Treasure Coast Palm (Florida)
January 25, 2004

Old-world tradition in a modern time: Quinceañera day

By Katie Campbell staff writer
Photographs by Molly Bartels

FELLSMERE — When musicians serenaded her outside her bedroom window at 6 a.m. the day of her 15th birthday celebration, Evelia Solis didn’t know the womanly response to such a gesture was shedding tears of joy.

"I thought she was going to come out in tears," said a somewhat disappointed father, Ramiro Solis, who secretly set up the predawn serenade. "But she handled it like a girl."

Standing in pink slippers on the front stoop of a modest one-story salmon-pink house on South Elm Street in Fellsmere, Evelia’s emotions didn’t overcome her. She tried to stifle yawns and look as if she appreciated being awakened in the early morning darkness after six hours of sleep on the day that would be one of the most glamorous of her life.

The quinceañera, a Mexican social and religious coming-of-age celebration for 15-year-old girls, symbolized the end of Evelia’s childhood. For that day, she would look like a princess and be treated like a queen, but there was no instruction book for how royalty should act before the expectant eyes of her father, her family and society. The baby girl of the Solis family said she wasn’t looking forward to womanhood.

"It’s kind of sad to not be a kid any more," Evelia said.

Tussling with her nieces and nephews and playing with toys were supposed to end. "It feels like I won’t be able to any more. There will be no Barbies for sure," she said.

She didn’t want to discard the stuffed animals decorating her bedroom. "But my brother said, ‘You’re getting old, you’re not allowed to be playing with teddy bears anymore.’ " The bears were banished.

Becoming a woman

For the rest of the quinceañera morning, the 15-year-old was primped into maturity. Her long dark hair was twisted and pinned up. Eyelashes were curled with a spoon. Eyelids were painted pink.

Long, artificial fingernails tapped together nervously. She never had such long nails before and predicted she’d end up breaking or biting them, but her womanly appearance only had to survive the day. Expectations for the days following hadn’t been established, she said.

Historically, the quinceañera marked the time when a girl can date, said Uva de Aragon, Florida International University’s Latin American Center assistant director. Tradition dictated that her father’s sheltering rules — no dating, no calling on the phone, no extracurricular activities, no going to the movies without relatives — would be lifted once she turned 15.

But Evelia wasn’t sure if freedom would actually follow. The discussion seemed taboo, she said.

Communication, especially regarding sexuality, has become difficult between traditional Mexican fathers and their second-generation immigrant daughters, said Phillip Williams, co-director of a Ford Foundation study of Florida’s Latino immigrants.

"Traditionally, the father’s role is controlling the daughter’s sexuality. He attaches different meaning to the quinceañera than she does. He expects she will continue to value her virginity and purity," Williams said. "But for young girls growing up in the U.S. who have access to media, they’re viewing youth expressing themselves sexually in ways that don’t jibe with their parents’ traditions."

Although forbidden, Evelia said she has had boyfriends in the past. She would only see her suitors at school or church — not on private dates — but Evelia felt she had to hide them from her parents.

New freedoms

Five days before the quinceañera, Ramiro Solis watched his daughter and her escorts practice the traditional dances for the reception. Gesturing proudly toward Evelia, he said to nearby male relatives, "After Saturday she can go to the movies. Now she can date."

He would bestow trust, so she learned to respect that trust.

"She can have a boyfriend, but if they want to go out, he’ll have to pick her up at 6 o’clock and have her back home by 10 p.m.," he said, tapping on his wristwatch authoritatively.

When Evelia later learned of her father’s proclamation, her eyes shone with surprised excitement as she pondered the possibilities before her. Becoming an adult suddenly seemed more enticing. She could try out for the basketball team, get a job, buy a cell phone, go to the movies with her friends and maybe even stop hiding her relationships.

"I hope everything changes. I’ll enjoy the freedom," she said.

Decisions loom

As she glided down the church aisle, the upcoming changes seemed far from Evelia’s mind at the start of the ceremony that recognized her as an adult in the church. With her father escorting her out afterward, Evelia looked like a bride. For the first time, being a bride was possible because the quinceañera honors the gender roles of females becoming wives and mothers.

Hispanic girls in the United States aren’t expected to marry as teens anymore, de Aragon said. But in the Solis family, it’s not unusual to marry at age 16. If Evelia followed three of her four older sisters, she would marry in the next year and not complete high school.

Since sixth grade, however, Evelia has wanted to attend college and become a second-grade teacher.

"When I was small I played school with my nieces. I was always the teacher. I told my parents that I wanted to be a teacher and they said, ‘Fine.’ My dad was proud of me," she said.

With marriage as a possibility though, she’s torn about her plan to attend college.

"I want to get married, but I also want to go to college. I see the pluses in both options," she said.

Difficult decisions loomed just ahead, but Evelia postponed them during her quinceañera. For that day, her concerns were keeping her makeup fresh, walking gracefully and remembering the steps for her debut on the dance floor.

Looking on at his young sister-in-law, Andy Cantu, 41, said he had high hopes for the bright-eyed teenager.

"Evelia is a good girl. She’s made it to here and has followed the rules. This party is to show our affection for her. It tells her ‘You’re grown now. You have to look at your future and your life. You have to be a smart person with a good heart.’ "

Cantu said he hoped her future decisions would coincided with her parents’ wishes. Evelia’s sister, Asalia Solis, 28, agreed.

"We just want her to make something of herself, to get ahead in life."

Smiles lit Evelia’s face through the day, but her father didn’t get proof of her happiness until the father-and-daughter dance. He presented Evelia to the community and she was given a doll, representing her last childhood toy.

"Are you happy? Aren’t you going to cry?" he asked, smiling at her.

This time Ramiro Solis wasn’t disappointed. Tears welled under Evelia’s painted eyelids. In one day, she had made the transition.

Clutching the doll to her chest, she rested her head on her father’s shoulder in a childlike manner. But by her father standards she had expressed adult emotions in her tears.

"I could tell she was happy and so I was happy," Ramiro Solis said.