San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Quinceañera: In Latin America, It’s Sweet 15

The gathering was huge. People of all ages came from down in the valley, from up in the foothills, from Cartago and from east San José. The garage throbbed with strobe lights and the beat of reggaetón (Latin America’s answer to hip-hop). In the small concrete house, packed with people front to back, a pot the size of a beer keg full of prime beef bubbled on the fogón (hearth). Beside it sat pots of arracache (a tropical tuber), rice, beans and huge plates of empanadas, pejibayes (fruit of the peach palm) and cajetas (a kind of milk fudge, minus the chocolate).

Manuelita, the young lady of the house, had turned 15.

Later, after all had gorged themselves, there was a ceremony in which the newly minted 15-year-old danced with her father in a circle of onlookers.

It was a rite of passage.

But let’s take a step back. Most of us have seen the documentaries on television and glossy pictures in National Geographic of pubescent children, usually African boys, undergoing a rite of passage, coming-of-age or initiation ceremony. In these, the child must undergo some kind of ordeal, generally involving cutting, tattooing or scarring, so that thereafter he might enjoy the status of an adult in the tribe. We are also familiar with the “spirit quests,” involving fasting and journeying alone into the wilderness for several days or weeks, that young Native American boys of certain tribes must undertake to find their spirit animal and thereafter take on their adult name.

Most of us associate these rituals with boys in primitive tribes. This does not mean, however, that there are no rituals for girls. In some tribes, there may be, but they tend to be less spectacular than the male rituals, so we see fewer of them on TV and in print. What we seldom see, however, if at all, are tribes that hold rituals only for girls.

Or do we?

As an adolescent in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, I often read sentimental novels involving beautiful debutantes and their coming-out balls on the East Coast. I never stopped to ask myself what a “debutante” or “coming-out” ball was. It was rather like reading about princesses and castles, the domain of romantic fantasy.

To clarify, a debutante (from the French débutante, “female beginner”) is a pubescent  girl from an upper-class family who is introduced to society at a formal presentation known as her “debut.” Originally, it meant the young woman was ready to marry, and was so displayed to eligible bachelors withina select upper-class circle. Similarly, Sweet 16 parties were once given as a celebration of a young girl’s virginity. These included certain rituals, such as the exchanging of flat shoes for her first high heels.

To put it bluntly, debutantes, coming-out balls and Sweet 16 parties serve the purpose of putting girls on the auction block.

Latin America has its own version of the debutante ritual: the quinceañera. The word comes from quince, meaning 15, which, at one time, was regarded as the age of maturity here (and in some ways still is). A young Latina enters her quinceañera as a child and emerges as a woman. Those who know and love her will see and treat her differently from that day forward.

The quinceañera ritual has been traced to 500 B.C. in the Aztec culture, in which a girl of 15 was considered apt for motherhood. The Aztecs celebrated this coming of- age with a ceremony, dance and some words of wisdom from the girl’s mother. When the Spanish  conquered America, they supposedly adopted this tradition, replacing the Aztec temple with the Catholic Church.

Nevertheless, while the roots may well lie in the Aztec culture, the origins of the quinceañera remain obscure. The Mayas and Toltecs also celebrated elaborate rites of passage for their young men and women. Rites of passage are known to have existed in Spain as well, and the conquistadores may have brought the practice to Mesoamerica. It is possible the missionaries would have approved of this practice, since these rites closely resembled Catholic confirmation and even marriage, in which the father “gives away” his daughter, then dances with her at the reception while everyone looks on.

The traditional quinceañera has two parts, the Mass and the fiesta, and both events are filled with symbolic gestures and moments. For the church ceremony, the Sweet-15 girl most of the time comes with seven to eight young couples, symbolizing the number 15. Two small children, a boy and a girl, are chosen to carry the pillows. The boy carries a pillow with the shoes, the young woman’s first high heels, and the little girl carries a heart-shaped pillow with a crown.

The most symbolic act during the traditional quinceañera is the changing of the shoes. The girl’s 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 thebirthday girl’s transformation in the eyes of the community from girl to young woman.

Nowadays, these traditions are not followed as much as before, and, most certainly, parents are no longer announcing to the community that their daughter is available for marriage.

Manuelita’s quinceañera was a combination of modern and traditional. She tottered around for a while in her new high heels, crown perched on her head, and even managed a dance with her dad until she could manage no more and returned to her flats.

As for the reggaetón, well, that may never have been part of the Aztec or Catholic rite, but these days, when it’s difficult to keep the young attentive to tradition, it certainly did the trick.

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