This column ran in the May 25, 2007 issue of the Alameda Sun:
Feliz Cumpleaños, Quinceañera!
I worked as a photographer at a Quinceañera last weekend. It was my first Quinceañera, and I must confess, with minimal prior knowledge except for the extensive agenda the Mom sent in advance, I went in thinking of it as a antiquated, but quaint, ritual. As usual, I had a lot to learn.
A Quinceañera is a celebration of a girl’s 15th birthday that takes place in many Hispanic cultures. (Translated from the Spanish words “quince” for 15 and “años” for years.) At one point in history, the coming-of-age ritual, similar to a debutante ball, signaled the girl’s availability for marriage; today, the party serves more as a cultural family affair, or perhaps a nod to her dating availability.
The pomp and circumstance of the day’s events astounded me. It began with a Catholic Mass, and followed with a seven-hour reception. The stretch Hummer limo carrying the 10 couples of the Quinceañera’s court to the hall was a nice touch. I immediately thought of my mother (most likely turning over in her grave) who hated her birthday, making birthdays irrelevant in our house. And, being an Irish-American, working class family from New Jersey, the closest we came to a Quinceañera was, well, nothing.
I prepared for the big day with a mixture of professional anxiety (Will the flash work? Do I have enough battery and flash memory?) and a voyeuristic eye to the customs of another culture.
The birthday girl, or Quinceañera, princess-like in a tiara surrounded by beautifully braided, curled hair, wore a dress made with yards and yards of luscious pink embroidered cloth cascading from a tightly sewn bodice. I was relieved to see that it wasn’t bridal white, only to learn once I came home and did some research while I uploaded the hundreds of photos from a full day’s shoot, that pink is the color of a Quinceañera.
I learned there are many other customs symbolizing the shift from girl to woman, depending on the country and the family’s choice. The porcelain Barbie-like doll at the top of the lavish cake actually represents the last doll the birthday girl will ever receive. The dance with her father was her introduction into society. At some parties the birthday girl wears flats for the Mass as well as her introduction and waltz with her father at the reception, but then changes to heels when that first dance is over. In another symbolic gesture, the birthday girl throws a doll to a group of younger girls, much like the throwing of the bridal bouquet at a wedding, again signifying that she has grown away from playing with dolls and toys, and is ready to be a woman.
At last week’s party, after some of the festivities, while waiting for dinner to be served, the Quinceañera’s mother began to guide her from table to table—all 30—for group photographs. When we started, the girl followed obediently, though I sensed a slight reluctance and a teenage roll of the eyes, while her mother arranged the groups, with her as the centerpiece, for each shot. Halfway through, the Master of Ceremonies announced the parents’ toast (It seemed that they were waiting dinner until the toast) and we took a break from table photos.
After dinner, I saw the birthday girl having her photo taken with one of the tables and I ran over to grab the shot. She then guided me through the remaining tables, posing herself, graciously kissing relatives, friends and babies. She quickly began directing me as to which shot, which people, which direction.
In a flash, I saw the all-too-young-for-this-hoopla party girl posing for her prom pictures, rearranging the tassel on her graduation cap, thanking guests at her wedding, kissing the skinned knees of her small children, taking care of her elderly parents. She was poised and confident, ready to take on life’s challenges, ready to lead the way. Shortly afterwards, she grabbed the microphone and thanked her parents for the party and everyone else for coming, for making the night so special, for being there for her.
I understand now the importance of the ritual, the reason to bring together the court of her friends, the dancing uncles, the aunts and sisters helping to primp, showing her the way, salsa-ing into the night.