The celebration of the advent of a girl’s 15th birthday is becoming more and more widespread and magnificent among Latino immigrants and their descendants. Though a long-time family tradition in their countries, its origin is uncertain. Many think it has pre-Hispanic Mexican beginnings, others believe it arrived with the wealthy families of Europe. In the United States it is widely celebrated by Mexicans who proudly consider it their tradition because they outnumber other Latino celebrants.
The tradition marks the passage of a young girl to adolescence and adulthood at a time when she may begin to menstruate and become capable of being a wife and mother. It began as a blending of rites of feminine puberty and traditional Catholic beliefs, and includes a special dress—akin to a bridal dress—and a grand party with a special Mass followed by a big and elegant dinner and the presentation of the girl to society. She dances a special waltz accompanied by her “chamberlain of honor” and an entourage of girls and their chamberlains, preferably 14 or 15 of them, along with her parents, godparents, other family members and friends.
An Internet search for the origin of this celebration yields incomplete and repetitive results. Websites say the tradition is a pre-Hispanic Aztec custom that dates from 500 B.C. and was used by priests in the Christianization of the Indians in the same way that other indigenous customs mixed with Catholic religious festivals, known as syncretism. This is a confusing explanation, since the Aztecs began as an identifiable group with the founding of their capital Tenochtitlán (the present day site of Mexico City) in 1325 and their empire ended with the Spanish conquest and the fall of the city in 1521. There are no data about Aztec or previous cultures’ traditions in Meso-America with respect to the initiation of 15-year-old girls, although the Mayans and other groups did sacrifice young girls and maidens to the gods. Nor are there reminiscences of these customs among present-day Indian groups.
What has existed in Europe, first among the nobility and later in the bourgeoisie with the advance of capitalism and the rise of the middle class, is the practice and celebration of presenting young girls to society and marrying them to socially prominent men. In Latin America, this custom was on the rise until the beginning of the last century only among wealthy societies with European, and later, American ideals, because not everybody could afford such a sumptuous party and since women were meant to be simply wives and mothers. Then came the “debutante balls” for wealthy girls of 18 years and older.
However, with industrialization and urbanization , the custom spread to the growing urban middle class as well as to lower social groups until it took root among the suburban poor and inhabitants of rural and indigenous regions, where they added or removed parts of the celebration. There are reports of 15th birthday parties among Latino middle-class immigrants in the 1930s. In Mexico, the more the rite was celebrated among the lower classes, the less popular it became among the middle and upper classes. By the 1970s and 80s the 15th birthday party had become a decadent event and a pretext for youthful excesses. Many wealthy and refined girls viewed the celebration as vulgar, and opted to spend money on a trip abroad or simply to save it and have a simpler party without all the ritual.
Thus the social pressure of the coming-of-age party was transferred to the emerging social groups, who adopted it as their own and gave it the exaggerated, sumptuous character it now has. Recently, the celebration has become much more prevalent among immigrants here, both because of their increased presence and their ability of buy things that they could not afford back home. The result is a commercialized and expensive event, given the high cost of the necessary instruments and paraphernalia, as well as the expertise of those who design the celebration and teach the participants how to dance the waltz in harmony.
As with many other expressions of popular Mexican or Latin American culture, the immigrants in the U.S., thanks to their nationalistic enthusiasm and new buying power, have rescued, revisited and reinvented these traditions, removing or adding to customs that otherwise would have been lost or would have evolved in other directions. This is visible in changes in music, clothing, cuisine and even religious expressions, especially those of immigrants of rural origin. Finally, they changed the name of the festival to quinceañera, a term that refers to a girl who has reached that age, and local customs were added, such as renting a limousine.
Victor Reyes is a Sonoma-based translator, language teacher and writer and a native of Puebla, Mexico with decades-old ties to West Marin. The Spanish language version of this column is available online.