by Mele Martinez
A few months before her 15th birthday, Lola and I walked into a quinceañera dress shop and found ourselves surrounded by sequins, heavily beaded lace, and bouffant petticoats—none of which matched my daughter’s style. Lola walked down the dress aisles in awe but was hesitant to touch anything. She gazed into the glass display cases of rhinestone tiaras and bedazzled hair accessories waiting for me to make the first suggestion. Instead, I watched as other mothers in the shop selected ball gowns for their daughters with confidence. I felt out of place.
Before I had a chance to even ask about the price of a dress, the clerk asked, “What is the date of your party?”
“July 27,” I responded. A good two months away.
“Of this year?” she shouted, clearly insinuating we were foolishly unprepared for a real quince.
I didn’t take Lola into any more quince shops after that. Instead, I spent the weeks leading up to her birthday trying to figure out how to do a quinceañera right for our daughter.
* * *
The “quince,” short for quinceañera, is the 15th birthday celebration marking a girl’s transition into adulthood with a traditional, and sometimes controversial, rite of passage. Though the tradition has been celebrated for decades within Latino/Hispanic communities around the world, it has become synonymous with extravagance and overspending. TLC Network television show, “Sweet 15,” illustrates this. Girls are carried by Cinderella-style horse drawn carriages, flown to New York City for professional photo shoots, and gracefully lowered into ballrooms on giant, flower-laden trapeze swings. As I planned for my own daughter’s quince, folks warned me against this kind of display, the kind that can put families with even the best of intentions into horrible debt.
I was also concerned about how it would all be perceived and translated. Don’t sparkling tiaras and limousine rides affirm a materialistic lifestyle? Wouldn’t the traditional daddy-daughter dancing, pink corseted dress, and imposing high-heels deliver an anti-feminist sentiment? With all the dangerous trappings, I wasn’t sure if the quince was going to be a good thing for Lola, or for any of us.
Lola’s introduction to the idea of the quinceañera came, regrettably, from the Disney Channel’s Wizards of Waverly Place. My husband and I had banned the Disney Channel from our home in an attempt to limit messages that tended not to match our own values and culture. But corporate television crept in at Lola’s grandparents’ house. In one episode of the show, the Russo family celebrates daughter Alex’s 15th birthday. Alex’s Mexican American mother, in quinceañera tradition, wants Alex to be ceremoniously changed into high heels as a symbol of her move into adulthood. Alex protests the high heels in favor of her beloved Converse sneakers. When mother and daughter magically switch bodies (a la Freaky Friday), mother finally gets her way.
Despite our best efforts to keep Disney out, I knew Lola’s idea of turning fifteen was shaped, in part, by TV. She watched that episode so many times she could recite Alex’s cheesy, angsty dialogue from memory.
Some critics of quince culture suggest that perhaps mothers are trying to vicariously live their own lost teenage dreams through their daughters’ celebration, creatively controlling event details to fulfill their own unlived quince fantasies.
I never had a quinceañera. Nor did I have much of a quince fantasy. Like other girls of my generation, I chose to wait a couple years for my parents’ saved money to go towards a used car instead. As a teen, that freedom was more valuable to me than cultural tradition.
But as a mother, I wanted Lola’s coming freedom to be balanced and informed by some much needed wisdom. I became convinced that a quince, if done the right way, could communicate the wisdom and values that seemed so difficult for me to pass on through parental advice alone.
A quinceañera “fulfills the need to belong,” writes scholar and folklorist Dr. Norma Cantú. That is what my husband and I were seeking: a way to counter the high-speed changes of a modern American adolescence informed by Disney fairytales. And a way to affirm our family and Lola herself, as a new generation of American mestizaje still connected to our immigrant ancestors, but like so many others, still grappling with cultural rejection and cultural loss.
Dr. Cantú suggests that though the origins of the quinceñera are debatable, there is clear evidence within the ceremony of both European court presentation traditions and indigenous coming-of-age rituals. In colonial Mexico, for example, age 15 was the legal age of marriage. While Lola doesn’t live in a time of royal court presentations or teenage marriage proposals, there is still a yearning to recognize the significant transition happening at that age. But knowing just how to do it in 2019 is confusing. As Cantú writes, the quinceañera is “a kind of conundrum; you don’t really want it because it is cursi [corny]. It’s your parents’ thing. But on the other hand you really do want it.”
I think Lola and I both felt that way.
In the year leading up to her birthday, Lola—like other teens of her generation—was experiencing personal heartbreak and hardship, which caused her bouts of anxiety. We could have written off these struggles as typical teenage “drama.” But when we noticed her increasing discomfort with being anywhere but her bedroom, we realized her tendency towards reclusiveness was becoming a problem. Lola experienced panic attacks, often in public spaces, and often without apparent cause. In light of this, a quince might have been ill-advised. But Lola didn’t see it that way. She had gotten through some of the toughest years of her young life and she was ready to proclaim at least a small victory in reaching her 15th year.
Of course, a big birthday celebration wouldn’t magically bring Lola into maturity or slow down her catapulting development. But a quinceañera was something we could govern alongside our daughter. It provided us an opportunity to talk to each other, resolve conflicts, and most importantly, hope and pray with our kid. Collectively, we decided a communal recognition of Lola’s growth was essential. Even if it was going to be uncomfortable or inconvenient. Even if it was going to cost us time and money.
Which meant, of course, we’d need The Dress, after all.
Forgoing fancy dress shops, we went instead to a local fabric store. Lola took only a few minutes to find the materials: a rowdy orange organza and a glossy pink satin. They were perfect for her.
I remembered that saleslady in the dress shop. Now it was true. We didn’t have much time.
In a frenzy, I sewed the big bad dress. I choreographed and taught Lola and her friends the critical waltz performance. I crafted an elaborate, Pinterest-ready crown made of fake flowers, paper, and wooden skewers. I drove around town looking for cheap decorations and flatware. I Amazoned crepe paper, candles, twinkling lights, a disco ball strobe light, deep purple beverage napkins, and gold glitter plastic serving bowls, which arrived in boxes to our door almost every day for two weeks. I speed-ironed tablecloths and polyester chair covers. I bought bags of beans, frozen shrimp, elotes, avocados, chile, cheese, wine, beer, and tortilla chips from five different grocery stores. My family made food for an army of adolescent boys and girls, friends and guests from San Diego to Albuquerque. I administered duties to my brother, my parents, and unknowing kids who happened to show up to our house in the exasperating days before the quince.
By mid-July, pink satin had taken over my bedroom space, boxes of decor covered my living room floor, and paper flowers were piling up in every corner of the house. I stabbed myself with sewing pins several dozen times while making and fitting the dress. I flayed my finger on a cheese grater and it bled the whole weekend of the party. I hadn’t anticipated these small sacrifices, but they were all part of the tremendous task of a quince ceremony.
Maybe the reason the quince is so “huge” is because it is meant to be shared by many people. As Dr. Cantú suggests, “You wouldn’t have a quinceañera with just five people or just with your immediate family… it has to be a community.” And so we invited others to celebrate the exciting and sometimes messy reality of becoming and of caring for a teenage girl. This support was important for her. And for me. When some guests came early on the day of the party to help, I imagined dropping to kiss their feet.
Looking at all of the decorations, tables, food and guests in place, I wanted to stand as far back as I could. I wanted to see everything all together while it lasted. We’d pulled it off—a non-Disney, semi-cheesy, totally creative, and slightly painful quince.
* * *
Lola stood in the middle of a dance floor alone. All eyes were on her and her iridescent dress. A sunset of scalloped streamers curled behind her. She stood still in the spotlight, neither blushing nor smiling. A few cameras flashed as her grandmothers walked to her and together placed that crown on her head. When all the souls in the room prayed a blessing over her, it felt real.
With the crowning, Lola was no princess feigning perfection. Nor was she an anxious child recoiling from public recognition. Later, she told me, “The most significant part wasn’t the crown itself, but Nana and Grammy and the important women in my life. They are the authorities and I look up to them. When they put the crown on me, they were giving some authority to me too.”
That day, I’d been wrapped up in all of my motherly responsibilities, but Lola’s words showed me that my own freedom and authority as a woman meant something to her too. This quinceañera extravagance, these gestures of beauty, were not about playing princess for a day. They were about marking each stride of the aging process as a sacred act, injecting the hallowed into the sometimes-trying eras of adolescence, womanhood, parenthood, or beyond.
Lola says the quince is a good thing “if you understand it,” and I agree. Passing through the phases of womanhood is a powerful enough reason to celebrate, however fantastically or clumsily, our resilience.
Melani “Mele” Martinez is a writer, mother, and flamenco dancer from Tucson, AZ. She is currently at work on a memoir entitled The Molino and works as a lecturer at the University of Arizona teaching first year writing and food writing courses.
Cantú, Norma. 2006. La Quinceanera: A Coming of Age Ritual in Latino Communities. Audio.
Alvarez, Julia. 2007. Once Upon a Quinceañera: Coming of Age in the USA. Penguin: London.