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May 10, 2005 > Queen for a day

Queen for a day

by Susana Nuñez

From sweet sixteen parties to bat mitzvahs, it seems as if every girl of every background awaits the day when she can break off the last ties to her childhood. Among Hispanic women, the quinceañera (or sweet 15) is the traditional pathway to acceptance. Once she fulfills the required ritual, she enters the exclusive adult society and proudly announces her arrival in full make-up and high heels.

Some say this coming-of-age tradition dates back to Aztec and Mayan times, and still others link the celebration back to Spain. Michele Salcedo, author of "Quinceañera!: The Essential Guide to Planning the Perfect Sweet Fifteen Celebration," credits the Duchess of Alba of 18th century Spain with having started the custom. In her book, she states, "The duchess would invite girls on the cusp of womanhood to the palace and dress them up as adults for the first time. Similarly, although a century later, the Empress Carlota of Mexico invited daughters of members of her court to be presented as young ladies eligible for marriage. In both cases there would be a party, with a feast and the dancing of intricate figures, as was the custom of the time, a custom that is carried over to the quinceañera celebration today."

This link back to royal Spain could also explain the celebration's lack of a particular religious significance. In this aspect, the quinceañera differs from the bat mitzvah, a solely religious tradition. Although a church service is common on the day of a quinceañera, its only purpose is to demonstrate the special relationship the girls have with God and to thank Him for having brought them into the world. The predominant Catholic roots of Hispanics are tied into this event.

In addition to the mass, receptions are also held in which the quinceañera is accompanied by 14 couples, one for each year of her life. The males in the couple are referred to as chambelanes, and the girls as damas. The celebrated girl also has her own partner, the chambelan of honor.

With her chambelanes and damas, she makes her grand entrance donning a white gown and gloves, and is crowned by her father with a tiara, symbolizing her status as queen for a day.

The flats she wears with her gown are exchanged for pumps and she is awarded her ultima muñeca, or last doll (typically a rag doll) to hold as a keepsake of her childhood. A waltz with her father follows, a very close moment between the two, that symbolizes her entrance into adulthood. She then waltzes with boys her own age and finally her escort of the evening, the chambelan of honor. After the dance, it is understood that she has become a woman.

As in similar coming-of-age traditions, such as sweet sixteen parties and debutante balls, the girl is an adult as of the day of the celebration. She is now allowed to wear make-up, high heels, and more revealing clothing. This newly eligible bachelorette can also begin attending parties and dating; debutante balls are more commonly held for upper-middle to upper class girls, quinceañeras are for girls of every class. Quinceañeras are also typically held for one girl, while debutante balls are usually held for groups of girls ready to be presented to society.

Today, the simplicity of the quinceañera's origins has been strongly affected by modern times. The celebrations are not as common with second generation Latinos, and girls are beginning to "grow up" before they reach the age of 15. For this reason, many of the celebrated girls today do not have the same enthusiasm women before them had when they had their quinceañeras. Some of the girls feel pressured to have a quinceañera and do so to fulfill the dreams of their mothers, while others simply enjoy a party where they are the center of attention. The celebration seems to have lost its meaning and significance among Latino families living in the United States, but it still remains strong in Latin America.

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