Case Study

Quinceanera: Latino Sweet Sixteen

By Elizabeth Holland (From an interview with Carmen Neris, Philadelphia, 1992)

In Puerto Rico, Cuba, Mexico and other Latin American countries a girl's entrance into womanhood and her eligibility for marriage is celebrated at her Quinceanera (also known as the Quince, or Quince Anos). Traditionally celebrated on a girl's fifteenth birthday, it is often celebrated in the United States as a Sweet Sixteen party.

The Quinceanera is celebrated as elaborately as some weddings. Gowns and rented formal wear, limousines, photo sessions, catered dinners, dance parties, and arranged flowers mark the occasion as a special day that occurs once in a girl's life. Although some members of Latino communities feel that Quinceaneras have become too extravagant and that they are an unnecessary financial drain on families, the tradition is valued by many and continues as a vital part of their culture.

"You only turn sixteen once, Carmen," her family told her. Although Carmen Neris, a Philadelphia woman of Puerto Rican descent, was given a choice by her family of a Sweet Sixteen (Quinceanera) or a car, her family encouraged her to choose the Sweet Sixteen. Her mother, who had not had a Quinceanera of her own, had saved for her daughter's Quinceanera since Carmen was born. The planning for the event began several months in advance. With the help of her family, Carmen arranged for the making of gowns and party favors (capias), rented limousines, negotiated with the city to have the street in front of the family's house closed off to traffic, engaged a caterer, a photographer, and a choreographer, rented a hall, arranged for the religious service, and had invitations made.

Carmen picked an escort for herself and invited sixteen other young people to participate as members of her "court." Each court member was expected to spend many hours rehearsing choreographed dances for the event. Carmen's Sweet, Sixteen began at six o'clock in the morning with dressing and hair arranging. It was important that no one saw Carmen before she descended the stairs to go to mass. During the mass Carmen was blessed by the priest and crowned by a close female friend. She also presented roses to the Virgin Mary. After mass, Carmen and her court rode in a procession of limousines to the park for a photography session. At the party which followed, in addition to dancing, eating and distributing capias to every guest, Carmen received high heeled shoes from her father who removed the flat shoes of her childhood.

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