It was raining quietly when I took these photos through the store windows of the quinceañera and bridal shops on West Jefferson Boulevard. It was a glum enough day to make the dresses look more vivid than usual: like flowers sprung from the rain. Full-blown, confectionery, hoop-skirted flowers. A stretch of West Jefferson, headed on the east by Bambi Beauty Shop at South Zang Blvd. and more or less terminated at S. Polk St., is devoted to the clothing and the beatification of the quinceañera. Brides, too, and flower children. But the potential market value in attracting quinceañeras and their mothers may be more tempting than the bride market. There are simply more fifteen-year-old girls (and fourteen-year-olds: the preparation for a fifteenth birthday can be time-consuming) without cars or drivers’ licenses. If they are limited by convenience to the shopping neighborhoods of their childhoods, they are certainly not limited in their choice of gowns.
Quinceañera refers both to the girl-queen of the fifteen-birthday celebration and to the fiesta de quince años itself, often shortened to quince. The (fabulous) Girl Culture: An Encyclopedia, includes a thoughtful entry on the quince, and a useful description:
“The ritual begins with a church ceremony, followed by a reception where family and friends bring gifts to the girl of honor, known as the quinceañera. She also performs elaborate choreographed dance routines with her father and members of her court. A court in the Quinceañera ceremony is made up of the honored girl’s friends, who are referred to as damas (ladies) and chambelánes (chamberlains, or gentlemen). Although the Quinceañera has never been designated an official rite of the Roman Catholic Church, it is a popular religious tradition that has been practiced by Latina/o families for decades.”
During the church ceremony, the quinceañera may receive a medal of the Virgin of Guadalupe from the madrina de medulla (godmother, and sponsor of the medal). Another madrina may present a ring. Indeed, because of the costs of the festival, many godparent-sponsors may be needed to chip in for the church, the cake, the catering, the reception decorations, and so on.
Catholic churches have sometimes been at odds with the fiesta de quince años, possibly because the quinceañera’s court of boys as well as the quinceañera’s determination to look as glamorous as possible are not entirely compatible with the medal of the Virgin of Guadalupe. In any case, things begin to get very secular after the church ceremony. The quinceañera changes from flat shoes to high heels. Her father may change them for her. She also gives up her last doll, although I’m not sure how this ceremony works, since the doll may be purchased new, small enough to serve as a cake topper.
Sometimes it helps to see what it all looks like. Try 83 Thoughts A Chambelan Has At A Quinceañera by Norberto Briceño.
The fiesta de quince años has captured my imagination lately because it is said to be a Mexican tradition, rooted in Aztec coming-of-age ceremonies, Catholicism, and in the modes and manners of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century courts of Europe. Yet, researchers have traced it only as far as the Twentieth Century, and no farther. Sociologist Valentina Napolitano studied the neighborhood of Lomas de Polanco in south Guadalajara in the late 1990s and found that mothers and grandmothers there had no personal experience of the quinceañera:
“The origins of the feast are unknown to people in Lomas de Polanco. Old women do not recollect it in their accounts of the past. Middle-aged women remember that rich families in their villages of origin did celebrate the feast, but it was a custom of the ‘gente de dinero’ (rich people). . . .
“The first reports of the feast started to appear in the Sociales (social events) section of Guadalajara newspapers during the early 1940s. There are no church records, since the ritual is not a sacrament. The fiesta was celebrated in the house, and was an occasion for making family connexions manifest. It reinforced family status and social cohesion among a specific social class. Nowadays, press reports still present an ‘ideal’ model of the celebration of the fifteenth birthday, a standard unattainable by the population of Lomas de Polanco but still deferred to by quinceañeras . . . and their families.”
Angela McCracken cites Napolitano in her own recent study of the quinceañera in Guadalajara, The Beauty Trade, adding that “street myths often recounted the idea that Empress Carlota either started the tradition or had a party for her damas to be presented to society that was then reinterpreted as a quince.”
Lacking clear-cut historical dates, and variously interpreted, the fiesta de quince años may be a debut or a coming-of-age ritual, or both, or neither. It’s hard to say. But you can say—anything. You can say that “[t]he origins of this festival are shrouded in the history of the Mexican people.” It seems incredible that a celebration as big and bold as the quince could hide its light under even the densest shroud. But it’s convenient to adopt the mysterious shroud point of view if you are trying to figure out when the quince started and can get no farther back than the 1940s.
According to Angela McCracken, in The Beauty Trade, the quince años is no ordinary rite of passage. The participants themselves, at fourteen and fifteen, aren’t doing any heavy-lifting to understand the festival’s religious aspects. They understand the quince años simply as a glorious party that changes them from teenagers, to teenagers who have had a quince años; indeed, a quince años in which they have often had much to say about how they–and through them their extended families–are publicly presented. It is true that the fifteen-year-old in Guadalajara gains greater liberty to flirt, to wear makeup, to teeter in high hair and high heels if she likes to, and to go out with friends, but this is not a change of life in any way equivalent to the costs and efforts of putting on the party. As one of McCracken’s young interviewees says, apparently trying to describe her transition without alarming an adult:“’it is like starting to be less of a girl or a kid and more like you can be crazy and sort of, I mean, within reason of course . . . .‘” For girls in conservative Guadalajara in the early 2000s, any loosening of supervision was a welcome relief, but the quinceañeras did not think of themselves as becoming women, and still less as being ready to marry. As they saw it, they had become girls primed to enjoy their teen years, the pinnacle of youth, beauty and carefree happiness. Observing that no significant change was anticipated after the party, McCracken believes that “[t]he quince is a special case of a now-universal rite of passage: the beauty makeover.”
The Beauty Trade has the ambitious goal of determining the quinceañera’s local and global impact on the beauty market, the swapping of quince ideas among young people, and the degree to which small businesses, such as home-based beauty salons, share in the financial rewards of the festivals. These are only some of McCracken’s concerns. I can’t do justice to her book because I’ve only read the parts of it relating to the beautification of the quinceañera, which are fascinating enough.
Angela McCracken is a perfect guide to the modern quince años (modern-ish: her studies were done around 2007) because it is clear that she is interested in beauty transformations, and she has a keen eye for makeup and hairstyles. She attended beauty school in Guadalajara while gathering material for her book, where “as beginners we were taught makeup applications that typically included between four and six shades of eye shadow per application” (as opposed to “sixteen shades” for advanced practitioners). She notes that after a quinceañera has been through the hands of the beautician, “the total effect is close to the television makeup of a telenovela star.”
Beauty products include The Dress (the distinctive princess dress), hairstyles and makeup, tutoring in makeup application, and walking in high heels, as well as learning the traditional feminine accomplishments of dancing, performing hostess duties, and presenting oneself as “unique” in the careful choice of clothing, accessories and party decorations–yet without ever running the risk of introducing any very striking innovations—such as appearing in a shawl and pre-Columbian embroidery.
In particular, hair is an important medium for the beautifier’s art. Even as a neutral researcher, Angela McCracken appears rather stunned by hair preparations. She only observed updos in Guadalajara, in which “all or most of the hair is gathered toward the crown of the head, making a sort of modern beehive that makes the hair look like mounds of curls or mounds of straight but stylistically separated locks of hair sprouting out of the crown, falling forward over the top of the head, and falling down or streaming down the quinceañera’s neck and back. . .” Even though styles have changed in the ten years since McCracken observed these trends, the lavish anointment of the hair with hair products, even for “natural” styles, appears to be mandatory. The mysteries of the hair salon strike McCracken as faintly similar to a sequestered cleansing ritual, providing the fiesta with perhaps its closest approach to a traditional rite of passage. “Understood as a rite of passage, the beauty transformation has become a path to a secular beauty religion, wherein becoming beautiful leads to a new stage in life, creates a better future, and becomes an obligatory daily ritual that very few people in Guadalajara will disrespect.”
Angela McCracken’s young interviewees were obsessed with color, abiding by a strict three-color rule in their choice of gown, ornaments, shoes, and makeup, down to the tiniest rubber hair bands. No more than three colors could be worn, and the highest sticklers ordained only one. As one girl said, “. . . If you are going to wear pink clothing, it should all match, from the shoes to the accessories: pink. The makeup . . . yep, also. Since you are wearing pink, you should wear pink eye shadow. . . .” If pink is chosen, pink should be the reigning color in ribbons, balloons, flowers, streamers, twinkly lights, and all other party decorations. Boys’ ties should also properly be pink.
McCracken is frank about the implications of the three-color rule, which accompanies a mindset of casual disparagement of indigenous beauty. She is clearly convinced, from her conversations with Quinceañeras in Guadalajara in 2007, that these girls, from aspiring middle class families in Mexico’s fourth largest city, wanted to look as little as possible like native Mexicans. Clothes of many and brilliant colors and patterns were considered gauche, unkempt, and inelegant. Perhaps the three-color rule protected the unwary from dreadful color faux pas. The preferred prototype was the fresa—a slang term often used negatively for a spoiled, cliquish, and yet apparently enviable and trend-setting girl, with color-coordinated outfits and European features. It is one thing to drop an Aztec coming-of-age ritual into the mythology of the quince años and quite another thing, quite impossible, for the quinceañera to dress like an Aztec.
McCracken, Angela B. The Beauty Trade: Youth, Gender, and Fashion Globalization. Oxford Studies in Gender and International Relations. Oxford University Press, 2014.
Mitchell, Claudia, and Jacqueline Reid-Walsh. Girl Culture: An Encyclopedia. Vol. 2. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007.
Napolitano, Valentina. 1997. “Becoming a Mujercita: Rituals, Fiestas and Religious Discourses”. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 3 (2). [Wiley, Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland]: 279–96. doi:10.2307/3035020.
Twentieth Century Quinceañeras
In an article posted at Folklife in Louisiana, Norma Elia Cantú writes:
“I remember thirty-five years ago going to buy my quinceañera dress in downtown Laredo. I don’t know why my mother who sewed beautiful dresses for other girls did not make mine, and I don’t know why we didn’t go across the river to a bridal shop. I barely remember shortly before Christmas going downtown with my Mom and visiting store after store only to be disappointed. We didn’t really like anything that we could afford. Finally, we returned to a store where we had seen what was closest to what we had in mind. I believe it was Winnie Lee, or it may have been Las Novedades, where we found a white number that fit the bill. It was semi-formal length with tres faldas, that is the crinoline for fullness, a plain slip under it, and a white nylon overskirt that fell like a cloud all around my skinny frame. The wide skirt fell from a plain sleeveless scoop neckline bodice, topped by a bolero-style jacket made of white rabbit fur; I hope it was fake fur. I felt glamorous, and a bit awkward, walking down the aisle on my parents’ arms at San Luis Rey Church.” (1995)
White nylon gowns were apparently still correct when Cristela Gonzalez Bond debuted in Cristela’s Quinceañera (1965), a home movie preserved on Texas Archive for the Moving Image. In the era of Jackie Kennedy style, just five years after Norma Cantú’s quinceañera, Cristela Gonzalez Bond is an ingénue all in white, her veil stiff and slight, gloved past the elbows, elegantly gowned and impossibly coiffed, with a beehive and a flip:
She greets her guests competently, smiling and hugging. She is sometimes a little stiff with her arms, as though she were wearing bandages instead of gloves, but a touch of child-like shyness and restrained excitement make her gestures adorable:
Cristela’s Quinceañera is worth watching for the fashion, the piled and puffed and lacquered hair, and even for the hair ornaments. Maybe especially for the hair ornaments. Early on, watch for the lime green fascinator, the size of a dessert plate and as voluptuous as a Christmas tinsel bow or a Homecoming chrysanthemum. It may be a flower. It may be a generous slice of mossy turf. By the time the dancing gets groovy it has been removed:
Here is a modern version of that flouffy hair ornament. This one is apparently made of relatively firm nylon net, with sequins. From a window display of quinceañera dresses on West Jefferson:
Nice shot of Cristela’s eye roll (below), bashful and goofy, telegraphing thrilled anticipation and cross-your-fingers-for-me agitation. Plus a little tremor like a pointer with a squirrel up a tree. She sparkles in the darker scenes (as does the plastic over the lamp shade) because the bodice of her gown is bejeweled, possibly with beaded or sequined lace appliqué: