Treasure Coast Palm (Florida)
January 25, 2004

Behind the glamour: Preparing for the quinceañera

By Katie Campbell
Photographs by Molly Bartels

FELLSMERE ó On her quinceañera, the traditional Mexican 15th birthday celebration, Evelia Solis made a Cinderella-like transformation from a jeans and T-shirt adolescent into a starry-eyed damsel in pink.

The more than 500 guests at her debutante coming-out ball would see only pink perfection. They werenít privy to the intense work and tense moments that went into making the celebration seemingly effortless.

"Itís a lot of work," Solis family members repeated chronically in the final days before the event.

On Saturday, Sept. 20, the morning of the quinceañera, Evelia sat in her parentsí kitchen in Fellsmere calmly reapplying makeup. Around her chaos churned. Her nieces pranced from room to room in various stages of nudity as their mother tried to coerce them into frilly dresses. The phone rang with the persistence of an agitated chihuahua. And neighbor women stirred steaming pots of Mexican-style rice to serve guests that evening.

Hours later, the 500-member audience would see only a head table covered with finery with a princess-like birthday girl surrounded by tuxedo-clad young men.

"Publicly it seems like itís this harmonious event. The quinceañera itself is a symbol of unity, but behind the scenes there can be a lot of conflict between family members," said Professor Philip Williams, co-director of "Latino Immigrants in Florida," a research project funded by the Ford Foundation.

Although many preparations took place in the final hours, the Solis family first pondered Eveliaís elaborate entrance into the adult world when she turned 12. Actual planning began soon after her 14th birthday.

"This entire year has been focused on the event," Eveliaís sister, Velia Solis, 27, said.

The quinceañera festivities, which rivaled most weddings, last only one day, but the Solis family said they would remember the 12 months prior as "The year of the quinceañera."

A year ago

At 14, Evelia didnít want a quinceañera.

"The tradition was important to me, but at the same time I just wanted to do something with my friends. My sisters eventually sold me on it," Evelia said.

They convinced her by saying it would be a fairy tale day of dancing in public for the first time before hundreds of doting friends and family.

Celebrating a quinceañera would be an opportunity she would only have once, an opportunity three of her four older sisters had missed because either they didnít want one or they had rebelled against their fatherís rules.

They set the date about a year ahead, reserving the Our Lady of Guadalupe Church for the ceremonial Mass and the county fairgrounds Ag Expo Center for the dinner and dance.

Preparations begin

In the next six months the family hired a band from Mexico to play modern, cumbia dance music at the reception. They chose songs for Eveliaís debut on the dance floor and started looking at dresses.

In June, the Solis family crowded into three vehicles and made a 10-day pilgrimage to Monterrey, Mexico where quinceañera supplies are less expensive than in the United States. They spent their annual family vacation on a mission to find the perfect quinceañera dress, party invitations and decorations for the reception hall.

For four straight days, Evelia, her mother, three older sisters and their children trudged from store to store power shopping for baskets, party favors, table decorations, all in shades of pale pink, the traditional color of the quinceañera symbolizing girlhood.

Finding the dress wasnít easy in the cramped dress shops on the sultry streets of Monterrey. The sisters and mother voted for conservative dresses with long sleeves, but Evelia preferred more contemporary and revealing styles.

"It was hard to compromise. We fought a lot," Evelia said.

"She was very picky. She didnít like anything," her older sister, Velia Solis, 27, retorted.

Evelia chose a sugary pink, full-length, strapless gown with yards of coarse crinoline underskirts to puff up the skirt. She worried her father wouldnít approve of the bare shoulders, but Ramiro Solis, 49, crew leader for Graves Brothers Co, said, "If you like it. Itís OK with me."

Buying party dresses for Eveliaís nieces was just as taxing. The sisters plunged their petite girls in and out of hoop skirts and tea-length smocks trying to find correct sizes and coordinating colors.

At the end of the week the family spent about five hours at a photo studio where a photographer took full-length formal shots of Evelia in her dress. The 40-by-30 inch, framed portrait would be hung in her parentsí house until she marries and has her own home, Ramiro Solis said. After returning from Mexico, Evelia started selecting her court of chambelanes, or escorts for the dances.

"I had to find guys who were tall enough," Evelia said. At 5 feet, 4 inches, Evelia is the tallest of the Solis daughters. "I always wanted to be shorter."

The final week

Up until the day before the party, Evelia and her 10 escorts rehearsed four traditional dances choreographed by her sister, Asalia Solis, 28. In the final days, the to-do lists seemed to stretch and tempers shortened.

"No, despacio! Slow down!" Asalia Solis yelled at the teens hurriedly promenading to the baltz, a three step, waltz-like dance in the tennis courts across from Fellsmere Elementary School.

As the teenaged escorts became more uncooperative, forgetting their steps, Asalia Solis became more like a drill sergeant, yelling out orders in a mix of Spanish and English: "Despacio! (Slower!) Itís like youíre running! Entiendes? (You understand?)"

As the night settled in and the dance practice didnít seem to be nearing any final cadence, 8-year-old Thalia Solis, Eveliaís niece, tired of all the preparations, announced she didnít want a quinceañera.

"Good," her exhausted mother, Velia Solis, said. "Itís too much work."

"Mucho trabajo," repeated the matriarch of the family, Carmen Solis, whose face oozed fatigue by 10:30 the night before the party. She looked wearily at the volcano-shaped piles of chopped meat on the kitchen table waiting for their turn on the stove.

There was indeed too much work. And there are too many details to remember and too many hotheaded family members to appease, Velia Solis said.

"There were lots of arguments," Velia Solis said. "I canít wait till itís all over. Itís been stressful. I canít think straight. I canít sleep good."

Solis family members snipped at each other in the final days, but each still assisted with preparations whether delivering invitations, making table centerpieces, picking up tuxedos, decorating the church, preparing homemade pastries or cooking caldrons of pork for the dinner.

They came together to celebrate Eveliaís coming out.

"We had our ups and downs, but we had to stick together and put these problems aside because this is a family event," Velia Solis said.

Besides immediate family, in-laws and neighbors joined in for the final preparations. On the morning before the party, Ramiro Solis and five other men went to the Solisí farm and slaughtered one of the Solisí dozen steers for the quinceañera dinner. After four hours of skinning and slicing, Ramiro Solis wiped his forehead and gestured to the carcass hanging from the rafters of their shed, and said, "Weíve got to cut all of this into little chunky pieces."

The work was far from over. It was the first time theyíd slaughtered a steer just for a party. Not even for the weddings had they taken such extravagant measures.

"We decided, ĎWhy not?í Weíd do it ourselves," Ramiro Solis said.

Cooking the beef was about the only thing the Solis family didnít do themselves, and the sisters fretted over how the hired chef would flavor it.

"Iím worried the meat will be too salty. A lot of people are talking about the party. Theyíre saying this is supposed to be the biggest and the best," Velia Solis said. The Solis family may be considered lower middle class by general U.S. standards, but in Fellsmere they are seen as wealthy and a Solis quinceañera should match their well-respected status.

"Weíre trying our best to meet their expectations. Itís a lot of pressure," she said.

Quinceañera day

At the reception the sisters dressed in long, formal gowns acted as fairy godmothers continuing the behind-the-scenes work of scooping beef, pork, rice and chicken salad out of coolers and onto about 500 Styrofoam plates.

Their smiles hid the dark circles of exhaustion under their eyes. They had succeeded. The choreographed dances were performed flawlessly. The frilly pink hall decorations looked lavish. And the food was praised.

Taking a momentary break from the background work, Asalia Solis watched as her youngest sister spun around the dance floor smiling.

"Seeing her happy makes it all worth it."