|The Quinceaños, or la fiesta Quinceañera, is a rite of passage for fifteen-year-old Latina girls. It is a community and family celebration full of tradition and meaning when a young girl is symbolically escorted into womanhood by her family and the event is witnessed by her community. The word itself comes from the Spanish quince, "fifteen," and años, "years." The origins of the Quinceañera are often attributed to the ancient customs of the Aztecs, but the ceremony and meaning behind it are similar to other ancient cultural initiation rites that occurred throughout the world. Fifteen was the age when many young women left their family home to become wives and then mothers, and almost as though passing through an invisible door, a Latina enters her Quinceañera as a child but emerges as a young woman with new responsibilities. Those who know and love her will see and treat her differently from that day forward.
For Latinas from Latin American and Puerto Rico, this is an old and revered tradition. The celebration as we know it today in the United States became popular in the 1930s and continues, even flourishing in communities where custom and ritual rekindle ethnic and family ties. But Quinceañeras, like mostly strongly held traditions, is not a static event, and the ways it is celebrated are changing with the times. Now many girls have combined the "American" concept of "sweet sixteen" with what would have been their Quinceañera. A Barbie Quinceañera doll in some cases replaces the handmade ultima muneca, and families are beginning to celebrate the "coming of age" of their sons, too. These blendings of cultures can be found in many aspects of our traditional lives. Some have to do with the breakdown of traditional life, and some with a world of changing cultural mores. In whatever form it may take, a Quinceñera is a very special event happening only once in a girls life, so it is a time for rejoicing in the miracle of life and reaffirming ones commitment to family, friends, tradition, and community.
Quinceañera capia made by Francisca "Panchita" Davila. Photo: Mary Zwolinski
On the banks of the Mohawk River is the town of Amsterdam, home to one of the oldest and largest Latino communities in upstate New York. Francisca "Panchita" Davila was one of the people who made the trip to Amsterdam in 1960 from her rural home in Salina, Puerto Rico. Her parents were farmers who grew sweet potatoes, yucca, yams, corn, beans, coffee, and breadfruit. She learned the arts of crochet and tailoring from her mother, Mercedes Torres. They worked together at home, embroidering and sewing for the family but also for other people in the village.
Today Panchita Davila is a dressmaker and planner of the traditional Quinceañera. In most urban areas, dresses for the event are bought at stores, but Davilas dresses are custom made, reflecting the traditions inherent in Puerto Rican society; they are meant to be handed down to the next generation. Davilas own experiences prepared her for her current role as community seamstress and Quinceañera planner.
Davila: I was kind of born with the idea of being a sewer, or better, a designer, but I did not have the opportunity to be a designer. I used to see my mom sewing. Thats how little by little I learned how to sew. When I was going to turn fifteen, I did not have any plans to celebrate my fifteenth birthday because we were poor and we were a big family, but all my friends from school came into agreement that I should celebrate my sweet fifteen. They collected five or six dollars, which in that time was a lot of money. With that money I was able to go to a warehouse where they sold materials and thats how I did the first sweet fifteen dress. Then people started asking me to design dresses to go to parties, but my favorite was making dresses for the sweet fifteen.
The Quinceañera has two partsthe mass and the fiestaand both events are filled with symbolic gestures and moments. Like most celebrations, the extent to which the Quinceañera is celebrated has as much to do with social class and family status as the individual wishes of the birthday girl. But there are some aspects that are common to all Quinceañeras.
Davila: For the ceremony in the church, the sweet fifteen girl most of the times comes with seven to eight young couples, symbolizing the number fifteen. Two little kids are chosen to carry the pillows. The boy carries a pillow with the shoes, her first high heels, and the little girl carries a heart-shaped pillow with the crown.
The most symbolic act during the Quinceañera is the changing of the shoes. The girls father switches her shoes, from the flats she arrived in, to the high heels she will leave in. Shoes and crowns play a pivotal role in the birthday girls transformation in the eyes of the community from girl to young woman.
Davila: At the fiesta, the father dances with his daughter and then the mother takes her and dances with her until they get to the make-believe throne. The crown is put on her head by the mother, and when the girl is sitting, the father comes and takes off her sandals and puts on the high heels. Then the father takes his princess out to dance again and from there the party continues.
Maintaining tradition takes work and Panchita does what she can to make a girls sweet fifteenth birthday a special one, including working closely with the girl and her family.
Davila: It costs a lot of money to go to a store and buy a dress for a sweet fifteen; it is like going to buy a wedding dress. When the family come to me, they bring more than one style, and here I help them combine. For example, lets take the bottom part of this dress and the top of the other one. If they are satisfied, Im satisfied myself.
In the past few years Panchita has noticed some fundamental changes creeping in.
Davila: When I came to Amsterdam there were many Spanish-speaking people so I made many sweet fifteen dresses. After a while, the daughters didnt want to celebrate the sweet fifteen any longer. They wanted to celebrate the sweet sixteen. But I coordinated the events with a broken heart because I wanted people to keep celebrating the sweet fifteen and to keep the culture alive forever.
To Panchita Davila the Quinceañera is more than just a birthday party.
Davila: The Quinceañera is important because from that day on the sweet fifteen girl can find a good path to become a better person with new ideas, because until that day everything was made easy for her, everything was beautiful. Now she will grow up to be a matured person with many respon-sibilities. Little by little, the sweet fifteen celebrations are becoming history for many of our people.
For Panchita it is a personal quest to keep this tradition alive.
Davila: Im always trying to talk to the girls when they are fourteen, and if I know them or the parents know me, I tell the parents, "Next year your daughter is going to be fifteen. Are you going to celebrate her sweet fifteen?" Sometimes they may say, "Oh, but she wants the new generation style." I say, "She is pure Hispanic and in our culture it is important when they turn fifteen. We should keep the culture and not let it die." Im always talking to the parents and tell them, "Im here. I can help you in all youll need." So there can always be a few girls that want to celebrate their sweet fifteen. Anyway, I will keep doing what I believe until the day that I die.
This interview was conducted by Ladan Alomar and Mary Zwolinski and recorded by Dale Johnson, with translation by Ladan Alomar, and narration by Mary Zwolinski. The documentary was produced by Robert Brown of WMHT Public Radio, Schenectady, who also produced the radio documentary on chain saw carving (Voices 26:3-4). Executive producers of The Voices of New York Traditions series are Dale Johnson and Lamar Bliss.
The Quinceañera is important because from that day on the sweet fifteen girl can find a good path to become a better person with new ideas, because until that day everything was made easy for her, everything was beautiful. Now she will grow up to be a matured person with many responsibilities...
This column appeared in Voices Vol. 28, Fall-Winter 2002. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.
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