Modern quinceañeras combine old traditions with new ones

Sara Ayala celebrated her quinceanera last month, carrying on a tradition passed down from her mother.

About a month before her highly anticipated quinceañera, Sara Ayala learned some potentially disastrous news - there was another quinceañera planned in Victoria the same day.

An unofficial battle of the quinceañeras, both Sara and another birthday girl known only as "Allie", with whom she shared mutual friends, would both be celebrating their 15th birthdays at the same time on the same day in the same city.

"I was worried I would only have a few guests and she would have more, or she would have less and I would have more," said Sara, who spent countless hours with her mother planning and preparing for the big event.

Perhaps a sign of her growing maturity level, Sara eventually came to terms with the two parties, opting to focus her energy on making her own party a success.

"I told my guests they could attend whichever one they felt more comfortable going to," said Sara. "Some of them said they might split their time between the two."

A millennial, Mexican-American teenager, Sara made the choice to embrace her Hispanic culture and follow in the footsteps of her mother and grandmother by having a quinceañera on July 23.

Quinceañeras, otherwise known as Fiestas de Quinceañera or simply quinces, are held among people of Hispanic descent to celebrate a girl's 15th birthday, marking her transition from childhood to womanhood.

With the Crossroads' Hispanic population ballooning by 16 percent during the past decade and the statewide Hispanic population increasing by 42 percent, according to 2010 U.S. Census Bureau data, the Latino tradition of quinceañeras appears to be thriving.

Officials at Victoria's Jade and Madalynn Quinceañera Boutique said they are providing attire and accessories for two to three quinces every weekend.

Larger exhibitions such as the Latino Bridal & Quince Girl Expo, which occurs in five Texas cities each year, attracted more than 6,500 people to its recent show in Dallas.

It is easy to see why Texas has been dubbed the "Quinceañera capital of the U.S."

HISTORY

While the origins of quinces remain unknown, historians say quinceañeras were being held by the Aztecs as early as 500 B.C.

At the age of 15, boys were expected to become warriors and fulfill their father's expectations, while girls, who were now considered women, were presented to the community as young ladies and admitted into tribal society with elaborate rituals, according to Chicano scholar Norma Cantu's academic article "Chicana Life-Cycle Rituals."

After the Spanish conquest of Mexico, different religious and cultural factors began to shape the tradition with a more Christian focus, prompting girls with the option of marrying or committing their life to faith, according to Cantu's article.

Girls are expected to have completed their sacraments of baptism, confirmation and first communion all before their big day.

As the idea of a quinceañera was adopted by other countries in South and Central America as well as Latinos in the United States, each group added its own unique flair to the tradition.

BREAKING TRADITION

It was love at first sight for Sara.

Upon seeing the cerulean blue debutante ball gown hanging on the rack in a Houston quinceañera boutique, Sara knew she had found the dress for her, even if it was not the traditional white or pink colored dress meant to symbolize purity.

Sara wanted to find the right mix between the conventional and ceremonial quinceañera traditions and her own modern Latina teen ideals.

"You want to keep it traditional, but you also want to do something that you are comfortable with and is stylish," said Sara. "I wanted it to be half new and half old."

The changes in dress fashions are common among most quinces nowadays, said Erica Perez, co-owner of Jade and Madalynn Quinceañera Boutique.

"Now, it's hot pink, green, black and zebra designs," said Perez. "They no longer go by the book."

In addition to changes in colors, Perez said more girls are opting for two-piece dresses, in which the long skirt can be switched with a shorter one for the dance portion of the evening.

She attributed the change in style to more lenient parents and overall changes in attitudes regarding socially acceptable attire.

The marriage of old and new was also made apparent as Sara and her court practiced their group waltz.

In her aunt's backyard, Sara and her court of 11 closest friends committed the graceful slides of the waltz and the choreographed, rhythmic, technical moves of the "surprise" cumbia dance to memory, as the music roared from the dance instructor's iPod.

With a court of five damas, who are like bridesmaids; five chamberlains, who are like groomsmen; and a male escort, Sara's court differed from traditional quince courts, which are comprised of 14 damas and 14 chambelánes and a male escort, often referred to as the man of honor.

However, it is also common to see only seven couples, or to only have chamberlains or no one besides the Quinceañera.

PLANNING

Not exempt from the financial crisis, Sara and her family have had to tighten their purse strings and stick to a budget the past few years.

Despite the downturn of the economy, Sara's mother, Roberta Perez, a waitress at La Tejanita Mexican Restaurant, and her stepfather, a construction worker, have managed to keep five children clothed and fed on their working class salaries.

Months before Sara turned 15, on May 29, it was understood that there was no extra money for extravagancies like a quinceañera.

"We really didn't have the money to do it," said Sara. "I suggested that we do something small even if it was just the dress and the Mass."

After toying around with the idea of how to best celebrate their daughter's birthday, Sara's parents decided it was important to go all out - after all, she would only turn 15 once.

"My Mom said, 'You know what, we're going to do it,'" said Sara. "God chose that day for me to celebrate my day."

In April, Sara and her family began planning - cramming a year's worth of quince planning and preparation into just three months.

"She did pretty good," said Maria Gonzalez, 15, a dama in Sara's court. "I had one week to plan mine."

Before the quinceañera ended, a Catholic Mass was celebrated in her honor at Holy Trinity Chapel. About 275 guests gathered for a dinner and dance in La Tejanita hall, which was decorated to fit the birthday girl's evening under the stars theme. A slide show of her quinceañera photo shoot played on a giant screen overlooking the dance floor. Guests looked on as Sara shared a poignant father-daughter dance with her grandfather, Zacarias Ayala. He presented her with the last doll she would ever receive. Everyone raised their glasses of Blue Hawaiian flavored Boones Farm wine in unison to toast to Sara's rite of passage.

Roberta Perez, 37, estimated the total cost of her daughter's quince to be $6,000.

Thankfully, however, some time-honored traditions did help cut down the costs for Perez and her husband.

Sara's godparents purchased the dress, which cost about $300, and an aunt purchased the cake, which cost about $350.

Guests were also served food, which was prepared by a friend of the family, Sara's mother, younger sister and a few other relatives, who served as stand-in wait staff for the night.

With the average cost of quinceañeras ranging from $4,000 to a whopping $150,000, families expecting to host a quince for their daughter are expected to start planning early.

"A lot of people start saving early so they don't have to stress out about it," said Erica Perez. "It takes a good year of planning to do it right."

She continued, "Some of the moms did not have a quince so they want to go all out on their daughters' quinceañeras."

Like Sara's evening under the stars theme, Perez said girls' themes are becoming more elaborate by the year.

She said she has seen everything from Mardi Gras, Dallas Cowboys and even a fairytale theme, where all the girls dressed like fairies.

Once the theme is picked, the girls begin gathering all the components to make their special day complete.

Dresses, which average $400 to $600 and contain more bling by the year, are one of the biggest expenses, said Erica Perez.

Despite the economy, Perez said she does not foresee the trend of big, glamorous quinces downsizing anytime soon.

"It's just so traditional in our heritage. In one way or another, a quinceañera will be done," said Erica Perez. "I think they will continue to grow bigger. I'm anxious to see what they will be like."

WELCOME TO WOMANHOOD

Sara was not completely sure what turning 15 or having a quinceañera would bring, but she did know it meant at least one thing - more freedom.

"I still have a curfew, but I can go out now to places that I couldn't go before," said Sara, who still wears braces and will be a 10th-grader at Victoria West High School when school starts Monday.

While Sara, who hardly ever ventures out without a family member or well-known family friend in tow, valued more freedom, other girls value opportunities such as the chance to wear makeup or get a wax for the first time, said Erica Perez.

For Sara, who was baptized and has made her first holy communion, her quinceañera also provided an opportunity to get closer to Jesus.

"I'm bringing Jesus more into my life," said Sara. "If I can't talk to my mom or my friends, I know He's always there to talk to."

This echoed the words of the Rev. Stan DeBoe, of Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church, who officiated Sara's ceremony.

"Your parents and godparents brought you to the church 15 years ago. They made a commitment to raise you as a child of God," said DeBoe, who said an average of 27 quinces are performed in his parish each year. "Now, you will make the commitment yourself."

Sara still needs to complete her confirmation, which she plans to do by next year.

Turning a year older has prompted Sara to become more appreciative of the less glamorous things in life, such as spending time with loved ones.

"We were always close, but not really, really close. She's always at work, and I have school, and when we get home, we're both tired," said Sara, as she discussed the time she spent with her mother planning her quince. "But since it was the summer, I got to talk to her more. We were putting our ideas together."

Friends and family have also taken note of the change.

"It's a good thing seeing her grow up," said Sara's cousin Analisa Herrera, 16. "She's mature, and she's beautiful inside and out."

"If she turns 15,16,17 or 18, she will always be my child," said Roberta Perez. "She's my first daughter and the first to experience all of this, but she is still my baby."

"I can give her more responsibilities," her mother said laughingly.

Although she is only a sophomore, Sara has already started planning her future.

She wants to study business in college and eventually open her own quinceañera boutique.

But in the meantime, she is settling for helping her cousin prepare for her upcoming quince celebration.

She offered these wise, womanly words of advice to those girls getting ready to experience their own quinceañera:

"Don't worry about anything. Everything will come out good," said Sara. "It's your day. Don't let anybody bring you down."