JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. — Under the wooden rafters of Notre Dame Catholic Church in Greeneville, Tenn., a young girl walks slowly up the aisle on the way to her womanhood. She is flanked by her mother and stepfather, and she follows a procession of young ladies in slim red dresses and gentlemen in white Navy officer’s uniforms. Her dress is bright red and voluminous. A silver tiara sits atop her head. Her name is Leslie, and today is her day; today is her quinceañera.
The quinceañera is the traditional Mexican celebration of a young girl’s passing from childhood into adulthood. It is held for girls in honor of their 15th birthday, and usually consists of two parts, a Mass and a reception.
“Now I feel like God is always with me, and I can count on my family,” Leslie said afterward. “I feel better and much happier now.”
Leslie also learned religious responsibility from the Catholic sisters who helped her prepare for her church celebration.
“I had to go to a class on Mondays and Sundays where we talked about God,” she said. Leslie said she learned more from the classes as the day of her quinceañera grew closer.
“In their culture … the recognition is that they are coming of age,” saidFather John Appiah, who presided over Leslie’s Mass. “It’s not permission to do anything and everything you want, but it is rededicating of oneself in the church.”
Some Catholics see the focus changing from the spiritual to the material as the tradition becomes more Americanized. Today celebrations often include costly decorations, multiple bands and chauffeured limousines. The church believes that quinceañeras should have a deep spiritual impact on the girls, and should be taken in a more serious manner. In most churches the girls must go through some sort of special preparation. Girls might learn more about their faith or do service in the community.
“We all tend to concentrate on material things, myself included,” said Appiah, who celebrates quinceañeras throughout East Tennessee. “The core message is to concentrate on your spiritual life because ultimately that is most important.”
The tradition of quinceañeras dates as far back as Incan and Aztec cultures. At a certain point in their adolescence, young girls were expected to become fully functioning members of society, and were given more responsibility in the home. After the Spanish Conquest of Central and South America, the Spaniards blended this tradition with the Catholic religion. This formed the quinceañera as we see it today.
“[The girl] should see herself as a young woman, not a child, take herself seriously, and abide by abstinence until marriage,” said Lourdes Garza, director of Hispanic ministry in the Catholic Diocese of Knoxville.
Planning for a quinceañera usually starts as soon as a girl is born. The family and godparents save up money until the girl is of age. Actual preparations could take anywhere from six months to a year and a half. Dances have to be learned, decorations decided upon, cakes ordered, and in some cases, dresses made.
The theme of any given quinceañera depends upon the personality of the girl. For example, Leslie’s 17-year-old sister Delilah had a more traditional quinceañera, with a light pink dress and boys dressed as cowboys. Leslie’s mother, Linda, said she wanted Delilah to have a traditional quinceañera because many of her American friends had never seen that part of their culture. Leslie wanted to be like a Disney princess at her party, said Linda. At one point she even danced to a song from the animated film “Mulan.”
“I was most excited about the cake and ‘el baile del dinero’ [the money dance],” said Leslie, grinning.
A quinceañera can be a financial strain on a family if they haven’t carefully budgeted for it. However, many options are available to families wanting to save money, such as hand-making decorations, cakes and food. They can also rely on help from friends and family, who share expenses as sponsors. Hidden costs that may not have been initially anticipated are likely to come up. Linda, who made most of the decorations, said she spent $150 on food every weekend that the boys and girls practiced their dances.
Pressure to perform and live up to expectations can be a problem, especially in families with multiple girls. Joelind, 14, will have her quinceañeranext year and Jaileen, 11, will have one in four years. Linda is already in preparations for Joelind’s.
“With Delilah I started seven months ahead and it wasn’t enough time,” Linda said. “With Leslie I started planning a year ahead, so I learn from each one.”
“I hope mine is a little bit as good as hers,” said Jaileen.
Leslie said she wanted her quinceañera to be a little better than her older sister’s.
“But there was no pressure when I was actually there … I just wanted to have fun. I wanted to remember the last few moments.”
Having sisters can also be a blessing for a girl preparing for her celebration. Leslie’s older sister Delilah choreographed the dances for her party, and all three of Leslie’s sisters participated in them. Leslie said she would want to help with her two younger sisters’ quinceañeras by calming them down and letting them know everything is going to be all right.
Since the quinceañera, Linda has noticed a change in her daughter.
“I see her very differently,” said Linda. “I have her respect. She sees how much I love her, and she’s grown up more.” “She’s more outgoing,” said Delilah. “She’s the type that doesn’t like to go out, she doesn’t like to dance, and after it she’s like ‘Let’s go here, and let’s go there.’”
Two weeks later Leslie sits in her pajamas in her living room, watching cartoons and reflecting on her big day. Her legs tucked underneath her and her long hair pulled back in a ponytail, she looks much more like the 15-year-old she is. Her sister Delilah sits by her side smiling as Leslie recounts the particulars of the day when she said goodbye to her childhood.
“It made me realize that everyone else had a ‘quince,’” she said, “but yet they stick together.”
Editor’s note: This story was previously published on El Nuevo Tennessean