Ultimate fiesta

The traditional quincea

Published July 30, 2007 11:22AM (EDT)

At the Quinceañera Expo at the Airport Convention Center in San Antonio, little girls are walking around with tiaras in their hair, oohing and aahing the fancy dresses, the pink balloons, the wedding-cake-size cakes, the last dolls encased in plastic, the fluffy pillows with straps for securing the heels in case the page trips as he bears them to the altar to be blessed by the priest.

At a cordoned-off area at the rear of the hall, Victoria Acosta, a fourteen-year old local pop sensation, is singing into a microphone as she dances and gestures with her free hand. "Crazy, crazy, crazy, I think the world's gone crazy!" Her next song, "Once Upon A Time," is dedicated to "all of you out there who have had your hearts broken." "All of you out there" is a semi-circle of pudgy pre-teens sitting on the floor, mesmerized by the slender, glamorous Victoria with her long mascara'd lashes, her glittery eye shadow, her slinky black outfit and sparkly silver tie. "You bet I'm going to have a quince," she tells me during a break between songs, although I don't see why. She seems to have already made her passage into womanhood quite successfully.

There isn't a male shopper in sight. In fact, the only men around are manning booths or working the floor: a couple of boy models, one in a white tuxedo with a pale pink vest, the other in a white suit with a yellow vest; a grown man in a military uniform, a popular escort outfit with some girls, he tells me; a dj in a cowboy hat plays loud music while his sidekick, a skinny boy, hands out flyers; Seve, the clown (who come to think of it might be female under all that face paint and bulbous, attached nose); Dale of Awesome Ice Designs (for $350 you can have the "Fire & Ice Sculpture" with the quinceañera's picture embedded in a central medallion of ice); Ronny of VIP Chocolate Fountains whose wife, Joanne, does most of the talking. (Did you know that you can run chili con queso through the fountains for a Mexican theme at your daughter's quinceañera? The young people still prefer chocolate, as you can imagine); and Tony Guerrero, the owner of Balloons Over San Antonio ("We Blow for u").

Add the two photographers at Tilde (Photography, Invitations, Videography), Mr. Acosta (Victoria's manager-dad), the guy with a Starbucks urn strapped to his back, and Manuel Villamil at the Primerica Financial Services booth -- and that makes for just over a dozen men in a crowd of about three hundred women of all ages here to shop for some member of their family's quinceañera. The hall is so girl-packed that the discreetly curtained baby changing/nursing booth seems extraneous. You could breastfeed your baby out in the open and still be within the strict bounds of modesty, like peeing without shutting your stall door in the ladies room because everyone inside except the little toddler in mommy's arms is female.

I feel as if I've wandered into the back room where the femaleness of the next generation of Latinas is being manufactured, displayed, and sold. A throwback vision, to be sure. Lots of pink-lacey-princessy-glittery-glitzy stuff. One little girl wheels a large última muñeca around while her mother follows, carting the baby sister who has ceded her stroller to a doll bigger than she is. "How beautiful!" I bend down to admire the little girl's proud cargo. "Is that for your quince?" The little girl looks pleadingly towards her mom. "It's her cousin's," the mom says, gesturing with her head towards a chunky teenager carting a large shopping bag and lolling at Joanne and Ronny's booth, scooping her toothpick of cake into the chocolate fountain. The little girl looks forlorn. "I'm sure you'll have a last doll, too, when you have your quince," I console her. She gives me a weak smile in return. Why on earth am I encouraging her?

Crazy, crazy, crazy, I think the world's gone crazy.

It's not that. It's that after an hour roaming up and down the aisles, I fall in with the spirit of the expo. There is a contagious, evangelical air to the whole thing that sweeps you up and makes you want to be part of the almost religious fervor that surrounds this celebration. I half expect to see Isabella Martínez Wall, the former Miss Dominican Republic turned so-called "Fairy Godmother of Quinceañeras," addressing a crowd of wide-eyed teens.

In fact, my guide, Priscilla Mora, reminds me of Isabella. Both women share a crusading enthusiasm for a tradition they believe is one of the best things going for Latina womanhood. Plump and pretty with the sunny face of someone perennially in a good mood, Priscilla has organized six of these expos, and even though some have not been as well attended as she would have liked, her faith is undimmed. When not organizing these expos, she is a quinceañera planner, an author of the "Quinceañera Guide and Handbook," and most of all a passionate promoter of the tradition. She actually thought up this business at a workshop where participants had to write down their dreams on little pieces of paper. Then they all put their pieces of paper in a fire and let their dreams go up to God. This isn't just a business, Priscilla explains, it's a calling, part of God's plan for her.

It's from Priscilla that I first hear that when the quinceañera makes her vow in the church, "it's about chastity. You're promising God that you're not going to have sex till you're back at the altar, getting married. That's why it's important that these girls learn all about the meaning," Priscilla insists. Otherwise, the quinceañera "is nothing but a party."

Priscilla's missionary zeal seems to be shared by many of the providers, who tell inspirational stories of why they got involved in quinces. Take Tony Guerrero of Balloons Over San Antonio. Tony grew up real poor in a family of four boys and four girls. ("Are you kidding?" he replies when I ask if the girls had quinceañeras.) A few years ago, Tony gave up his office job to do this because "I just wanted the opportunity to give back something to my community." He loves seeing people having fun, being happy, and hey, if nothing else, "I got myself another entry once I go over to the other side." "Another" because he already has a great aunt over there. "She promised me she was going to have a spot waiting for me." Ruby of Great Expectations (a photography studio) thinks it's "a privilege" to share this special day with a girl. "I love the idea of re-dedicating your life to the Lord." (Echoes of Priscilla.) Curiously, the nuns' booth next to Ruby's is empty. "They told me they were coming." Priscilla looks momentarily nonplussed. But her sunny personality bounces back. "Maybe they'll be by later after mass." This is Sunday, after all. The Sisters, it turns out, are the Missionary Catechists of Divine Providence, the first and only religious order of Mexican-American women founded in the United States. Their focus on the quinceañera is part of their larger mission as "evangelizadoras del barrio and transmitters of a rich Mexican American faith to the universal Church."

The only heavy hitter at the expo is Sunita Trevino, who was born in Bombay but is married to a Hispanic. At her seminar on financing a quinceañera, Sunita gives us the opposite of the hard sell: the-watch-your-financial-back-as-a-minority-woman talk that has me sitting at the edge of my chair. As she talks, Sunita paces up and down the raised platform stage like a lion trapped in a too-small cage.

Sunita works for Primerica Financial Services, but her training is in clinical psychology, which she ends up using a lot as she counsels families about their finances. "I'll tell you," she tells the audience of about a dozen, mostly grandmothers, as this is the only area of the whole hall where there are chairs to sit down, "quinceañeras are high stress times." A lot of couples come to see her for extra sessions. But the majority of Sunita's clients are single women who are in financial trouble. They don't budget. They overspend. They get into debt. She knows women in their seventies still paying off second mortgages they took out for their daughter's quinceañera. She finds this devastating.

"Nobody sits down to talk to us women! We are playing a money game but no one taught us the rules!" Sunita's own mother came from Bombay to America, thinking her husband would always be there to take care of her, and then her parents separated, and her mother was lost. She had no idea how to take care of herself. Sunita doesn't want to see this happen to any woman. We women are sinking into a hole of debt and the quinceañera is often where we get in over our heads.

Her recommendation to all of us sitting in the audience is: pay cash. "If you budget eighteen hundred dollars for flowers, and what you pick amounts to double that, don't do it. DON'T DO IT! Stay within your budget. A lot of women get in trouble at the last minute. They think, oh, I'll go ahead, just this once."

If you end up borrowing money, "please," Sunita pleads with us, "read the terms, read them carefully. What the big print giveth, the small print taketh away. Educate yourselves! Don't think banks and savings accounts are there to do you a favor. Okay, let's see, who can tell me what banks do with your money?" she asks.

None of us grown women in the audience would dare hazard a guess. But a young girl about eleven years old raises her hand and says proudly, "They save it for you."

Sunita smiles, shaking her head fondly. "Out of the mouth of babes." She sighs. Nobody laughs. Nobody seems to get the Biblical reference which Sunita is misusing anyway. Out of the mouth of babes usually the truth comes. But this young girl is headed for that sinkhole of debt unless Sunita can steer her away from the dangers of borrowing. "No honey, that's not what they do. They use your money to make money."

The girl sits back in her chair, a chastened, embarrassed expression on her face. Her tiara glints as Sunita explains to her that what she just said is what most people think. But that's why Sunita is here today. To tell us the truth no one else is going to tell us. To get us thinking about these things. "Two hundred fifty families declare bankruptcy every hour of every day in the USA. I know a seventy-nine-year-old retired guy who is now bagging groceries. People don't plan to fail," Sunita explains. "They fail to plan. So, get mad. Get mad and learn the rules."

The girl squirms in her chair, as do the rest of us. After all, we came here in a party mood, not to feel that at the end of our adult lives, we will end up as bag ladies, wishing we hadn't started down the road of debt with our own or our daughters' quinceañera.

So, how much does a quinceañera cost? You ask any of the party planners and they tell you the same thing -- anything from a hundred bucks for a cookout in the backyard and a stereo booming music for the young lady and her friends to fifty grand and up in a hall with a party planner, a limo, dinner for a hundred or more.

Everyone talks about this range, but after interviewing dozens of quinceañeras and talking to as many party planners, events providers, choreographers, caterers, I have to conclude that the cookout quinceañeras are becoming the exception. In the past, perhaps they were the rule. In the old countries, of course. In small homogenous pockets -- a border town in Texas, a barrio composed solely of Central Americans; in other words, a group still largely out of the mainstream loop, perhaps. But now, as one quinceañera remarked, "If I had to be that cheap I just wouldn't have one. What for?" It is in the nature of the beast to be a splurge, an extravaganza. More than one person describing a recent quinceañera used the Spanish expression for an over the top expense: throwing the house out the window. They threw the house out the window for that girl's quinceañera.

They threw the house out the window. In a country where the rate of poverty is growing (12.7 percent of U.S. citizens were living below the poverty line in 2004, up from 11.3 percent in 2000), with Latinos forming a sizable portion of those impoverished numbers (21.9 percent of the Hispanic population was living below the poverty line in 2004 according to a U.S. census survey). Sunita, it turns out, was not exaggerating. They threw the house they probably didn't own out the window.

One quinceañera I met named Monica estimated that her party cost "maybe three thousand dollars," and if that figure is correct, it was actually quite modest. Why don't I have an exact number? Let me just come right out and say that talking to my people about money is not easy. Maybe if I were an Americana reporter with a stenographic notebook and only a sprinkling of classroom Spanish, I could get away with asking the parents how much they paid for the party. But I'm a Latina. I know the rules. They know I know the rules. To ask my host for the price tag of the fiesta would be una falta de vergüenza. And so, I learned any number of discreet ways to approach the topic. Aproximadamente, how much does a quinceañera cost in your experience? If someone were to throw a party not unlike this one, how much would that quinceañera cost them?

The one person I could openly ask this question turned out to be the quinceañera herself. But though fifteen-year-old girls are really good at knowing how much their dress or makeup session cost, they're not so good at knowing the charges for halls, or what it costs to have beef Wellington instead of Swedish meatballs for a hundred people, or what additional charge was made for the linen napkins and tablecloths or the chairs draped in white covers and tied with satin bows, which seem to be de rigueur for anything but the cheapest quinceañera. Fifteen-year-old girls like to throw out huge numbers to impress their friends, but they are not so good at addition -- that is, if they paid $250 for a dress, and $250 for the limo, and the hall with a catered meal was $2,500 for 100 people, not counting the cake made up of four cakes, which was no less than $300, and let's throw in another $100 to $200 for sessions at the beauty parlor, and at least $300 for the photographer and pictures, and because things always come up at the last minute and Mami definitely needs a new dress herself and Papi will probably have to rent a tux and some family members will need help with travel costs, another $500 to $1,000 more -- anyhow, I've gone way over the low end figure of $3,000 that Monica Ramos with uncharacteristic teenage understatement calculated.

And her father was not working.

They threw the rented apartment out the window. Why not? It's not theirs to keep anyhow, just as this American dream isn't as easy to achieve as it seems, so why not live it up, give your little girl a party she won't forget, enjoy the only thing you really have, tonight's good time, before the bills start rolling in.

Will Cain is president and founder of Quince Girl, a new national magazine targeting the more than four hundred thousand Latinas in the United States who turn fifteen every year. Early in 2006, the magazine sent out a survey asking its readers how much they had spent or were planning to spend on their quinces. The resulting average was $5,000.

I confess to Will that I find that average low given the figures events planners and quinceañeras and their families have been quoting me. I'm thinking of Idalia's quinceañera which cost her affluent Dominican family $80,000, not surprising given a guest list of over five hundred and a fully choreographed performance by her court of twenty-eight couples (double the usual number so as not to leave out any friends or cousins) with special effects to rival a Broadway show and mermaid dresses for the girls designed by Leonel Lirio, renowned for Miss Universe Amelia Vega's gown. Granted that's the top end of the Q-scale, but the low end is rising. In Miami, Sofía's dad apologetically confessed that he was "only" spending about $12,000 on his daughter's quince, though his wife corrected him by appending, "Twelve thousand dollars, not counting all the food and goodies we fed twenty-eight kids for three months of rehearsals."

"You have to remember that $5,000 takes into account the full spectrum," Will Cain reminds me about the Quince Girl average. "It includes the girl who is spending $25,000 with the one who might spend $1,000. The point is that even working class folks who don't have a whole lot of purchasing power are going to devote a significant portion of their resources to this one tradition. It cuts across a wide range of strata."

Will himself did the numbers before he decided to launch his magazine. The Latino population is exploding, and it is mostly a young population. "I don't have to tell you about the demographics," Will tells me. "One out of every five teens is Hispanic. And that population is growing at the rate of 30 percent, while the non-Hispanic population rate is just 8 percent."

I'm trying to follow what Will is saying, but the question that keeps tugging at my curiosity is not about Hispanic demographics, but about Will himself. Will Cain does not sound even close to a Hispanic name. How did "your run-of-the-mill white boy," as he describes himself when I ask him about his background, end up founding a magazine for young Latinas celebrating their quinceañeras?

Will, who is all of thirty-one -- just over twice a quinceañera's age -- grew up in Texas surrounded by Mexican-Americans and has always been interested in the Hispanic culture. He was also interested in media. So, he decided to put the two things together and he came up with the idea of Quince Girl. Though it's a shrewd economic decision, Will believes he's also providing an important service for Hispanics in this country.

"The Hispanic community is this very fractured community," he explains. "You have your Mexican-Americans and your Puerto Ricans and your Cuban-Americans. And the only thing that ties all these separate nationalities together -- no, it's not Spanish," he says, anticipating what I might think, "in fact, many in the second and third generation don't even speak Spanish. What ties them together, the one single tie that binds all these cultures ..."

As he drumrolls towards his conclusion, I'm thinking that Will Cain learned something from growing up surrounded by a Hispanic community: a sense of drama.

" ... is this tradition celebrated across the whole diverse group: the quinceañera. I mean it is big! And the rest of America is starting to pay attention to it."

"Amen," I say. I'm writing a whole book about it.

As if he can hear my mind thinking, Will adds, "We would not be having this conversation right now if this were not so."

What Will realized was that there was no magazine out there that these girls could consult about the tradition and trends and fashions. "Girls were in chat rooms asking each other about the ceremony, what to do. It used to be you could learn these things from your grandmother ... " But with immigration and the amount of mobility in this country, la abuelita is not always a resource. Plus it's a different world than the one she grew up in. A different budget. Five thousand dollars is probably more than the grandparents earned in a year back in their home countries.

Does he think the tradition is becoming more popular here?

"Well," Will hesitates. He is rightly cautious about delivering opinions beyond what the numbers can tell him. "The quince tradition has always been important, but there's this retroculturation going on right now -- "

"Retroculturation?" This is the first I've heard of the term.

"It's a pattern that's been happening with the Hispanic community," Will goes on to explain. "First generation comes to the United States, and they push to assimilate. They adopt the American culture and norms. Second generation, they want to be all-American. Many don't even speak Spanish. They aren't that familiar with the culture. By the third generation, they're born and bred here, but they have this special something that makes them unique, their Hispanic culture. They want to learn Spanish -- many, in fact, speak more Spanish than the second generation. They make a concerted effort to hold on to their traditions, to establish cultural ties with their past."

Will quotes a study on Hispanic teens "just released today," by the Cheskin group, an international consulting and marketing firm that has done a great deal of research on Hispanics. The study confirms Will's point that the up-and-coming generation of Hispanic teens are "predominantly bilingual and bicultural," celebrating their ethnic identity and combining it with mainstream teen culture. "They live on MySpace.com and shop at Abercrombie, but they listen to Spanish radio and embrace diversity," a summary of the study reads. Most importantly for businesses that are considering purchasing the full report with its $5,850 price tag -- the cost of your average quinceañera -- is that Hispanic teens are a bellwether for one of the most important trends shaping the future of the United States -- the growth of the U.S. Hispanic population. Clearly, the future is theirs and they know it.

Meanwhile the present needs to be lived through and paid for.

By Julia Alvarez

Julia Alvarez is the author of the novels "How the GarcC-a Girls Lost Their Accents," "In the Time of the Butterflies" (a national Book Critics Circle Award finalist), and "Yo!." She has also published two poetry collections ("Homecoming" and "The Other side/El Otro Lado") and a collection of essays ("Something to Declare").

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