The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
September 19, 2004

A Party That Takes the Cake When Latinas Turn 15, It's No Ordinary Bash, As Hispanic Buying Power Brings Opulence

As 15-year-old Sofia Romero tried on her white quinceanera dress with a touch of blue, she sounded like an anxious bride.

"I am excited and nervous at the same time," said Sofia, a freshman at Central Gwinnett High School, shortly before the event. "I just hope everything goes well."

Sofia and her mother, Tess Thompson, chose the color "ice blue" for the quinceanera (pronounced keen-say-ah NYAIR-ah) six months ago. Sofia's mom spent her evenings wrapping lace around lamps to use as table centerpieces. They rented space at a banquet hall to accommodate 250 guests, and Sofia rode from the church in a limo. A throng of mariachi performers (which included her father) greeted her.

All told, the costs for the late August quinceanera --- a party and ceremony to mark the 15th birthday for Latinas --- added up to about $7,000.

It raises the question --- Will Sofia's future wedding be able to top this? Sofia's mother sighed at the thought.

"I hope she elopes," said Thompson, as she leaned into an oversized couch with a file more than an inch thick of party details. "No, I am kidding. But it has been a lot of work. This is going to be a very big event."

The painstaking details and the rising costs of quinceaneras are transforming this coming-of-age festivity into an expensive, major life event. Sure, there's cake to mark the 15th birthday. But now, the cake is usually several tiers with the color of icing matching the dress.

Quinceaneras have mushroomed into a spending extravaganza --- typically ranging between $2,000 and $5,000, but sometimes tipping the $10,000 mark. Fueled by the surge in Hispanic buying power, the spending on this ancient ceremony --- which now includes everything from flowers to professional photographers to rented hotel space --- is perhaps the most visible sign of a growing Latino middle class.

In Georgia alone, Hispanics are expected to increase their buying power --- otherwise known as disposable income --- to $10.9 billion this year, an increase of more than 700 percent from the $1.3 billion level in 1990, according to a study released last month by the University of Georgia's Selig Center for Economic Growth.

Retailers --- not just the mom and pop stores scattered around metro Atlanta --- are paying attention. Even Wal-Mart has announced it will offer the puffy white or pastel dresses in select stores across the country, including an upcoming debut at the Morrow store. David's Bridal also offers quinceanera dresses --- starting at $299 --- which are essentially wedding dresses without the trains.

A local Spanish-language phone book devotes almost two pages to quinceanera businesses, hawking everything from rice paper invitations to chocolate party favors.

Travel agents who work with Royal Caribbean to offer seven-day quinceanera cruises out of Miami (at $850 to $1,200 a head) are already booked solid into next year.

However, some observers in the Latino community are not exactly celebrating the trend. While the quinceaneras are steeped in cultural traditions, some believe the spending --- such an American trait --- has gotten out of control.

"The families are more worried about renting a space, about the cake and the food and the dress than the real significance of quinceaneras," said the Rev. Juan Carlos Arce of Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Atlanta, who spoke in Spanish. "It's become something crazy."

At Saida's Bridal & Formal shop in Norcross, racks holding silk wedding dresses share valuable space with the pink and baby blue full-skirted ball gowns for quinceaneras.

On a recent Saturday, dozens of young girls eagerly tried on dresses. Surrounded by jewelry cases, tiaras and champagne glasses filled with blue candles, younger family members sat on couches perusing dress catalogs, dreaming about their big day. A corner of the room is filled with 2-foot-tall dolls with dresses --- some customized to match exactly the quinceanera gown.

"Three more years till it's my turn," said 12-year-old Alejandra Areualo, who smiles at a floor-length white satin gown in a catalog. Going overboard?

In an effort to downplay the party aspect, the Hispanic Cultural Center of Idaho created in 1998 the "Stay in School Quinceanera Program," which addresses teen pregnancy, self-esteem issues and the importance of getting a diploma. The program, with sessions that last for months, also teaches participating Latinas how to waltz and make crowns out of wax flowers.

While there is no such program in Georgia yet, Maralan Wooten, who is a social worker for Georgia's Latin American Association, said the quinceanera tradition needs to be modified.

"I would love to see a program where it's not just the dress and the party but also talk about staying in school and other issues," said Wooten. "At the very least, the message will have to change."

Some community leaders, including Maria Peterka, who works in youth services at the Latin American Association, complain the money is misplaced, particularly considering the high school dropout rate among Latinos.

The state average dropout rate for Hispanics is 8.3 percent compared with a state average for all students of 5.5 percent, according to data released by the state's Office of Student Achievement.

"I have three boys, but if I had a daughter, I would use the $10,000 for college, something that could help them with their life," said Peterka. Changed meaning

Over the years, the message of the quinceanera has changed, but it still blends religious messages with a fancy party --- not much different than the coming-of-age bar mitzvahs for boys and bat mitzvahs for girls celebrated by Jewish families.

It used to be that the quinceanera signaled a girl was ready for marriage. Today, the event means the girl is ready for dating. For many Latinas, the quinceanera also marks the first time a girl can wear makeup and dance with a boy.

Most churches require the girls attend what is known as platicas, a kind of quinceanera-prep course at the church. The priest talks about faith, personal responsibility, virginity, taking care of one's health and staying in school and away from drugs.

But shop owner Oscar Espinoza, who grew up in Mexico, doesn't see the big spending for quinceanera parties in the United States as any deviation from the Latino cultures many Hispanics have left behind. In fact, he believes Latinos, regardless of where they are, revel in such celebrations. In Mexico, quinceaneras are often celebrated with plenty of revelry, but they are usually more casual affairs that look more like a family barbecue than a formal sit-down dinner.

While costs rise, many Hispanic families continue to get help from padrinos --- family and friends who help pay for the event.

"What is driving this here is still the Mexican culture. Mexicans like to party and celebrate," said Espinoza. "We like the long weekend. At Easter, everything closes for several days." Espinoza also pointed to "Dia de los Muertos" (Day of the Dead) --- also a cause of celebration, as families visit the graves of their beloved with candles, flowers and even cooked meals.

Indeed, the quinceanera seems to be not much more than a good excuse for throwing a great party for Sofia and her mom.

And why not, says her mom, Tess Thompson, who works as an interpreter.

The quinceanera also won't open the doors to many new teen perks that come with being 15. Sofia can already wear makeup and go to the mall without her mom. She's already wearing a gold ring on her wedding finger with the "15" inside a heart.

So will anything change for Sofia?

"She will get a little more freedom," said Thompson, "but not much."

Copyright 2004