How Quinceaneras Gone From Indigenous Ceremonies to Women’s Independence Celebrations

At mitú, we celebrate our Latinx culture every day. This month, we partnered with Amtrak to celebrate the legacy of our past and where it will take us in the future.

Sparkling tiaras, bright pastel dresses adorned with jewels and flats that will be exchanged for heels, the extravagant quinceañera marks the rite of passage of a Latina teenager towards supposed femininity. Half-mass, half-massive celebration, the celebration commemorating the 15th birthday of a young woman is observed across Latin America and Latinx USA. The important step, now a 49 billion dollars of industry, is an ostentatious display of culture, faith, maturity, glamor and abundance. But where does this elaborate celebration come from and how far does it go from its roots?

Sociologists, journalists and religious leaders agree that the tradition has roots both in the indigenous cultures of Latin America, namely in what today is called Mexico and Central America, as well as ‘in Europe. At the beginning of the 15th century, before the Spaniards invaded and colonized Latin America, Indigenous groups held ceremonies which commemorated the majority of boys and girls.

Among the Mayans and Aztecs, it is believed that once young girls reached a certain age, they were separated from boys to prepare them to become young girls.

During these classes, they learned rules and practices regarding their role in family and community. Once the classes were over, the young woman exposed her new knowledge during an initiation ceremony which celebrated the young girl’s entry into adulthood. For the Aztecs in particular, the holiday also presented the young woman as someone who was ready to get married.

In the book, Quinceañera, Mexican-American author and scholar Ilan Stavans writes that a similar tradition was popular in Europe. There, when a young woman turned 18, the age at which people were expected to participate in society, they enjoyed a civil and religious ceremony that symbolized that transition. In 1980, journalist David Beard argued that when the Spanish imperialists landed in present-day Mexico in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, they blended their coming-of-age traditions into especially the Catholic components, with those of the indigenous groups. The new celebration, incorporating both indigenous and Western religious customs, quickly traveled across Latin America and the Spanish Caribbean. Back then, quinceañeras both symbolized a girl’s journey to femininity and also taught her religious and cultural ideas about gender roles. For example, priests and parents provided the teenager with archaic instructions on the behavior, expectations and sexuality of women.

While many original Indigenous and European traditions continue to be observed today in Latin America and the United States, time and culture have altered the celebration. Most quinces begin with a mass or ceremony – where the girl renews her commitment to her faith – which is followed by a banquet. At the reception, the birthday girl, dressed in a white ball gown and tiara, usually performs a long-rehearsed waltz with her 14 damask and 14 chamberlain. The multi-hour party doesn’t end until the girl has her symbolic transition to adulthood, whether it’s changing from flats to heels or receiving her last dolls.

It is becoming more and more common for young Latinas to modify even these modified traditions.

Many girls — and a growing number of non-binary boys and youth– abandon poofy white dresses for pastel or vibrant dresses and costumes of various styles. Some forgo the waltz and instead perform a choreographed routine around a popular pop, salsa or cumbia song. Others have theme nights around pop culture. Additionally, it is increasingly popular for Latinas in the United States to host a quinceañera-style party for her. 16th birthday, merging the cultural traditions of his parents with the coming-of-age customs of their new country.

These affairs are complete with dresses, tiaras, routine dances, tiered cakes, and champagne that they can now consume. More recently, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, families welcomed quinceaneras in the car for their daughters. Across the country, Latinas celebrate their 15th birthday by donning a typical extravagant dress and tiara while greeting relatives and friends as they drive past. Others celebrate their quince one to two years later, at 16 or 17, because of the pandemic.

A centuries-old tradition rooted in indigenous and European histories, it’s clear that quinceañeras remain as important to Latinas and their loved ones today as they were hundreds of years ago. Their importance to culture, family and faith is so strong that the celebration has endured through time, migration and international crises, often remixing into new iterations that honor its little-known history while embracing cultural developments and societal changes.

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