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It is the most important rite of passage for teenage Latinas. When they reach the age of 15, their quinceañera is an over-the-top celebration of a girl’s transition into womanhood complete with elaborate dresses, lavish cakes and decorations, a huge party with food, drinks and music and loads of gifts that can put an Anglo's Sweet 16 party to shame.
The shaky economic situation that has affected many Hispanic families across the U.S. in recent years, however, has put an added financial strain on this already pricey affair.
"Even to do something simple, you have to spend about $5,000," Aylin Santiago, whose niece Jeilany was preparing for her quinceañera told the Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer. "Money-wise, it's hard on everybody. That's why people aren't doing it up like they used to."
The cutbacks by families have also led to a squeeze on the numerous companies that cater to making a young Latina feel like a princess for a day. Some business owners have reduced their rates to draw customers weary of spending a fortune on a birthday party back, while others have downsized their operations with some even beginning to operate their businesses out of their homes to save on overhead costs.
"It's been difficult to have a business," Noemi Noguera, who moved her party planning business into her house to deal with her customers’ shrinking budgets. "I always say I can work with their budget to do something beautiful.”
The true origins of the quinceañera are up for debate, but some speculate that its traditions have been linked to ancient Aztec rites of passage for young women. In heavily Catholic Mexico, the occasion became the way for young women to be introduced to society by either choosing to marry or to devote her life to faith by becoming a nun.
“With such a strong traditional presence, within not only Mexican culture but also other Latin American societies, the quinceañera has become a defining moment for many young girls while playing an ironic role in the lives of others,” a report on the celebration published by the University of Wisconsin stated. “The idea of having a big, grand and usually outrageously expensive party still attracts many young girls to the whole mentality of the quinceañera.”
To make sure that their daughters get the party of their dreams, some parents are employing of number of different methods to keep the tradition alive.
Some save up years in advance, stock up on party supplies like cups, plates and napkins when they go on sale, and use handmade decorations whenever possible. If the family has more than one daughter or an older cousin, a dress bought for the eldest may be refashioned and repurposed for one or more younger sibling’s quinceañera.
"It was a $700 dress," Noguera said. "It's a fancy dress, and it's still brand new."
Costs are also cut when family becomes involved in the process. Godparents, or “padrinos,” can help both finance the party and also give some of the five traditional, ceremonial gifts.
"I think the families help each other out," Tony Carter, owner of Tony's Photography and Video, told the Fayetteville Observer. "It's really nice."
And despite the cost, most in the community – especially those mothers who had their own party – believe that it is an important cultural moment in their daughter’s life.
"I never want [quinceañeras] to end," Noguera said. "For us, it's a beautiful time to share our culture."