||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 girlís life, so it is a time for rejoicing
in the miracle of life and reaffirming oneís commitment to family, friends,
tradition, and community.
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 Davilaís dresses are custom made, reflecting the traditions
inherent in Puerto Rican society; they are meant to be handed down to the
next generation. Davilaís 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. Thatís 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 thatís 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 partsóthe mass
and the fiestaóand 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 girlís 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 girlís 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 girlís 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, letís take the bottom
part of this dress and the top of the other one. If they are satisfied,
Iím 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 didnít 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
Davila: Iím 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." Iím always talking to the parents and
tell them, "Iím here. I can help you in all youíll 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.