Sacrifices of a quinceañera: change of tradition

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Quinceañera dress displayed at Fernando’s Store, 5315 S. 12th Ave., Tucson. Photo by Karen Lizarraga / Arizona Sonora News Service

The dress fit so tightly she felt her ribs pushing against the plastic varillas (rods) on her corset. It locked in her breath. Flashes illuminated the room like fireworks covering the Fourth of July’s sky.

Her crush told her how beautiful she looked as he dropped his orange Fanta on her bubblegum pink dress. Even that couldn’t ruin her special night — the night she became a woman.

For many Latinas, the quinceañera is the most anticipated event of their young life.

Although it began as a tradition of showcasing a woman’s readiness for marriage and her adult responsibilities to the community, the 15th birthday celebration has turned into something with no set long-standing budget, rules or limits. Whether you have it all, or not a penny to your name, if you’re a woman in the Latino community, a quinceañera can be a complete sacrifice or a change of tradition for one special night.

“If there was one take-home from my study it’s that American debuts and quinces are way more significant for the families,” said Evelyn Rodriguez, author of Celebrating Debutantes and Quinceañeras: Coming of Age in American Ethnic Communities.

Rodriguez believes immigrant families claim their cultural pride and affirmation of their American belonging by modifying these celebrations.

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Quinceañera Eugenia Lizarraga admires her homemade flower bouquet in 1981.

“These events are really great windows into the lives of the families and individuals who organize and take part in them,” Rodriguez said.

The festivity derives from pre-colonial indigenous civilizations. Once women became a certain age, they were separated from the males in the community to assure their  future roles within their family. This initiation turned in a massive celebration, which later adopted Christianity tradition when Spaniards came upon America.

Today, that tradition is not followed by every family.

“I no longer see it as a necessity,” said Elsa Velasquez in Spanish, a professor in the Spanish department at the University of Arizona. “Women have come a long way, they should be seen as independent and strong.”

Being a mother of two and a native from Mexico City, Velasquez decided to no longer pass on the tradition. Instead she paid for a musical instrument for one daughter and full trip to Europe for the other.

“They never questioned it,” Velasquez said.

Velasquez said that families would rather have no money than to break tradition.

“Breaking tradition is hard but we must choose which ones are good and which ones are bad and which ones we will pass on,” Velasquez said.

In her family, Velasquez believes graduating and being educated is more important. So instead of a quinceañera, she arranged a party to celebrate her daughters’ accomplishments after receiving their degrees at the University of Arizona.

Rodriguez said quinceañeras can be an encouragement for girls to continue to achieve success academically, socially and professionally.

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Quinceañera hugs father during the traditional “Father and Daughter” dance.

She said it seems that the greatest value derived from the celebrations are from the opportunities they offer parents and families to confront negative ethnic stereotypes, restore immigrants’ parental authority and improve their children’s sense of knowledge and pride in their ethnic heritage.

Carolina Peña-Quijada knew she would one day “feel like a princess,” inspired after watching her older sister have a quinceañera. Peña-Quijada got her wish, but she admitted it was more stressful than initially intended.

“I felt like we had to focus more on the people having fun than myself,” Peña-Quijada said. “It was stressful, especially for my mom.”

Peña-Quijada said at first she didn’t want to have the party because of the expense, but at the end of the day she felt it was a good experience that every girl should have.

But just because “every girl should have one” doesn’t mean every girl can afford one. On an average, the celebration can cost from $5,000 to $15,000, but some families raid their banks and credit cards, paying as much as $100,000.

It has become a huge marketplace for businesses owners.

“It was work and everyone needs work,” said Elvira Moreno owner of Novias y Princess Forever dress store. Moreno said the cost of a dress varies depending on a girl’s desires, but usually range from $100 to $2,000. Some dresses can go up to roughly five figures.

Moreno is one of the thousands of owners who make up the $400 million-a-year quinceañera industry, according to MSN Money.

Families that choose to participate in what some would call a “slowly dying tradition” all sacrifice something, whether it is time, money or even tradition.

“When all this is weighed, for some families, quinces and debuts vale la pena (are worth all the pain), because what they get in return for their money, time and sacrifice is much more than ‘one night,’ ” Rodriguez said.

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Damas assist the quinceañera during the traditional “Balie de Sorpresa.”

Karen Lizarraga is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News Service from the Schoo of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at karenlizarraga@email.arizona.edu.

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