La Quinceañera: Tradition and symbolism in Salt Lake City

Story and photos by TERESA GETTEN

Photo by Teresa Getten

Panaderia Flores sells Quinceañera cakes.

La Quinceañera may seem to be just a fancy, dressed-up version of a sweet 16 celebration, but to those within the Hispanic Catholic community it is not just an overblown birthday party. It is a religious tradition, rich in symbolism and faith.

The word itself comes from the Spanish words “quince,” 15, and “años,” years. Some Hispanic cultures teach that this rite of passage was passed down from the ancient customs of the Aztecs. Similar to other ancient cultural initiation rights throughout the world, 15 was the age a young woman left her family to become a wife and mother.

The tradition is not just a time to celebrate the moment when a girl becomes a woman, but also a time for a girl to renew her relationship with God, not as an innocent child, but as a virtuous woman.

Josie Martinez teaches Quinceañera classes at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church. She explains that La Quinceañera is not solely an event for society to bless the girls with adult privileges, such as dating or drinking alcohol.getten2

“It’s a time to petition the dear Lord, to bless and help them in their life, whatever road they choose, asking God to bless them to be chaste and pure,” Martinez said with an affectionate voice.

Martinez prepares the girls for the tradition by teaching six mandatory two-hour classes. She begins with the traditions of the Aztecs who honored woman and her ability to give life. Then she reminds her students that a woman’s body is special and pure. She will have new challenges as a woman and must live a life of faith, good morals and principles to receive God’s blessings.

“The ceremony is not a sacrament, however, but a sacred tradition,” Martinez said, before adding quickly, “but it’s still not allowed if you didn’t do the classes.”

Nellie Strada, 27, had been listening to the conversation as she cut out cartoon animals for her Sunday school lesson. When Martinez started to explain the ceremony, she pulled her chair across the small room to help fill in the details. She had a warm smile that never left her animated face. The corners of her mouth turned up even while she spoke.

The ceremony includes a special mass, “Misa de Accion de Gracias,” proceeded by a procession similar to that of a wedding. Fourteen “chambolandas,” similar to groomsmen, and fourteen “damas,” similar to bridesmaids, walk down the aisle in a single line before they sit down. The last to emerge is la quinceañera.

She is dressed in a modest white gown to symbolize purity. The gown is often embellished with pearls and lace. She also wears a diamond tiara to show that she is a princess of God. At the altar she kneels on a special satin pillow often embroidered with her name. Special prayers are offered by the priest, parents, and sometimes godparents, “padrinos.” When the ceremony ends, the young woman places her flowers at the statue of the Virgin Mary.

“We do not adore her [the Virgin Mary] as a god, but because she is a symbol of what we should be as women,” Martinez said.

During the ceremony the girl is given a rosary, and a bible symbolizing her faith in God. The gifts are presented by her padrinos.        

“It’s the most beloved and precious moment in a girls life.” Strada said. “The feeling is something special, because we are blessed to keep values and do what is right.”getten3

The customs of La Quinceañera may vary in each Hispanic culture, but the symbolism behind the tradition is the same –- a celebration of a young girl’s journey from child to adult.

After the ceremonial mass the festivities begin. The large celebration is usually held at a reception hall. Family and friends are invited to honor la quinceanera’s passage into womanhood.

She is introduced, and the 15-year-old makes her big entrance. The night starts and the first dance as a young woman is with her father.

“During the last dance with their dad everyone is crying. It’s like your dad is giving you freedom,” said Salutina Estralla,  Strada’s 17-year-old sister. She came into the room earlier unnoticed and was quietly cutting out Noah’s ark in the corner before joining the conversation. Estralla abandons her work, places her chin in her hands and continues to listen to Strada’s descriptions.  

The second dance is with her chambelan, her boy chaperone. He could be a friend or a relative. They perform a traditional waltz, followed by a presentation of gifts.

The first gift is doll, often dressed like the quinceañera princess. This is the last doll she will ever receive.

She is also given earrings, a reminder to listen to God’s word, and a bracelet or ring, symbolizing the infinite circle of life and the continuous stages of womanhood. Toward the end of the presentation, the father takes off his daughter’s shoes and puts on her first pair of high heels.

Her family and friends welcome her as a grown woman. The tradition then turns into a celebration with music, dancing, cake and food.       

Gifts for the event are sold in shops that specialize in Quinceañeras. These stores are not usually listed in the phonebook, but within the Hispanic community they are easy to find. “When we want to shop, we just get out. We don’t advertise or have Web sites.” said Ivett Ramieze, 26, who works in a Quinceañera shop called El Rafael. The shop is a family-owned business located inside the Latino Mall on Redwood Road, the west side of Salt Lake City.

The preparation for La Quinceañera often begins years in advance. Families save money, and the girls plan their colors and themes          

“Now that I’m older I think it’s a waste of money. When I was a girl, the parents had to pay for it,” Ramieze said.

Ramieze estimates the cost of a Quinceañera to be between $2,000 and $10,000. However, the parents do not pay for the whole event. Her family and friends will buy most of the gifts.

She pulls out a white Quinceañera gown with cream colored pearls on the floral embroidered satin material. Under the dress was a ruffled petticoat. The store also sells porcelain dolls dressed in similar gowns made of satin and lace, with sequins, beads and ribbons. The doll will be presented at the reception.

The store carries almost every gift and accessory needed for the Quinceañera. On the shelves are kneeling pillows, jewelry, ceramic figurines called “bolos” that are passed out after the ceremony,  bouquets, veils, diamond tiaras, satin-covered bibles, champagne glasses, invitations and sample books for corsages, cakes.

Panaderia Flores, a bakery not too far from the Latino Mall on Redwood Road, sells multi-tiered cakes adorned with pastel sashes, roses and ribbons.

Rita Valencia, the owner of San Rafael, talked about her oldest daughter’s Quinceañera in Mexico. She spoke with a thick accent but her animated hands made up for any words lost in her translation from Spanish to English.     

“It’s like so proud for us to see our daughter is a woman,” Valencia said. Her hand pressed against her chest before she added, “and that she is pure.”

Her younger daughter wasn’t allowed to have a Quinceañera because she had a boyfriend before she turned 15. Valencia’s eyes became wet and the corners of her mouth turned down, pulling her whole face down with it. She sighed and turned her head, silent for a moment. But it was a small moment.

Valencia’s countenance transformed back to her animated self again and she clasped her hands together as she spoke of her plans for her 11-year-old granddaughter’s Quinceañera. Her granddaughter’s name is Angel, so Valencia and her sisters are planning an angel theme. They are trying to figure out how to lower God’s saints from the ceiling decorated like the heavens. Of course, Angel has a say in it, too.

Many little girls dream about what their Quinceañera will look like. Valencia said little girls as young as 6 come into her shop and say, “I want that for my Quinceañera!”

Not every Catholic Latina girl has a Quinceañera when she turns 15. It is not a necessary sacrament, but a sacred tradition. They can choose not to for any reason.

Vanessa Clavijo is from Peru but has lived in Ogden, Utah, for several years. She is 14 but plans to celebrate with her friends and plans on having a sweet 16 party.

“Quinceaneras are more traditional in Latin America,” said Clavijo. “Maybe if we still lived in Peru I would have one, but it’s more of a choice in America.”

La Quinceañera ceremony may change as it blends with other cultures, but the meaning will stay the same, just as the ancient rituals of the Aztecs have become the ceremony it is today. Whatever form the tradition will take, the transition from girl to woman will always be a time for friends and family to rejoice.