I always had big birthdays growing up in Puerto Rico; my mom and my grandma made sure I had lots of balloons, a nice cake with matching dress and lots of amiguitos. I still remember my fifth birthday party when my abuela had the neighborhood "cake lady" match the bizcocho to the exact blue of my dress.
Of mothers and becoming a grown-up
So, you can imagine what a big deal my Quinceañero was gearing up to be. It was supposed to be a small gathering at home to celebrate my turning 15, but this one was in my Mami's hands- literally. She was sewing my dress, her best friend was on stand-by to make a multi-tiered cake, and grandma kept adding dishes to the already stretched-out menu. Less than a week before the big event, I march into my mother's room, eyes moist, heavy breathing- just like your garden variety sufrida de telenovela- and tell her, "I'm sorry, but I don't want a Quinces birthday party." Nobody had even asked me if I wanted this birthday! Birthdays were for babies! I was a big girl now, and I already had the tacones and the little novio to prove it. Seeing my mom's explosive reaction, I understood right away I chose the wrong time to declare my independence Helen Reddy-style (you know, I'm woman, hear me roar?). If I was going to show I was a grown up, by golly, I better put on that cream dress with puntitos de colores (it looked just like vanilla frosting with colored sprinkles!), the new matching ivory shoes and smile. ¡Se acabó! Mami won and I have the pictures to prove it.
A traditional Quinceañera / iStockphoto
A Quinces in the South
Less than a decade later, it was my little sister Damaris turning 15, but this time her party was to take place in South Carolina, where we moved upon arriving in the states. Invitations were sent to the all English-speaking crowd for the Quinceañero party and questions abounded: What is a "quince-a-nero"? Why do you celebrate so formally when you turn 15? What's the difference between that and a Sweet 16? Damaris relished her role of cultural educator: Latina girls celebrate their coming of age at 15 or quinces with a more formal party than a Sweet 16. Needless to say, almost 70 elegantly dressed people showed up and dined on the best arroz con gandules with lechon asado my grandma ever made, and a slice of a very sweet vanilla-almond cake that belonged in a wedding reception rather than a birthday party. These southern folks ate it all up, in more ways than one.
Now, fast-forward to the mid-2000s and meet my two nieces, Amber and Blair, who by the time they had their Quinces, their options were completely open .
In Amber's case, she always related more to the American-side of her family. If you combine this with her aversion to poofy gowns (she wore Toms to her wedding!), you can see why she decided to forego a Quinces altogether for an electric guitar. On the other hand, Blair had a more traditional upbringing: her friends were Colombian, and she made a great effort to speak the language and keep the culture. Instead of having a special 15th birthday celebration, she had a "Sweet Quinces" by having a Quinceanero-type party when she turned 16. And she wanted it all: a big sit-down dinner, the big lavender ball gown, and to her very American mom's dismay, a tiara!
With reality shows like MTV's "Quiero Mis Quinces" and "My Super Sweet Sixteen" taking these birthdays to the next level, the next generation of quinceañeras and sixteeners are enjoying their coming-of-age event in grand style and (perhaps unconsciously) fusing cultures. I have a feeling my little sobrinitas and their friends will be talking about doing sixteen's "quinces-style" for years to come.
And like my abuela used to say, ¡Eso es así!
Did you wear a ball gown and tiara? Share your Quinces or Sweet Sixteen story here!