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A massive heat wave has hit California, but instead of taking to the beach, a hundred teenage girls stand in a line that wraps around a block in downtown Los Angeles. They’re accompanied by moms, grandparents, and little sisters on this sweltering June afternoon for the Quinceañera.com Los Angeles Expo. For the 3,000 attendees, it’s a chance to see what’s new and cool for the celebration widely observed throughout the Latino community to mark a girl’s 15th birthday.
Inside, the lights are low and Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s Spanglish hit “Despacito” blares on repeat over the loudspeaker. This is how we do it down in Puerto Rico, I just wanna hear you screaming “¡Ay, Bendito!,” I can move forever cuando esté contigo. Everyone bops along as they go from booth to booth; there are more than 100 vendors to meet. The quinceañera traditionally involves both a Catholic mass and a party, and the expo exists to help make your wildest quince dreams come true.
Down one aisle, a quinceañera planner shows off a multitiered centerpiece made of roses, hydrangeas, and crystals. Across the way, an entertainment company has installed a DJ behind a turntable; he plays his set while a brand rep demonstrates how squares on the dance floor light up when stepped on. Around the corner, a bakery displays novelty cakes shaped like the Eiffel Tower and a bottle of Chanel No. 5. A mariachi band plays live music, entertaining those waiting in line at a taco truck handing out free samples.
Venues like the South Coast Botanic Gardens, which can accommodate up to 1,000 guests, have tables set up, as do hotel chains like Sheraton and Marriott. Representatives from Men’s Wearhouse walk around, flagging down the few dads in the crowd to gift them with goodie bags and flyers. Photographers entice families with images from quinceañera photo shoots in churches, at the beach, at Disneyland. NYX and Mary Kay offer makeup tutorials. Little girls ask to have their photos taken with models in dresses with pink tulle skirts and cascades of champagne-colored ruffles from quince fashion company Moda 2000. An all-day runway show with looks from Moda and several other dress companies is held at the back of the room.
The lavishness of the expo is shocking to Dolores Garcia, a mom from the nearby city of Carson. She is planning two quinceañeras over the next year and a half, for her 13- and 14-year-old daughters. Garcia looks around and shakes her head.
“It feels so commercial,” she says. “We came here to see dresses and get ideas for decorations, but I didn’t envision anything being this over the top. My daughter has already told me that she wants an elegant party though, nothing crazy.”
Abigail Avalos is more familiar with the kind of experience these vendors are peddling. She drove up from San Diego with her husband and sister-in-law Katie, whose quince is in October.
“All the quinceañeras in my family were pretty big,” 21-year-old Avalos explains. “Everyone has the giant cake and the big band, except white princess dresses were in when I was 15. We were taught that church was the main part of it, but we’ve all pretty much made the party the most important thing. I think I had less than a dozen people at my religious ceremony, but there were over 300 people at the party.”
Kaitlyn Estevez, who is having her quince in mid-August, says all of her friends’ parties have been akin to large weddings.
“Oh, it is such a big deal at school,” the San Pedro native says. “The most stressful part for me was picking a dress, but I’ve finally settled on one that’s pink and really big. Most of my friends get ideas from Pinterest or Quinceañera.com.” She brought her mom to the expo “so she can see some new ideas for centerpieces.”
DJ Chris Canela has worked these parties for a decade and has gotten a front-row seat to the the explosion of the quince market. Businesses like his no longer need to cast a wide net, offering options for weddings, proms, bar and bat mitzvahs, and quinceañeras — there’s more than enough demand for them to cater solely to the quince customer.
“The new generation wants it bigger than ever,” says Canela. “They want a big DJ, they want the lights, and the crazy dance system. It’s a $10 million business in Southern California alone, not to mention you could land on a big baller that will shell out $50,000 for a party.”
According to the US Census Bureau, there are 56.6 million Hispanics living in the country, accounting for roughly 18 percent of the total population. Latinos made up more than half of US population growth from 2000 to 2014; some forecast that Hispanics will make up a majority by 2044. And as the population itself has grown, so has its spending power.
NERA Economic Consulting has found that the number of affluent Latino households in the US is rising dramatically, which a Nielsen report on Hispanic influence attributes to a high rate of college attendance. In 2015 there were 370,000 American Latino households with incomes of $200,000, an increase of 187 percent from ten years prior. Gains are being seen further down the income spectrum, too: The Census Bureau found that 43 percent of Hispanic households had incomes greater than $50,000 as of 2014, as compared to 30 percent in 2000. Hispanics accounted for $1.3 trillion worth of spending in the US in 2015, and the Selig Center for Economic Growth projects Latino spending will hit $1.7 trillion by 2020.
As for how this translates to quinceañeras, an estimated 400,000 American girls have them every year and the average family spends $15,000 on the party, says Frank Zepeda, a business manager for EC Hispanic Media. EC Hispanic Media owns several brands that cater to the Latino community, including Quinceañera.com. The LA expo is one of eight events the company runs across California, and Zepeda says they can draw crowds as large as 5,000. Specialty stores and neighborhood shopping districts have helped facilitate quinces for decades, but quinceañera expos have become a boon for the industry, and there are now several companies that host them in states with large Latino populations like Texas, Arizona, and Nevada.
Hilda-Gabriela Hernández is a self-proclaimed “quinceañera guru” who joined EC Hispanic Media in 2007 and helped build its expo business. She has since left the company, and today works as a quinceañera planner and runs a quince pageant in Los Angeles aimed at helping young Latinas enter the mainstream, and largely white, pageant world. She believes the quince industry boom began three or four years ago.
“The quinceañera market is now monstrous,” she says. “There are all these businesses that grew out of nowhere — stay-at-home moms becoming event planners, making quinceañera cakes, quinceañera decorations. It’s a big moneymaker because people are having them every single weekend. If you understand the market, and how a quinceañera can and should be run, you can specialize in it.”
Take Gina Rodriguez, the owner of Moda 2000. Her business began as a women’s fashion boutique in Anaheim in 1991, but she eventually narrowed its focus to the quinceañera market over the last decade due to the increased demand. Rodriguez stocks quince dresses that sell for as much as $1,500 each. She says she’s been able to find success because, as a Latina, she inherently understands the quinceañera market.
Now everyone seems to want a piece of the pie. Mattel makes a Quinceañera Barbie, seen as an attempt to capitalize on a version of the última muñeca tradition of the quince, in which the birthday girl gives a doll to a younger family member as a symbol that she’s leaving childhood. In 2015, TLC ran a single-season reality show called Sweet 15: Quinceañera that followed a Miami family who ran a quinceañera dress store. In 2013, Disney debuted a Disney Royal Ball Quinceañera Collection, a line of 21 high-end quince gowns inspired by Disney princesses.
Still, University of Texas at Austin professor Rachel González-Martin, who studies consumer citizenship and Latino identity, says the quinceañera industry represents a consumer demographic many American businesses don’t often pay attention to.
“Latinos are typecast as first-generation immigrants that are impoverished and uneducated, and these big parties kill the stereotype that all minority kids are living in violence and poverty,” she says. “The consumers you see at the mall are a new generation who is getting high school diplomas, entering the workforce, and having money to spend. They value family and culture and are willing to spend on it.”
Money is tied to power, González-Martin explains: “It gives them visibility, and so all of a sudden the community isn’t so ignored by mainstream America.” Some quinces cross into the hundred-thousand- or even million-dollar range, drawing comparisons to the luxury wedding industry. A quinceañera thrown for the daughter of a Texas lawyer made headlines last year for its reported $6 million budget and performances by Pitbull and Nick Jonas.
Not all teenage girls want the type of big, fancy celebration the industry tries to sell them on. “My cousins have had giant parties, and my friends did too,” says Natalia Lyon, a 16-year-old high school junior who works as a quince makeup artist. “I am all for Latino pride, and I am all about being Mexican, but I just didn’t want one. I found the whole thing overwhelming. While I wouldn’t say spending so much on a party is a waste, I thought I could use the money for something so much better, like a new car.”
Expectations vary with geography too. Choreographer Stephanie Figueroa says parties in her area of South Texas, near Corpus Christi, can be fairly low-key, while many in Los Angeles say an expensive bash comes with the territory of growing up in the city’s large Latino community. Victoria Ahuactzi says the expectations at her daughter Bella’s school in the San Fernando Valley are particularly intense: “There is a ton of competition amongst the families. Everyone has one, and you have to invite everyone too, so you are throwing a party that automatically has at least 100 people.”
While Hernández says she’s seen families succumb to the pressures and fall into debt throwing giant quinces, many don’t bear the entirety of the financial burden, thanks to the quince’s tradition of patronage. One padrino or madrina (a family member or friend who acts as a sponsor) may pay for a limo, while another pays for a cake, while still another the decorations. This doesn’t just help parents afford such a celebration for their daughter; it reinforces the strong bonds present in Latino communities.
“You have to look at the ways in which the quinceañera is not just a ritual, but brings together more than a nuclear family — it’s vital to people’s survival,” says Karen Mary Davalos, a professor of Chicano and Latino Studies at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. “With a padrino paying for the cake, and a madrina paying for the dress, people are sometimes contributing as fictive kin and it solidifies a community. And this community is trying to celebrate, and come together in a moment when everything we are is criminalized and made negative, and told we don’t belong. This is literally a method of making each other belong.”
Rebecca Avitia, the executive director of the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico says splitting the costs is her favorite part of the quince experience: “It brings out the ‘it takes a village’ mentality. As the community becomes more integrated into mainstream American culture, these rituals bring everyone back to remembering we have a common bond. The helping out with the spending gives everyone a sense of place.”
While many mothers at the Quinceañera.com expo stress the importance of maintaining the ancient cultural rituals of the quince, the tradition’s roots are murky. University of New Mexico historian Maggie DePond researched the quinceañera’s origins for the Smithsonian’s National Hispanic Cultural Center two summers ago, and says that though plenty of families believe it has indigenous Mayan or Aztec roots, it likely emerged from European practices brought to the Americas during the French and Spanish conquests.
“The quinceañera has developed over time,” says DePond. “Let’s be clear, indigenous societies did have coming-of-age rituals, but they were not connected to what the quinceañera has become. In 19th-century Latin America, elite young women would participate in a European-style debutante ball, where they would be formally presented to society between the ages of 15 to 18.”
DePond says the tradition of society presentations began with upper-class girls in Mexico and Cuba in the late 1800s, but families from other classes and countries began to pick up the tradition in the 1930s and ’40s. Mexican immigrants brought it to the Texas borderlands in the ’50s, and the quinceañera eventually spread across the rest of the US as immigrants and their children moved to other states. One of the first American references to quinceañeras is a newspaper article from San Antonio’s La Prensa, dated May 23, 1952, that describes how a daughter of a wealthy family “was presented into society in the beautiful halls of La Villita, which for the occasion was converted into a garden of dreams with over 600 yards of gladiolas the color of the young ladies of the court of honor's dresses."
That the quince’s indigenous roots are likely mostly a myth doesn’t really matter, says Davalos.
“It’s an important gesture for people who say they trace the tradition to an indigenous past,” she says. “There’s a critical consciousness, a politicization about it, and you can’t fault people for wanting to claim their difference in a time in which being Mexican is so demonized.”
According to EC Hispanic Media executive Catalina Focíl, the US quinceañera market is largely tailored to Chicanas, or Mexican-Americans, since the group is the largest Latino community in the country and also has the most buying power, though the tradition is observed by various Latino communities in the United States.
Outside of the US, quince rituals vary by country. Celebrations in Cuba and the Caribbean, for example, don’t have any religious component. In Ecuador, where Focíl is from, “quinceañeras are important but they aren’t as big. They are more just like a small family party with some close friends. There are no bands, no limos, and the dresses are way more conservative.” American quince traditions are an amalgam of customs from various Latino cultures.
There’s the corte de honor, a group of young boys (chambelanes) in coordinated suits and girls (damas) who often wear dresses that match the quinceañera’s; the assembly escorts the guest of honor to the party and performs a synchronized dance. There’s the changing of the shoes, where the father of the birthday girl changes his daughter’s footwear from flats to heels before they waltz, to symbolize entering womanhood. Guests at the party routinely give the quinceañera “grown-up” gifts, like makeup and fine jewelry. Quinceañeras wear a special dress for the occasion, and Focíl says the one she wore 20 years ago was white, which used to be standard for quinceañeras. But over the last decade, the most popular dresses have come in bright pinks, purples, and blues.
Although nearly every quinceañera involves a party as well as a Catholic mass, the tradition didn’t always have a religious component. DePond notes that while “we can’t rule out the possibility that a church ceremony was part of the debutante ritual the quinceañera came from, because the church was so subsumed in everyday life,” the Catholic Church wasn’t always on board with quinces. González-Martin says there was a time when families had a hard time finding a church that would accommodate the ritual.
“Some Catholic priests saw it as a positive thing, but other parishes believed the quinceañera came with all these sexual connotations because she was wearing white and had escorts, and so it was reminiscent of a wedding,” says DePond. “They feared the closeness of the court of honor would facilitate teenage sex. Some churches believed the celebration was too secular.”
Only in 2008, with the ritual becoming so prevalent among Latino families, did the Catholic Church formally recognize the quince by publishing its own liturgy, which includes the 15-year-old renewing her baptismal vows.
The church’s recognition didn’t come without controversy. For example, in 1990, the Los Angeles Archdiocese released "Pastoral Guidelines for Preparation and Celebration" for the quince, with rules for the ceremony intended to tone down the parties; the LA Times reported this angered families who felt the church was compromising tradition. Individual parishes have also called for families to scale back on spending and focus more on the religious ceremony. González-Martin believes the criticism of opulent quinces both by the church and outside of the Latino community is rooted in a stereotype that “Latinos are illogical consumers who need to be saved from their spending habits.”
“It’s not something people say about bar mitzvahs,” she says. “Nobody tells those parents, ‘Shouldn’t you be spending your money on college tuition?’”
For Latino families, the party is an important manifestation of upward mobility. Many parents who throw quinceañeras in the US today weren’t able to have parties themselves, says Davalos: “It’s a play for young women and families who have a recent memory of Mexico, but they couldn’t afford a quinceañera there. But they’ve come to the US, and there’s possibility here.” This is one motivation for Angie Chavez, a mother of three living in Anaheim. She is planning a 400-person quinceañera party for her daughter Katie. “I want her to have this kind of party because I didn’t have one,” she says.
“A lot of these women throwing parties come from hard backgrounds, and they didn’t get to be children for very long,” adds González-Martin. “They want to give their daughters what they didn’t have.”
Kimberly Marquez says her quinceañera eight years ago was one of the most important events of her life — not just because there were nearly 500 people from her Fresno community who attended, nor because the theme was Beauty and the Beast and she got to wear a giant yellow dress similar to the one Belle wears in the Disney movie. Instead, Marquez recalls the event as being pivotal in how she viewed her mother. She was in total awe of how much her mom, a single parent, hustled for two years to save up for the party, working several jobs in fruit pack houses.
“She definitely wanted me to have the experience,” says Marquez. “She did offer me other options, like taking a trip, but I know she hoped I would choose a party because it meant so much to her to put it all together. Looking back, it was one of the most empowering moments to be a Latina woman in America. Because we were not wealthy, and she had to do all this hard work, but it made her so proud, and it made me so proud of her.”
Radio host Marquez works as an emcee for quince expos all around the country. She says that the giant dresses, the elaborate dessert tables, and the fancy DJ setups aren’t just a reflection of teenage girls buying into American consumer culture. The quinceañera is about Latina pride, she says, on both the girl’s behalf, and the family’s, especially during a time when President Donald Trump continues to vilify Latino immigrants and slander Mexicans.
“Honestly, regardless of where this country is headed, I feel that no matter what we should be representing our culture,” says Marquez. “If you are Hispanic, you should be prouder than ever to call yourself one, and this is a way for girls to say they want to represent your culture.”
Last month, a group of 15 teenagers donning pastel quince dresses took to the steps of Austin’s Texas State Capitol building to protest the state’s sanctuary cities ban, a bill known as SB4. Holding signs that read "Equality," "No hate," and "United Families," and dancing to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done),” the girls made national headlines. Cristina Tzintzún, executive director of Group Jolt, which works to engage Latino voters and organized the protest, says it was important to show “young Latinas are standing up to the ongoing attacks on our community.”
“Whether it’s SB4 or threats to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals,” says Tzintzún, “these issues affect quinceañeras just as much as they affect other members of our community. And quinceañeras aren’t just about parties — they are coming-of-age celebrations that strengthen the bonds of family. They are also about uniting community in celebration, which is what we need to do to stop hateful and racist policies that hurt Latinos.”
To parents like Stephanie Figueroa, the choreographer, the quinceañera is more important than ever. “I feel like it has to keep going,” especially in her native Texas, she says. “If something as symbolic of our culture as a quinceañera doesn’t continue on to the next generation, the culture will die.” Avitia, of the National Hispanic Cultural Center, says she’s already seeing cases of immigrants reluctant to attend large gatherings like quinceañeras, for fear of attracting police or Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.
“I don’t think these types of celebrations will go away, but I definitely think we’ll start to see them being held in more private spaces, and more quietly,” says Avitia. “Quinceañeras initially started as something that was small, family-centric, and localized, and then it got bigger and bigger, to the point where they spread to giant venues, but I do think we’ll start to see them going back into small, local spots out of safety concerns.”
Hilda-Gabriela Hernández believes the effects of the current political climate on Latino consumer habits will only intensify.
“Whatever happens in this country trickles down into the quinceañera market, and what you’re going to start seeing now is people who want to hold onto their money because there is an insecurity about their future,” says Hernández. “People’s lives are very much unstable. I’ve spoken with parents who don’t want to risk investing in a party when they don’t know what tomorrow will bring. They don’t know if they, or their families, will be around to even celebrate it.”
According to market research firm NPD Group, shopping among Latinos is down 8 percent this year; Target CEO Brian Cornell brought up similar numbers as a concern at the Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference last month.
“There’s almost a cocooning factor. They are staying at home,” he said of American Latinos. “They are going out less often, particularly along border towns in the United States. You’re seeing a change in behavior.”
Davalos, the University of Minnesota professor, believes the current denigration of the American Latino community is actually having a galvanizing effect.
“Whenever we are under pressure, we find ways to survive, so I am hopeful,” she says. “Political mobilization doesn’t start from nothing. It has to come from places like everyday familiar expressions that invest us with a sense of who we are, and that’s why I think the quinceañera space will only get stronger.”
This is also the attitude of Rosmaliz Colon, a mother of three from El Sereno, California. She is second-generation American and is planning a 200-person quince for her daughter Ana. She plans on sending an invitation to the September event to the White House as a gesture of good faith, in the hope of building a bridge between Trump and Mexican immigrants. Will there be enough room if President Trump, or anyone from his administration, actually decides to show up?
Of course, says Colon: “There’s always room at a quinceañera.”
Chavie Lieber is a senior reporter at Racked.