quinceañera dress would be as long and arduous as choosing a wedding dress. In Ingrid’s case, she chose her dress without much deliberation, and it’s easy to see why: It looks like it was made just for her.
There are a lot of similarities between a wedding and a quinceañera: the dress, the ceremony, the tradition and the gathering of families and community to celebrate an important rite. In many Latino families, the quinceañera is as important as a wedding, and it is just as expensive, if not more. Ingrid’s friend Blanca had her quinceañera last year, and Blanca’s mother estimates that the two-day event cost thousands of dollars. Although the family hosts the party and foots the bulk of the bill, it is an event where everybody chips in. The padrinos, or godparents, often help with the party’s cost. Family and friends contribute, so even a family that earns a modest income can make their daughter feel like Cinderella for a day.
Ingrid is lucky to have an uncle who is a professional photographer and videographer. Carlos Soriano came to Reno from his home in Riverside, Calif., to take pictures of his niece and to video the event. The day before the party, her parents play the video Soriano made for her sister’s quinceañera, and the quality and detail of the videography is a far cry from a shaky, homemade video.
“We try to tell a story,” says Soriano.
More than just a memory of the day’s event, the video starts with the girl’s baby pictures and shows her growing up in the years leading up to the quinceañera celebration. Nora Vargas produces a thick photo album, which similarly documents the evolution of a little girl to a young woman. One of the best pictures is of Gisela in her quinceañera dress, looking in her bedroom mirror. Her mirror image grins back at her … in everyday casual clothing. The photo perfectly captures what it is to be a 15-year-old girl on the verge of adulthood.
The transition from child to young woman does not occur overnight—it takes practice, rehearsing and moral instruction.
“The quinceañera represents me becoming a woman,” Ingrid explains, and she has undergone the spiritual and cultural training from her church and community to properly take part in this important ceremony. Not only has Ingrid rehearsed the special steps to traditional quinceañera dances, she also has undertaken a period of spiritual study, where she is taught what is expected of a young woman of the Catholic faith. After a year of meticulous social and religious preparation, Ingrid is ready for the big day.Ante los ojos de Dios
It’s Saturday, the day of the quinceañera, and the weather is perfect. There’s not a cloud in the sky, and it’s not as scorching hot as a typical July afternoon in Northern Nevada.
Father Guillermo Arias conducts the misa, or mass, which is the first part of the quinceañera celebration at Parroquía San Pedro Canisio in Sun Valley. The family, led by Father Arias, makes a procession to the front of the church. The church has ample space, but surprisingly, there are only 40 or so guests attending the services. Turns out the ceremony is just for family, godparents and close friends, and that more people will attend the party later that day. The ceremony is entirely in Spanish, and the most recognizable prayer is “Padre Nuestro,” the “Our Father” or The Lord’s Prayer.” The priest speaks of the religious aspects of becoming a young woman, how Ingrid is expected to be a model for the next generation and a pride to her family and her faith. Family members approach the podium to recite prayers. One of the most poignant moments is when Ingrid and her parents walk to the Virgin Mary’s altar to place a bouquet of flowers at her feet. The ceremony only lasts an hour, and it seems even shorter.
As the guests leave the church, they are given a sentimental gift of a small ceramic statue enclosed in glass. It looks like a candle, but instead there is a figure of a young girl in a dress within the globe. It is tied with a purple ribbon that says, “mis quince años,” or “my fifteen years.” After the ceremony, the family takes pictures before everyone heads to the party at the Knights of Pythias Castle Hall on Nevada Street.
This celebration is more than just a pretty dress and a family gathering, explains Father Arias, in a rich, baritone Spanish with a Colombian accent. He talks earnestly of el sentido cristiano de la vida, the Christian way of life. The pre-quinceañera classes teach the emerging young woman to “live her faith by manifesting good works in the community.” Although he has presided over countless quinceañeras, he doesn’t attend the party afterward.
“After all,” he joked, “if you go to one, you have to go to all of them so that nobody gets hurt feelings!”A once in a lifetime fiesta
Guests have already begun to arrive at the party in the time it takes to drive from the church. Ingrid’s family prefers salsa, merengue and rock music to conventional banda music, and there is a good mix of traditional and mainstream tunes playing. The Knights of Pythias Hall is a fairly large building that can host the party’s many guests. There is a small kitchen area at the front of the room where Ingrid’s grandfather tends to the birria, the delicious Mexican goat meat delicacy.
“My grandfather is a great cook,” says Ingrid, smiling with love and pride. Her parents look happy and preoccupied. They welcome people to the party and scurry from the kitchen to the various banquet tables filled with friends and family. Every generation is present—babies, children, teens, adults and the abuelos, the beaming patriarchs, who are starting to dish out the birria from an enormous, steaming pot on the stove. Although the room is only a quarter full, more guests keep filing in. Ingrid’s parents suggested coming early while there would still be plenty of food, but the huge pot looks like it could feed not only the entire party, but also a good number of the college students who live in the houses surrounding the facility.
A middle-aged woman smiles, welcoming a stranger to her table with a cup and a bottle of soda. The table decorations are purple and black, as are the balloons and all of the other decorations in the room, which were chosen to match Ingrid’s dress. The kind woman is the mother of Ingrid’s friend, Blanca. She lovingly recounts her daughter’s quinceañera, which took place last year. Like the Vargas family, they had planned and saved for a year to create the perfect quinceañera for their youngest daughter. She and her husband are the godparents for another girl who is soon to turn 15, and they are going to use some of the decorations from the Vargas quinceañera in the party for their goddaughter.
The party goes well into the early hours of the next day. Ingrid’s uncle, Carlos Soriano, who stayed until 2 in the morning, said that when he left, there were still plenty of people enjoying the festivities. The family had mentioned earlier that on rare occasion, the quinceañera can end in a late-night fight between some of the young men, often stemming from the arrival of an uninvited guest. Luckily, everything goes exactly according to plan at Ingrid’s celebration. Mrs. Vargas is relieved that the party was a success.
Naturally, Ingrid danced well into the night. Her favorite part of the quinceañera was dancing with her father, and she will always remember sharing this important event with her friends and family. “We stayed until two in the morning,” she said. “My feet really hurt!”
“The best part of every quinceañera is when they dance the Valz, with the chambelanes and with her father,” Soriano says, elaborating on the events of the night. An authority on the subject, he has photographed hundreds of quinceañeras. The next best parts, he says, are the crowning of the princess ceremony and the brindis, or the cheers, where everyone raises a glass filled with champagne or sparkling apple juice to toast the belle of the ball. Soriano says that every quinceañera represents “the first, most important day” in the life of a young woman. “The second one is when they get married.”
Ingrid’s father disagrees to a small extent. While the quinceañera is an important tradition in the Vargas family, the most important events will be when his daughters go to the university and when they get married.
The quinceañera is an ancient tradition, but we live in modern times. While Ingrid’s ancestors had a quinceañera to prepare them, at age 15, for motherhood, her experience is a commemoration of young adulthood. The event takes a full year of hard work and meticulous preparation. Having completed her quinceañera, Ingrid has made the transition from young girl to young woman in the eyes of her family, friends and the church.
The day after the big day, Ingrid is tired yet pleased with her quinceañera. After such a long-anticipated event, one might expect her to feel a profound change. After all, she’s no longer a little girl. Ingrid says that she doesn’t feel remarkably different, maybe a little more grown up, if anything.
“I was happier,” she said, “because I got my party. … I’ve been wanting it for a long time.”