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The Changing Face of Mexico

Flower Arrangements

Elegantly arranged flowers are part of the Quinceañera, a celebration of a girl's transition to womanhood. (Image source. More about the photograph)

Slideshow

View a slideshow of photographs from quinceañera celebrations.

One of the most important celebrations in Mexican culture is the tradition of the quinceañera. This constitutes a ceremony on a girl’s fifteenth birthday to mark her passage to womanhood, to give thanks to God for his blessings, and to present a young woman to the community. From an anglo perspective, the festival would seem a combination of a “sweet sixteen” birthday party combined with a coming out ball for debutantes.

In Mexican communities, the quinceañera serves not only to honor the young woman for her maturity, but also the girl’s parents and family, as well as her padrinos or godparents. The godparents, and her mother and father play important roles throughout the ceremonies. Most societies have rituals signifying a passage to adulthood for both women and men, but the quinceañera is very distinctive. In former times, the girl’s fifteenth birthday would have signaled that she was an active, adult member of the community, fully ready to take on her share of responsibilities, and indicated that she was of marriageable age and status. Today, the tradition has taken on other meanings, but remains a celebration of womanhood, family and community.

The young woman’s fifteenth birthday begins with a Misa de acción de gracias, or mass to give thanks for a completed childhood. The festejada, or adolescent woman celebrating the birthday, is seated at the foot of the church altar resplendent in an elaborate pink or white formal dress. The godparents have bestowed her with special gifts, often jewelry to accent the beautiful dress. Around the celebrant are seated her damas (maids of honor) and chambelanes (escorts). Often, these are siblings, relatives or friends of the family. They are grouped in order of the different ages the young woman has completed. The mass combines a solemn ceremony similar to baptism welcoming the festejada to her new life and challenges ahead as an adult. After the mass, the young woman leaves a bouquet of flowers to the Virgen de Guadalupe. Her female siblings, cousins and friends distribute bolos, special gifts of remembrance to the guests assembled in the church. After the Misa de acción de gracias has concluded, lots of photographs are made to distribute to everyone, and it’s time for the party!

In former times, the wealthy used to provide a trip to Europe for their young lady, frequently to Paris. Today, lavish presents to help the birthday girl in her transitions to school, social life, or work are often given. The party is a big affair, traditionally lasting for six hours. The parents, godparents, and often other families go all-out to make the party an absolutely over-the-top experience. A central component is the cake, which vies with the girl’s quinceañera gown in its marvelous decoration. The dimensions of the cake are customarily immense. There is dancing, a live band, and plenty of pop, contemporary dance music, cumbia, banda, salsa, and older songs for both young and old guests. The festejada traditionally opens the party officially by dancing a waltz with her father or primary escort. A formal dinner is featured at the party as well. There is also a brindis or toast, in which people remark on the celebrant with pride and fond memories of her youth. This is also the occasion when the parents impart special messages, transferring wisdom and life-experience to their daughter.

The origins of this festival are shrouded in the history of the Mexican people. As with so many things Mexican, it combines both Spanish-Catholic traditions with a rich Aztec and indigenous heritage. The ancient Mexica, or Aztecs, had many ceremonies to mark passages through the stages of life. Among the most important, was preparing young women for their roles in society. The woman was presented with gifts and with elements of her dowry, or bridal wealth. Chroniclers describe that there was a festival for the young woman becoming an adult, which included the mother and other women of the community instructing the girl in her duties and responsibilities, urging her to follow the correct path, remaining true to her people and their traditions, in her life.

Later, during the colonial epoch, the Spanish instituted their traditions of presenting marriageable daughters to society during a formal social gathering. French influence, and the court atmosphere of the Austrian emperor and empress, Maximilian I and Carlota, were introduced during the nineteenth century. Although the Mexicans drove out the French and the emperor, many of the French customs were retained and elaborated in the fin-de-siecle. Of course, every region in Mexico added their own local traditions and customs to the European-derived balls, transforming the fifteenth birthday into the forms it is practiced today. Regional and local traditions as well as the economic status of the celebrating family exert an influence on the ceremony, determining the setting and the atmosphere of the religious service and the party.

People of Mexican descent, both here in the United States as well as in Mexico, are mindful of their rich inheritance. Traditions and festivals are an important observance for families and the entire community. The quinceañera for a girl’s fifteenth birthday is among the most meaningful and beautiful occasions; one that is anticipated with much happiness, and remembered fondly by everyone involved. It is also among the more distinctive festivals marking Mexican culture.