What Quinceañeras Can Teach Adults—as Well as Young Girls—About Values

The Latin American 15th-Birthday Ritual Symbolizes a Generational Transfer of Power

A Quinceañera in Santa Fe, June 7, 2014. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I became interested in the quinceañera a few years ago when a publisher commissioned me to write a book for a series focusing on cultural phenomenon within different ethnic and racial communities. For Latinos, the editors had selected the quinceañera.

With all the hefty issues affecting us (immigration reform, education equity, the fate of DREAMers, the increasing incarceration of Latino youth), I couldn’t believe they’d choose such a Latino-lite topic as the made-in-the-USA quinceañera! Struggling immigrant families were “throwing the house out the window” with expenditures way beyond their means. There were now cruises, Disney World packages, pricey dresses for the girl and her court, party motivators. The tradition had lost its way from its origins: a ceremonial time, culminating in a fiesta, in which the elders of a community transmit their wisdom and skills to the next generation.

Despite my qualms, I accepted the assignment precisely to understand what happens to our origin traditions when they arrive stateside. What aspects of the quinceañera should we retain in order to take better care of our young people in their new culture and country?

Like many traditions in America, the quinceañera is a syncretization of indigenous and European influences. After years of preparation by their elders, Aztec maidens were considered ready for marriage at the age of 15, at which juncture, there was a ritual. The Aztec Codex cites ceremonial speeches given by fathers and mothers to their daughters:

It is as if you were an herb, a plant that has propagated, sprouted, blossomed. It is also as if you had been asleep and have awakened . . .

The ritual marked that awakening: the girl becoming a woman, and in the male counterpart of the rite, a boy becoming a man.

With the conquest, the Aztec tradition was subsumed by the Spaniards, who introduced details from the courtrooms of Europe and their coming-of-age balls when girls were presented to society, including elements that are very much a part of the current celebration: the opening waltz, the girl’s tiara, her court of young attendants. As with any living tradition, details were added over time: The girl got a “last doll” as a symbol of the babies she would bear; the court was set at 14 couples to represent the quinceañeras’ past birthdays; the father (more and more in combination with the mother) changed her girlish slippers to heels and after the first dance handed her over to her escort. But at the root of all these elaborations, the tradition represents an age-old need in the life of a community to signal the transfer of power to the next generation, a rite of passage, culminating in a party.

This aspect of the tradition has been criticized—as it should be when it turns show-offy and debt-inducing. But we must not dismiss or demean our traditions because they do not fit another culture’s idea of what is appropriate. We of Latin American heritage are a fiesta-loving people, Octavio Paz reminds us in The Labyrinth of Solitude. “Our poverty can be measured by the frequency and luxuriousness of our holidays. Fiestas are our only luxury. What is sought is potency, life, health. In this sense the fiesta is one of the most ancient economic forms.”

This might not always make sound Americanized dollars and sense, but our origin cultures often recall us to priorities and values we mustn’t forget. The resources embedded in traditions have become scarce in the developed world. In fact, this was one of the findings of a global study of world problems by the United Nations for the new millennium. Young people in developed countries were suffering from “rite deprivation.” They were adrift without a sense of their roots, of a community that cared and supported them, of traditions that connected them meaningfully with their past and empowered them in their journey into the future.

How can we use the quinceañera tradition to truly support our young people as they journey into adulthood in the here and now?

Young people in this country are telling us this is so. Teens are taking to the streets, marching in favor of gun control. DREAMers are waking up to how they are being held hostage by an administration more interested in the crazed whims of a madman in the White House and poll numbers than in nurturing the next generation of immigrant Americans. Young people are letting us know: you are not taking good enough care of us.

It’s time we listened to them. One of the epigraphs of my book is a Plato aphorism that guided my thinking about the quinceañera: “Education is teaching our children to desire the right things.” More and more what is happening is that our children are teaching us.

“The earth is not given to us by our ancestors,” according to a Native American saying, “It is loaned to us by our children.”

The quinceañera tradition reminds us that our loan is coming due. Of course, traditions must be constantly reinvented so that they serve who we are now. Back in another century, the quinceañera was about empowering our young girls, helping them adopt their adult roles of wife and mother. This was the only option back then. By showcasing the young girl, the quinceañera helped her find a good match and get a good start in life. But in this new country, young women have a lot more options. How can we use the quinceañera tradition to truly support our young people as they journey into adulthood in the here and now?

One of the most encouraging responses to this challenge is the Stay-in-School Quinceañera Program started by a Latina mom in Idaho. Over the course of a full year, 14-year-old girls and boys learn about their culture, old country traditions, as well as the new opportunities in this country. They meet with a range of leaders in the community: the Latina judge; the abuelita who knows homeopathic remedies, and the traditional craft of making wax flowers; the ranch-hand vaquero/cowboy who follows a true caballero (vs. macho) code of honor in caring for his familia and comunidad; the Latino CEO who runs a software company. There are field trips and retreats, community service projects and plain old fun.

Gaby, a graduate of the program, told me she would never have stayed in school, still less gone to college, if she hadn’t enrolled in the program. As the oldest of eight kids in an undocumented migrant family, Gaby was needed at home to help with her younger siblings. “I never thought of going to college. I was like your typical Hispanic girl.”

“What do you mean by that?” I asked her.

“Oh, you know, we don’t do white girl things like go to college.”

The Stay-at-School Quinceañera Program had put a new story in her head about what was possible for her.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Gaby, especially because she is one of those DREAMers now threatened with deportation. How to help her and others on their journeys into adulthood? How to create new narratives in their heads—and, maybe more importantly, in our own heads—about what is possible?

In other words, there are stories inside us about who we can be and what we can do, and these stories drive our lives. Which is exactly why it’s so important to expand the pool of stories.


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