Quinceaneras: Not Just a Big Party

Jul 18, 2014

Credit Jacob Lewin

It is a colorful ritual that many Latinos brought with them when they immigrated to Oregon, and it is now more popular than ever. Quinceaneras celebrate the 15th birthday of Latino girls, but they are much more than just a big party.

Ileana Torres is being fitted for her quinceanera dress (zipper sound) at a Salem shop that specializes in them.  Quinceaneras once were a way to present girls as ready for marriage. Now they're a rite of passage when, at the age of 15 girls, like Ileana, are expected to take on more responsibility:

"It means me becoming a woman and growing into maturity and having my godparents be my mentors during life.  I'm very excited."

Her dress, meant for a church ceremony and a huge party months down the road, is a kind of sequined white ballgown with a bolero jacket, necklace, and tiara:

"I love it. I feel like a princess."

When she puts it on for the first time, her mother tears up:

"She's so big now (sighs), just seeing her grow up and seeing her in her dress. She looks beautiful."

Back at home, Ileana, her mother and her father Antonio taste cake samples:

"These are different.  This is tres leches, choco flan, and this is just regular cake I think she said. So far I like choco flan, tres leches."

Tres leches is sponge cake soaked in milk.  Loren Chavarria, a Spanish professor at Oregon State University, says quinceaneras can easily cost ten-thousand dollars or more:

"Families save from the moment that their daughter is born.  They are looking 15 years from now. It is a way to recognize that you have something precious for you, your daughter, and you really want to throw everything through the window as we say in Mexico (echar la casa por la ventana) to really have a fancy celebration."

Some in the Latino community question the spending when there are other needs, but maintaining cultural traditions has even be shown to have a positive health impact, and the Torres make sure that their purchases stay in the community.  There is another important aspect of quinceaneras that has little to do with parties.  It is a time to find padrinos, sort of life guides for your children:

"If something happens to the mother or the father, the padrinos would be the people that would kind of adopt your child and be responsible for that child to be raised within the church and in the faith. In the United States, it is a coping mechanism. We don't have blood relatives so we create social relatives."

As Antonio Torres points out, the padrinos also play a financial role:

"We've approached our friends and say, "Are you willing to be padrinos?" and we've had friends who have said, "Yes, we will." We had an individual for her dress. I asked him and he said he'd be honored to buy the dress."

The dress fitted, the cakes chosen, the padrinos in place, time to interview choreographers. First they talk to Juan:

"For dances you wanted the more traditional, right?  Yes, we wanted to do a waltz first."

But Paula gets the job and leads a group of four friends of Ileana's--who will be called chambelanes--through weeks of practice for special quinceaneras dances:

"You guys' line is going to be the chandeliers. Okay. Ready guys?  Let's go, manos atras!"

One reason for the popularity of quinceaneras is that fourth and fifth generation Mexican-Americans in Oregon are discovering their roots.  First the language, then ceremonies like this one. And then there are first generation Americans, like Marlen:

"I was born in Mexico City and I grew up with a little bit of the moral traditions and I have embraced them. We try to keep as much and hold onto as much as we can to pass it onto the younger generation, which are my kids.

Quinceaneras are an example of how, with Latinos, church and society are very intermingled. Finally, it's quinceaneras day.  They are so popular that the church, St. Vincent's in Salem, holds three at a time:

"Buenos tardes y bienvenidos a los papas, padrinos, amigos..."

The three quinceanera senoritas, including Ileana, and their courts form a procession in the church while a choir sings:

(Choir sings)

Then there's a banquet in the ballroom of the Reed Opera House in downtown Salem, after which the dance performance is introduced:

"Spanish and applause"

All followed by dancing late into the night.