The Significance of Quinceañeras

What are quinceañeras? Where did the tradition originate? And how should I dress for one?

National Hispanic Heritage Month

Every year, the United States observes National Hispanic Heritage month from September 15th to October 15th. According to an educational web portal operated among the Library of Congress and other groups, this recognition is intended to honor “the histories, cultures and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America.”

As we explore the culture within these communities, Washington Parent is shining the spotlight on a unique celebration that is comparable to the sweet 16th birthday party in the United States: the quinceañera.

What is a quinceañera? A brief history.

The word quinceañera is defined as the girl who turns 15. It has also become synonymous with the lavish party associated with the birthday girl. Though the exact history of the quinceañera party is not clear, some sources say the tradition originated in Mexico as early as the 5th century B.C. The indigenous, including the Aztecs and Mayans held initiation ceremonies for girls to mark the end of puberty and the start of adulthood, continuing the ceremonies for centuries. 

Roughly around 1519-1821, Spanish rule dominated Mexico, bringing with it strong European influences and incorporating Catholic church masses into the initiation ceremonies. In 1864, Austrian-born Maximillian I became the emperor of Mexico and is said to have introduced a formal waltz and bouffant-style ball gowns to the ceremonies.

How are quinceañeras celebrated today?

Mexicans continue to be the primary cultural group that celebrates the puberty-to-adulthood ceremonies for girls, now known as quinceañeras. Over the years the quinceañera has been modified to complement newer trends in modern society.

Other cultural groups from Hispanic and Latino countries have adopted and began hosting slightly modified versions of quinceañeras. Today, it is common to see people from Cuba, Ecuador, Guatemala, Peru and other countries celebrating quinceañeras in their own countries and in the United States.

However, there is no uniform definition of quinceañera and its unique styling varies from region to region. Despite cultural differences and individual preferences among families, the core meaning remains the same: the quinceañera marks the passage of a young girl’s life from childhood to adulthood. It is also used to introduce the new young adult woman to society in the company of family and friends.

Some components of the quinceañera.

At the root of a quinceañera party is family. The family is proud of the young girl for “graduating” from adolescence and becoming an adult who is capable of being independent and making her own decisions. Very often, festivities begin with a thanksgiving mass in which the celebrant gives thanks for having reached the age of adulthood. Tradition has it that the celebrant is accompanied by a court of young ladies and gentlemen, resembling a wedding party.

The celebrant typically wears a luxurious gown in a color of her choice. The young ladies in her court all wear the same dress, like bridesmaids, while the young men wear dark suits. The celebrant’s family is also richly dressed in formal attire you might see at a wedding. 

After the mass comes the reception during which the family, usually the father, formally presents the girl as a child who has become a young lady. This is the only socially accepted, agreed-upon element of the reception. Every other aspect, including the time of the party and the activities that follow, varies according to country traditions and individual preferences.

Individual celebrations of the quinceañera.

If you are invited to a quinceañera party, you should dress elegantly in formal attire. Furthermore, you may be asked to gift money in lieu of material items. Expect to be surrounded by family, love, laughter, joy, food and music, as each family chooses to celebrate differently with the same main goal of introducing their daughters as young adults to society for the first time.

Several local parents shared their own perspectives on how they chose to celebrate quinceañeras.

Fanny Gutierrez, born in Peru, living in Alexandria, Virginia

Notes that the quinceañera celebration is “un proceso de cambios — al nivel intelectual, personal, acto físico …” (Translation: “It is a process in which the celebrant undergoes changes, from the intellectual to personal to physical.”) She recalls her daughter entering the party wearing flats and her husband (the celebrant’s father) making the presentation of her daughter to society. As soon as he was finished, he took off her shoes and put on her adult shoes with heels. Then they proceeded with the father-daughter dance, expecting guests to watch.

Gutierrez notes, “Al principio, no le gustaba. Respetamos sus decisiones porque se sentía intimidada. [Mas tarde,] ella participo en muchas quinceañeras. Le pidieron ser dama y nos manifestó que quería ser quinceañera. [Hoy] tiene 26 años y tiene dos hijas. Ella adora su vestido y lo tiene guardado [para las hijas.] (Translation: “At first, my daughter didn’t like quinceañeras. We respected her decisions because she felt intimidated. Later on, she participated in a lot of quinceañeras. Someone asked her to be part of a quinceañera court and she told us she wanted a party. Today she is 26. She loves her dress and has it stored to give to her daughters.”)

Lourdes Avalos, also born in Peru, living in Lorton, Virginia

Made a decision to host a quinceañera party for her daughter at a friend’s house, noting that it was “sencillo … nada extravagante.” (Translation: “something simple, nothing extravagant.”) Avalos notes that her family celebrates a modern trend in quinceañeras known as “lo hora loca” in which the celebrant, family and guests participate simultaneously by partying hard with full enjoyment of music, dance and fun. Avalos’ family partied hard while “todos a bailar con globos y música de diferentes colores.” (Translation: “everyone danced with balloons and music in different colors [presumably using a strobe or other special effects].”)

Mariela Alejandro Demavas, born in Guatemala, living in Ashburn, Virginia

Chose not to celebrate her own quinceañera because she was in Guatemala while her parents were in the United States. When asked if she would consider having a quinceañera now, she replies: “My dad passed two years ago! I was organizing my wedding waiting for him to walk me down the aisle but it didn’t happen … ! So to me, having quinceañera is meaningless without him!”

Now that you have some perspective on quinceañeras, you’ll know how to dress and how to act if you attend one, and have a better appreciation of the meaningful rituals at the party.


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