WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) – For more than two years Veronica Mendez has known exactly what dress and color scheme she wanted for her quinceañera.
In June, she spent one week with her mom fervently hunting through dress shops across New Castle County.
"I even tried to change her colors by showing her different dresses," said her mother, Maria Mendez, 42, in an interview done in Spanish. "But, she would say, `No, no, no. I want my mint-colored dress like I saw online, and when I'll find it I'll buy it."'
When they got to Brides and Grooms in Ogletown, she found it. The gown with a sweetheart neckline featured a corset back and a bodice encrusted with crystals that seemed to sprinkle on to the lavish organza skirt. Its layers of sheer, crisp ruffled silk fabric had to be pushed through the fitting room doorway because the crinoline petticoat underneath it made it so puffy.
That dress is the centerpiece of her quinceañera, a tradition imported by people who have Latin American roots. The event, part coming-of-age ceremony and part birthday party, transcends borders and generations to bring people together - and it's not just a Hispanic version of a Sweet 16 party.
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It's a rite of passage and a symbolic ceremony during which a girl enters womanhood when she turns 15. In Latin America, different regions have different traditions, and in the United States the traditions have snowballed into a uniquely American version for the modern-day Latina.
Veronica's quinceañera demonstrates a lot of those differences.
The events, which usually begin with a Mass and move to a big reception with food and dancing, can range from small and intimate, to large and extravagant. Veronica's 400-person event would end up costing $15,000, which is $6,000 more than her sister's did seven years ago. But her party was in the low middle of the scale, say people familiar with quinceañeras. They can cost as much as $50,000, one planner said.
Because quinceañeras can be expensive, it's a common practice for the family and birthday girl to ask family and close friends to help sponsor part of the events. It's considered an honor by many to be asked to be a padrino.
For example, Veronica's aunt Marilu Mendez, who is a party planner, offered to make the decorations for the quinceañera's table. Therefore, she will be referred to as the madrina de decoraciones, or the godmother of decorations. All the sponsors are thanked publicly, sometimes in the invitation and always at the party, often with a special dance.
Generally, family and friends want to help make laquinceañera's day memorable. Veronica had 35 patrons.
"It's a special day for me. It's when I go from being a little girl to a young lady. I'm really thankful to have one, too," Veronica said. "And thankful for my parents, especially since I know it's a lot of money to spend for just one day."
Her mom says she's happy to make her daughter's dream come true.
"She's always wanted this since she was a little girl," said Maria Mendez. "I think every young girl hopes to have a big party when she turns 15."
When Maria was growing up, she had a large family with many siblings and they couldn't afford a party. But now that she can for her daughters, she's really enjoyed planning and having them. Veronica's will be her second and her last, because Veronica is the youngest daughter of the five siblings. She has three brothers.
What Maria has done is similar to the traditions in her hometown of Mayanalan, in the state of Guerrerom. She tries to retain as many details as she can, but some can't really be adopted with people living so far from churches and family.
In Mayanalan, Maria said, "The birthday girl has to walk to the church, but she's accompanied with music. She has music going to church and going to the hall. Back home the party doesn't end until the next day."
That is a less materialistic practice, but it wouldn't work here in Delaware.
"It's not like I'm going to go walking from here (New Castle) to Wilmington," Maria Mendez said. In addition, her daughter's Mass and reception were miles apart.
A limousine wasn't strictly necessary, but the birthday girl, her court and her family did need transportation and it adds a stylish touch. The average cost of a limo for a quinceañera ranges from about $250 for the first hour in a Hummer limo to $150 an hour for a Lincoln, which are the two more popular choices, according to party planners. There's an additional $50 charge every hour after the initial one. Three quinceañera planners said that a limo is usually the first budget cut a girl and her family will make, but the ones that choose a limo opt for that stretch SUV.
Here in America, the quinceañera celebrations have spawned a multimillion dollar industry that continuously changes and adds to decades of tradition.
Pedro Lopez, 50, is a professional choreographer from Delaware who has been focusing on quinceañeras for more than 35 years. He was hired by Maria to choreograph both her daughters' parties.
Lopez fell into the business almost by accident. He was good at dancing and after his girlfriend introduced him to the dancing trade, he began choreographing.
"I try to stay current with all the different types of music and dance to always offer a little bit of everything for their repertoire," Lopez said.
The Mexican native says the American tradition has transformed into more of a show than a gathering.
Choreographers charge about $300 for their services, which include three choreographed dances, practices, a dress rehearsal and showing up for the party to make sure everything runs smoothly. The price increases with the number of performances requested.
Traditionally laquinceañera has one dress. Now some girls have more than one. Traditionally there were three dances. Now sometimes girls want five or six, each with a different outfit, and each dance costs extra for time and choreography, Lopez said.
It's a business, he says, shrugging his shoulders in a way that says "what are you going to do?"
"There used to be the waltz, polka, a march and they danced at midnight. Now, there's the surprise dance, and an infinity more of things that have been invented to benefit many, most of all the industry," Lopez said. "Now there's the last doll, a pendant, roses and a lot more that has been added."
The last doll is one of the many traditions at a modern quinceañera. Those can include putting a tiara on the birthday girl, changing her flat shoes into her first pair of high heels and giving her the last doll - which is also her last toy.
But before the party, families usually have a religious ceremony in the name of the quinceañera. That costs money, too. Some churches charge and others ask for a donation for their services.
Within the religious ceremony, there are certain traditions. For example, in a Roman Catholic Mass, the girl is given a special pillow to kneel on as she prays. She is also given a blessed rosary and a Bible, sometimes accompanied by a religious medallion. Veronica's padrinos gave her a gold necklace with a pendant of the Virgin of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas.
Often the pillow, the Bible and the last doll are packaged and sold for $300, at the low end of the sales scale.
Traditionally, the girl and her father danced the vals, the waltz. Lately, many of the girls have asked to dance the waltz with their father and their last doll. That's by far one of the oddest new requests, said one party planner.
A few years ago, only the eldest daughter was allowed to wear a tiara on her quince celebration. Her sisters were not. But today, all girls get to wear a tiara, said Marilu Mendez, who is also a quinceañera planner. She charges a minimum of $12,000 to put together a quinceañera for 200 people. The price includes everything except hall rental and mass.
The prices to rent a hall depend on the number of guests, the time the party will end and whether the venue provides furniture. Mendez said the average hall for a 100-person party that will include tables and chairs and will go until midnight is about $4,000.
A simple cake for a 200-person quinceañera costs about $600. A DJ costs on average $1,000. A live band, whether mariachi or another regional style band can cost about $200 an hour for a three-person band. The cost increases with the size of the band, and the distance they must travel. And if they're performing during the party, they'll most likely have a plate of food. Which means they're part of the guest count for food when talking to caterers.
Starting price for hair and makeup for the special day is $110, with the cost depending on the style of your hair.
Even with the big costs, families want to have parties for their daughters.
"The priority is to be in togetherness, to share with your family and your friends," Marilu Mendez said with an ear-to-ear smile that reflected her passion for quinceañeras. "It's a time to feel like a queen."
And Veronica did at her July 25 event.
Just a few days before the party, she was back at Brides and Grooms for the final fitting of her $700 dress, holding her one-and-a-half year old niece, Lexie Valle.
"My dress was so puffy," Veronica said after her quinceañera. "I was trying hard not to step on it during the dancing."
At the party, she was surrounded by seven escorts, all friends from school, called chambelanes, who also participated in dance routines and sat with her at the head table.
She says she couldn't imagine a better party and is thankful to have spent it with family and friends.
"My favorite part was dancing with the guests and the padrinos," Veronica said. "Because without them everything wouldn't have been possible."