Hispanic Magazine
November 1999

Sweet 15

A Financial Affair

Latinos know well the financial sacrifices of throwing a girl’s fifteenth birthday party, known as a quinceañera or a fiesta de los quince, depending on where you are in the United States. Some parents work part time, go into debt, or save for years to pay for an affair that can cost more than $15,000. Upholding this coming-of-age celebration rooted in Spanish traditions and indigenous cultures of Latin America is definitely expensive.

So where does all this hard-earned money go? It goes mostly to businesses that specialize in weddings and don’t advertise services for quinceañeras. Some are specialty shops that make the damas dresses or rent the chambelanes tuxedos. Some are large operations that offer one-stop shopping for the meal, music, decorations, and hall.

The owners of ten businesses surveyed by HISPANIC Magazine say quince affairs offer respectable profits, although the celebrations are by no means their bread and butter. Business owners in San Antonio, Los Angeles, and Miami estimated quince affairs make up 10 to 25 percent of their work.

Several factors curb quinceañera business in America. Some debutantes and their courts buy their dresses and tiaras in Mexico. Others get their goods from people who work at home. One woman who runs a catering business from her home declined an interview because she didn’t want the health department to inspect her kitchen and because she doesn’t pay taxes.

“Quinceañeras are just a small percentage of our business,” says Martha Pérez, an event coordinator in the Hispanic market for Good Gracious, a catering and event company in west Los Angeles. “A lot of people have their grandma do the food and their aunt do the dress, and they hold it in the backyard. They don’t have the money, so they do all the work themselves.”

In Texas, the Catholic Church also has taken a toll on quinceañera spending. In Austin, priests of six predominantly Mexican American parishes passed a resolution in 1987 that discouraged families from spending lots of money on the tradition. The priests disapproved of the unnecessary financial burden on some families. Instead, they encouraged a return to a “simpler, more spiritual approach.”

Today, five of those churches still are upholding the resolution and two of them don’t offer individual quinceañera masses. Many of the churches also require quince candidates to be active in youth ministry for a year before their debut and to attend a one-day religious retreat before their mass. As a result, debutantes have flocked to the sixth church with less strict requirements, says Jesse Luna, a sexton at St. Julia’s Catholic Church.

A debutante’s dress is among the first items a quinceañera dreams about when planning her affair. Tatiana Alvarez of Miami celebrated her fiesta de los quince recently.

In San Antonio, the archdiocese has taken a similar stance. San Fernando Cathedral, for example, holds a yearly group quinceañera mass for nearly fifteen girls in May. Girls must attend a year of religious study to qualify. The church then provides a party for them after the mass, says Jennifer Comi, a San Fernando parishioner and manager of the youth department for San Antonio’s Central Library.
Despite some snags, the tradition is alive and well. A hunger for information on quince celebrations in San Antonio prompted Comi to stockpile reference materials at the library. During Hispanic Heritage Month in September, she posted the first Web site dedicated exclusively to quinceañera parties. 

The site at www.youthwired.sat.lib.tx.us offers tips for planning a fiesta de los quince, information on quinceañera traditions, personal quinceañera accounts, Web resources, and books. Comi also was planning for nearly 200 girls to attend a quinceañera workshop in October on everything from doing hair and makeup to choosing a dress.
“There seems to be a hunger for this information, and I think it’s important for us to key into that interest,” Comi says. “It’s important that girls who want to do this very traditional thing have an outlet for their interest. We are building a Web site and a book collection to validate them.”
As interest in the tradition remains strong, word of mouth keeps business rolling in, even without advertising or support from Catholic churches in Texas. Here’s a look at a few quinceañera businesses and the services they offer.

Accents and Accessories, Miami

Adebutante’s dress is among the first items she dreams about when she plans her fiesta de los quince. Will she wear a traditional white gown with beads and lace or will she choose a trendy pink, lavender, or blue shade, perhaps with a ribbed fitted bodice and an organza bottom?
Assistant Manager Gerry Leyva and his six employees help debutantes make these all-important decisions. They can either custom-make a dress or order one from a catalogue. They also help coordinate the damas dresses with tuxedos they rent to the chambelanes.
Leyva’s store specializes in weddings, with quinceañeras making up nearly 25 percent of total sales. He tried advertising in an English-language magazine to pick up quince business and didn’t notice results. Advertising in a Spanish-language publication probably would be more useful, Leyva says.
“We see quinceañeras as an opportunity to expand,” Leyva said. “There are a lot of variables to it. You don’t just deal with one family. You deal with all of their friends, too. The best kind of advertising is word of mouth.”

Mariachi Internacional de Manuel Vega, San 

Every debutante deserves to be serenaded by mariachis during her fiesta de los quince. Manuel Vega and his seven-person mariachi band have been providing girls with this flattery for the past 22 years. They’ll perform songs from Vicente Fernández, Lola Beltrán, José Alfredo Jiménez, and Javier Solís for an hour or two at $300 an hour.
Vega and company primarily play weddings, anniversaries, and conventions. Quinces make up nearly 20 percent of their work. They have performed on television from time to time, but Vega considers word of mouth the best advertising.
“We have a lot of clients that we have known for many years and we keep in touch with them,” Vega says in Spanish. “We play weddings more than anything, but definitely we play quinceañeras.”

Good Gracious,
Los Angeles

Pérez wants the debutante and her family to sit back and relax during the quince affair. Pérez will take care of everything.
Before the party, Pérez will discuss a budget with the family and refer them to businesses within their means for the location, music, and dresses. Pérez also will help them plan a menu that her company provides for $25 to $29 a person.
Pérez will then attend the quince party to ensure everything runs smoothly. She charges $75 an hour for coordinating and usually spends 20 to 25 hours per quince.
Shopping List

Cake Decoration............... $60
Shoes.............................. $65
Hair.................................. $40
Food/Drinks/Banquet Hall.....(per person) $40
Party Mementos..................$250
Tuxedo Rental.....................$65
Champagn Glasses............. $50
Park (for photo)...................$100
Park: (for photo)..................$100

Pérez’s company primarily coordinates weddings, corporate functions, and museum openings. Quinceañeras make up 7 to 10 percent of the company’s businesses. Most of its quinceañera business comes from referral book at the Latin Business Association, Pérez says.

Signature Gardens, Miami

Debutantes looking for the royal treatment hold their parties at this Renaissance-style Mediterranean mansion in southwest Miami. Guests enjoy valet parking, a grand staircase, mirrored ballrooms, and handmade Spanish-tile floors.
The 85,000 square-foot banquet facility has five ballrooms and can accommodate 1,200 people. It provides one-stop shopping for everything from invitations and photography to music, flowers, and food, says wedding services concierge Michelle De La Torre.

Waiters in black tuxedos and white gloves provide guests with French service for a several-course meal that may include filet mignon, lobster, or chicken. An open bar, hors d’oeuvres, a sparkling cider toast, and a layered cake also are available. The debutante’s family buys a package that includes a $35 to $50 price per plate and a fee for other services. Parties usually cost between $5,000 and $8,000, De La Torre says.

The mansion hosts nearly 100 quinces a year. Weddings account for nearly 70 percent of the mansion’s revenues. Quinces comprise nearly 15 percent, and it’s mostly word-of-mouth business. Debutantes also find out about the mansion’s services through bridal shows held at the mansion three times a year, De La Torre says.

Monte Carlo Studio and Bridal, San Antonio

Mary Jane Flores’ business is an exception to the norm when it comes to quinces. Flores co-owns a photography studio and bridal shop dedicated primarily to quinceañeras. It offers one-stop shopping for memorabilia, decorations, photographs, and formal wear for girls, Flores says.

Seamstresses dress the debutante and her damas from head to toe. Meanwhile, photographers take a 16-by-20 inch portrait of the debutante to display at the party and shoot candid pictures during the celebration, Flores says.
Client demand shifted the focus of Flores’ business from weddings to quinces over the past twenty years. Clients would come to her store looking for hard-to-find quince items, such as guest books in English, scepters, or tiaras with the number “15” on them. Flores would get on the phone and track the items down.

Over the years, Flores also has invested in equipment for making the last dolls, sometimes from porcelain, and for stamping gold letters on memorabilia, such as photographs, ribbons, and invitations.

“If someone comes into our store and asks for something we don’t have, we don’t turn them away,” Flores says. “We contact companies and we find the items. We’re trying to find what the other places can’t find, to be a very unique place.”

As a result, quinces make up nearly 85 percent of Flores’ business. To keep interest flowing, Flores is among the few businesses that advertise quinceañera services. Flores spends $6,000 to run television advertisements twice a year for a month on one Mexican American station and two English-language stations with large teenage audiences, Flores says.

“We always know when the ads are running, because we get an immediate response,” Flores says. “The phones start ringing with people saying, ‘We saw your ad and just got the phone number. Where are you?’ It’s a good investment. A quinceañera has a lot of money to spend. She is just like a bride. She has a cake, the food, the music, the hall, everything. The only difference is Mama takes her home at night.”

Gary’s Tux Shops, Van Nuys, California

L ike Flores, Scott Thomas believes in the power of the quinceañera dollar. Thomas is marketing director of the largest retail tuxedo chain on the West Coast. His chain has nearly 120 shops in areas with large Hispanic populations, such as California, Arizona, and Nevada.

To tap into this market, Thomas spent two months learning about quince parties. He interviewed at least 30 debutantes, damas and chambelanes, mothers, fathers, and priests. Thomas also researched the history of the tradition at libraries and on the Internet.

Thomas used his knowledge to produce the only quinceañera planning booklet he’s aware of. It gives information about quince parties in both English and Spanish. Thomas hands it out to quince planners at churches.

The chain’s employees also benefit from Thomas’ knowledge. They receive training on fiesta de los quince history, on the religious significance, and on the court-member rolls. The chain also aims at hiring employees who have attended quinces and who speak English and Spanish, Thomas says.
“People are sometimes shocked and relieved and happy that they don’t have to explain the whole thing,” Thomas says. “Sometimes we know more than they do and have more 

Quinceañeras love to be surrounded by family,best friends, and schoolmates at their fiestas de los quince.In Miami, Tatiana Alvarez’s friends enjoyed the special occasion this summer

ideas to make their quinceañera even better. Quinceañeras are an integral part of our business, and we think it’s important to uphold the tradition.”

Despite Thomas’ efforts, quinces make up about 10 percent of the chain’s business. The chain rents the basic black tuxedos to chambelanes at a special rate. If a court has seven chambelanes, one tuxedo is free, and if it has fourteen, two tuxedos are free, Thomas says.
“Quinceañeras are an integral part of our business,” Thomas says. “We do business in Latin areas, and we think it’s important to uphold their traditions. Quinceañeras are a tradition, and it isn’t going away because of the church looking down on the family spending all their money on it. It’s too much of a revered tradition.” 

Kimberly Garcia