Most of the world makes a big deal out of 18th or 21st birthdays, a time-old coming of age ceremony where the youngster is finally regarded as a fully fledged adult. But for the teenage girls of Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America, la fiesta de quinceañera (15th birthday party) is the big day, often resulting in a lavish celebration that sees the entire community involved. Here’s what you need to know about the custom.
The Mexican fiesta de quinceañera, or XV, is thought to have primarily evolved from the customs of the indigenous Aztec and Mayan groups. Well before the arrival of the Spanish, these ancient cultures would separate young girls from their male peers to provide them with a specialized education in order to prepare them for the responsibilities of womanhood. The girls were mostly taught about domestic tasks and childrearing, although further education also depended on their expected role in society.
Upon completing such womanly training, a ceremony was held which marked the transition between girl and lady. These lavish events brought the whole community together and the girls were now considered learned members of society.
During Spanish colonial times, the young quinceañeras were also auctioned off to potential suitors as brides. These days, of course, 15 is considered a little young for marriage so that particular custom has almost entirely died out.
Spanish influence saw the event evolve to include a trip to the Catholic church for mass in order to give thanks for the girl’s transition. The quinceañera (the girl turning 15) would traditionally wear a white wedding-like gown, although she is often allowed to choose her color herself these days which, unsurprisingly, tends to be pink. Friends and family are expected to don their best formal attire.
After the praying is out of the way, the celebrants move on to an event space to finish off the celebrations. For rural or poorer communities, this may simply be a few chairs and tables set up outside, while richer families might rent out lavish banquet halls with extravagant decorations.
Most parties include a group of chambelanes, teenage male classmates or friends who perform a series of choreographed dance moves with the birthday girl. Traditionally, the waltz is the preferred style, though some modern genres such as breakdance have found their way into the routine.
At some point during the evening, the quinceañera will be presented with La última muñeca (the last doll), symbolizing the fact she no longer needs to play with toys. Consequently, she must pass the doll on to a younger sister or another girl at the event.
Another symbolic gesture is the changing of the shoes, where a proud father will remove the girl’s sneakers and replace them with a pair of elegant high heels. Furthermore, the girl will have put on make-up for the first time prior to the event to solidify her transition into womanhood.
Other interesting customs include El primer ramo de flores (her first flower bouquet), which represent the first flowers she receives as a woman, as well as the smashing of 15 candy-filled pinatas, one to express each year of her life.
All of this indulgence doesn’t come cheap, with some XV running into the tens of thousands of dollars. Yet the parents needn’t worry, as her godparents are often obliged to pay a large portion of the bill.