For a Mexican girl, her 15th birthday is an important moment, usually celebrated with a big party. Called a Quinceañera, it usually involves a special Mass in the local church, then a party with the birthday girl duded up in a dress that looks like an 18th century ballgown. Also required are a bunch of teenage guests, carefully vetted friends and relatives, little kids and babies, cake, food, and the inevitable ear-splitting band or DJ with the volume turned up to 10 or whatever the highest available number on the amplifier might be. Often people go completely nuts and spend a fortune on this party. Not too long ago, we watched from our rooftop (we live in a working-class neighborhood with chickens running loose in the street and to call the street cobblestoned would be generous indeed) as the house next to ours threw a giant party for a local girl. She arrived at her party in a gown that looked like something out of the opera Der Rosenkavalier, with a feathered headdress. She was suitably delivered in a horse-drawn carriage, which paraded slowly down our impossibly dusty street, avoiding the stray dogs and kids riding around in circles on their bikes. The party went on till the early hours of the morning and we never will get used to the horrible noise these fiestas generate.
Here's what the traditional dresses tend to look like....
When we lived in Mexico City in the fifties, my mother thought the whole idea of a quinceañera was totally barbaric as the assumption was (I suspect that she was in some part correct) that after that milestone the girl was immediately available for marriage and babies. While I am sure that all of that was true in seventeenth century Mexico, as an American teenager I truly never gave any thought whatsoever to having such a party; that was something special for my Mexican pals but the whole deal just didn’t feel right for me. But now that I’ve seen more of what families go through as their precious niña approaches fifteen, I can see what my mother was concerned about. It involves a lot of money and – like big weddings – more of an opportunity to show off than anything else. My American mother did NOT want me having any sort of quinceañera or even the desire for one. In fact, she had begun to worry about how Mexican I was becoming and was concerned about my getting into college in the States. This was just one of a whole complex of issues that led to my family’s eventual return to California. My insistence that “nowadays it’s just a tradition and it hardly means that now that you’re in the 9th grade you should get married” carried no weight whatsoever.
Sofia, her niece America, and me after her Mass
Although the traditions associated with quinceañera parties have changed quite a bit since then, certain aspects seem to remain ironclad in Mexican culture, and the list of “requirements” can make for a very expensive celebration. Since Sofia’s family works very hard and has few resources, all along the assumption was that she shouldn’t even have any celebration of her fifteenth birthday beyond maybe a family dinner with some pastel (cake). But for the first time in her life, she has a group of girlfriends (some boys too!) in her new school and it seemed like maybe we could do something modest – I offered our house and garden for a small fiesta for her family and a few of her friends. But an aunt in the States sent some money with a note that says “you only turn fifteen once, you should have a nice party”. So an “evento” place was procured (sort of an outdoor garden you can rent for parties), invitations went out, and the family all agreed to make a bunch of food for the fiesta by themselves.
The whole family pitches in to make a feast for everyone!
My bright liberated-American woman-idea was that they shouldn’t have to shell out for a dress for Sofia which would be worn exactly ONCE, so I forked over my Eileen Fisher stretch velvet floorlength dress, which I thought could be cut down to fit Sofia relatively inexpensively. Only problem was, after ditzing around for two weeks with the date of the party and the accompanying special Mass in the church fast approaching, the ladies at the local alterations shop, having never seen such a dress, turned out to be terrified to cut into the (to them, at least) rare and expensive silk velvet. After endless excuses as to why the dress wasn’t ready, they finally admitted that they were afraid to touch the fabric and and scared of losing me as a client and scared of the whole business, but of course no one told me anything.
Frustrated by the ongoing stalemate, the day before the party, Rosa took Sofia on the bus and went to a larger nearby town to hunt for some sort of a party dress so the poor kid would have something even vaguely reasonable to wear. They found one that was floor length, gauzy white with sparkly things on it, (so far so good for church). Sofia protested that she looked like a bride, which annoyed her, but there were twelve hours to go and desperate times require desperate measures. Alas, the dress was also entirely backless and the padre said “no way are you coming to church in that dress, you have to wear a rebozo to cover yourself up. And make sure your friends cover THEMSELVES up too”. Hence Sofi “covered up” and in the photos her girlfriends all appear wearing these little black capes provided by the church, since their dresses were (of course) either strapless or at the very least, pretty revealing on the top. As for the mini length of their skirts, I guess the padre just had to give a little since there was no way he was going to get these Mexican teenagers looking like Amish girls. Meantime, I thought Sofia should have something “borrowed” from me for the occasion, since I’m her madrina (godmother). So I put together a pile of jewelry, earrings, two of my best rebozos and a gorgeous enormous French silk scarf for her to borrow and sent it home with Rosa after she had finished cleaning for the day, for Sofia to pick out what she wanted.
Well, none of my American-lady-goes-to-the-opera stuff looked very Mexican and of course now I realize that it was totally out of style for a fifteen-year-old. Plus, Sofia is very independent and I should have figured that ultimately she would do her own thing. She arrived ready for her Mass in the backless dress – and with her hair done up with flowers by her two older sisters, and wearing makeup for the first time, looking gorgeous. Somewhere she found a white nylon crochet rebozo that was much more Mexican-looking than my square meter of Parisian silk. The only thing she used of mine was a two-strand crystal neckace (which was perfect with the dress!). The day after the party, Rosa was so worried about returning my stuff to me that she refused to get on the bus with it and made her son-in-law bring her in his truck with the loot (all of which is costume jewelry).
So, in the end, pretty much everything I tried to do was completely trampled by the persistence of Mexican culture. After I said “it’s crazy to spend a fortune on a silly party that lasts one day” her family scraped together as much money as they could, and with the support of Rosa’s sister in the States the food, evento place, and the long white dress were procured. They ended up with enough to have their own party for her in their own style – including the horrid DJ Sofia wanted (Rosa kept asking them to turn the music down, and they did for ten seconds, then turned it back up again, of course) so she and her friends could dance. No one could carry on any sort of a conversation over the racket. She wanted a limousine and that, too, she had! The distance from the church to the party place they rented was very short so to make the limousine more worthwhile, I gather, the custom here is that the kids all pile into it and they drive all around several local villages posing for snapshots, waving and carrying on, before finally arriving at the party.
Sofi and her "modest" friends in church
The whole family was there and several foreign friends of the family, as well as Sofia’s two volunteer English tutors. We all got put at a “gringo” table with much joking about being stuck at the “kids’ table”. But the real kids were all sitting with Sofia and it was great to see that her school friends came and seemed to have a great time.. The food was wonderful – people began arriving right after the mass with giant casseroles of stew, mole, potatoes with chile, corn and rajas (sliced chiles), all homemade and fabulously fresh. One of Rosa’s relatives came with a huge pot of masa (cornmeal) and she and two other ladies immediately got busy making the most fantastic tortillas, stacks of them. There was a three-tiered traditional white quinceañera cake, buckets of piña coladas and vampiros. I was wishing I had thought to bring some lo cal sugarless something to drink, when I saw the tortillas and said “I think I’m just going to blow this whole diet thing off today….” and I did. I wasn’t all THAT bad but still – oh well! Then I found out that Rosa had ordered the cake and all the desserts made without sugar so I – who have cut all grains and sugar out of my diet in an attempt to NOT get the diabetes that is slowly killing my mother – could have a piece. But why didn’t she tell me? It is a mystery.
My little video of the party is below if you can stand watching nine minutes of it! I know some of you know her and her family, so just for fun here is the whole thing.
Sofia and Rosa by the limousine
The party in full swing!
Sofia and her cake