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South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Hispanic Families Celebrate Daughters' 15th Birthdays With Traditional Parties

By Tanya Weinberg

July 7, 2002
Copyright © 2002 South Florida Sun-Sentinel. All rights reserved.

White layers of chiffon and crinoline fluffed out perfectly from her waist. Long-necked girlfriends in identical gowns and pumps flitted about her like preening lavender swans.

"How's my lipstick?" Thaymmie Pascual asked them.

"Beautiful" was the response.

Thaymmie grinned and took her place center stage, calling the lavender swans to one side, the tuxedoed gents to the other. With directions to "kneel, no, stand" first in Spanish, then translated for all to understand -- the photographer flashed the crew into immortality.

Thaymmie's 15th birthday party, a coming-of-age celebration in Hispanic cultures, would last just one evening after 18 months of preparation. But the most anticipated event of her young life would not be forgotten.

All around her were the celebration's essential elements: the $700 bridal gown, the matching four-leaf clover buns on the girls' heads, the lavender-and-fuchsia silk and natural flower arrangements, the handmade place settings, the country club hall, the disc jockey, the set designer and the choreographer.

Guests arriving in clusters began to gather on the other side of the still-closed banquet room doors.

For most of the non-Hispanics in attendance, it would be their first quince party. They would marvel at the planning, gawk at the multitiered cake, and chuckle as the emcee recited the quinceañera's childhood resume.

"Since I was little, my parents were always talking about when I was going to be 15," Thaymmie said months before, amid preparations for her big day. Many weekends, Thaymmie and her mother, Joanne Pascual, took trips through Hialeah stores and studios that cater to Miami-Dade County's majority Hispanic population.

Hispanic "Sweet 16"

While Cubans are the largest group in Miami-Dade, teenage girls of Caribbean, Mexican, Central and South American heritage also celebrate their 15th birthday to the level of flair that budget and customs allow. In Broward County, where the 2000 Census tallied 270,000 Hispanics, or 17 percent of the 1.6 million population, quinces are gaining popularity. Just a decade earlier, the county had little more than 100,000 Hispanics.

"My quince," Thaymmie has always called it, with the casual intimacy of a longtime companion, and the seamless blend of languages she grew up with in her Puerto Rican parents' Weston home.

"It's our version of a Sweet 16. It has some significance. You're growing up; you're no longer a little girl," said Thaymmie, who at 14 already wore her eyebrows waxed, her heels high, and her self-confidence easily and unassumingly.

Her usual excursions with friends to Aventura Mall, movies or the beach had to take a back seat to hunt for the dress, the shoes, the music and other party musts.

One Saturday in Hialeah, mother and daughter made several stops. They visited the photographer, and Joanne, who is an accountant, bargained for package deals.

They also took another look at invitations. Joanne, who takes classes in crafts such as Pergamano paper design and flower arranging, tried to decide whether to buy or make them herself.

When it came to dresses, Thaymmie wanted to escape the frilly, girlish, layer-cake looking dresses filling many Hialeah shops. So the pair headed to Coral Gables' bridal row: Miracle Mile.

"I want something strapless, no tulle, white, not beige, very round around the bottom, and a bustier-type top," Thaymmie repeated to salespeople at places such as Bridal City, Coral Gables Bridals and Maria Jung Couturier.

After a half-dozen shops, the Pascuals stopped at a Starbucks, where Thaymmie ordered a caramel frappé just the way she likes it. With half the hot caramel on top and half on the bottom, she said, so the whipped cream won't all melt.

"You see what I have to deal with," Joanne said with a laugh, resting a French-manicured hand on her daughter's shoulder.

Despite the tiring schedule, endless decisions, occasional disappointments, and ever-swelling budget that eventually topped $13,000, mother and daughter never argued or carped in the months they spent preparing.

As a teenager in Puerto Rico, Joanne faced a choice from her parents: a party or a trip.

"My quince was a trip to Disney World. I would say that I regret it," she said, nodding her loose, curled-under hair. "Now I see how much she's enjoying it. We're inviting the whole family, lots of friends."

Thaymmie said her quince would be the third among her classmates at Archbishop McCarthy High School in Southwest Ranches, and would introduce more people to the cultural tradition.

"I'm very social. I'm friends with the cheerleaders, the jocks, the alternative people, the Spanish girls," she said.

Her mother assumed a slightly exasperated look thinking about the guest list.

Then it was back to shopping for the dress, table decorations, invitations, and maybe a tiara. Thaymmie was holding out that her grandmother would approve passing on the gift of a rhinestone-and-pearl tiara, which Thaymmie's aunt wore as a bride.

"She says, `When you get married.' I say, `Grandma, when I get married, I could be 30!'" said Thaymmie, who plans on finishing law school first. "I don't want any distractions."

By the end of the day, after lamenting to the brides next to her on the David's Bridal fitting platform that quince girls don't get to wear veils, Thaymmie found what she thought could be the dress.

But she decided to return another day with her father, a Pepsi account manager, so he could feel part of the decision-making process.

"Ay, Dios," Joanne said, putting her hand on her forehead, ready to head home.

Every last detail

Fast-forward several months, and Joanne and Thaymmie have attended to every last detail.

Now at home, they waited for replacement limousines to fill in for the stretch SUV that fell through at the last moment.

The 27 friends in Thaymmie's court of 14 couples milled about the house. The girls put baby's breath in their matching four-leaf clover buns, while one worked on stretching out her tinted pump, which had arrived one size smaller than its match.

For months, the friends had been practicing an elaborate dance choreography that gave most of them their first experience with salsa and merengue, not to mention the waltz. A crisis loomed when one boy ducked out at the final rehearsal, but it quickly was averted when another girl's boyfriend who had attended all the rehearsals stepped in.

When the limousines finally arrived and transported them to the Pine Island Ridge Country Club, there was enough time to photograph the court and do one last rehearsal.

Backstage, set designer Jose Barrero looked over his enchanted garden creation of a revolving gazebo platform, ivy-covered columns and massive flower arrangements.

"Every girl has her dream," he said. "This girl, for example, when she's up here she feels like Gloria Estefan, Thalia, Shakira. One has her public, one has her applause. This is her grand entrance."

A year earlier, Barrero designed an 80-foot-wide stage at the Doral Country Club for a quince girl who acted out Beauty and the Beast in its entirety. He referred to Thaymmie's design as "simpler, but more elegant."

Barrero is aware that different nationalities vary in their quince customs. Mexican families, for example, are more likely to conduct a Mass before the party.

But the importance of the moment, he said, is equally valued across Latin cultures.

"You only turn 15 once in your life," he said. "Next you're in your 20s, then you're 25, then the children come, then old age, and it's over."

After the guests settled in, the emcee began telling them of Thaymmie's public recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance at age 3, the evolution of her musical fandom from NSYNC to Blink 182 to NFG, and her dreams of driving a Corvette and practicing law. The emcee repeated the speech in Spanish and then the curtain opened upon a slowly spinning Thaymmie.

Bubbles floated up and smoke rolled down the fairy tale stairs toward the dance floor, where Thaymmie's parents stood. Michel Pascual climbed up the steps as his daughter completed her turn and gave her a kiss before escorting her down the stairs.

In some celebrations, the custom calls for the father to bring a pair of high-heeled shoes on a cushion so his daughter can change from her flats before the father-daughter dance. But Thaymmie already wore her mock crystal slipper pumps.

Michel led his daughter through a traditional quince waltz, then the court assembled for its show. In the court's finale, the guys kneeled in a circle and linked arms, upon which the girls sat. The boys then smoothly stood, and, unlike in the final rehearsals, not one girl teetered or fell.

"Don't you wish you were 15 again?" the emcee cooed.

Soon, all stood for the sparkling apple cider toast, in which Thaymmie's father gave a tribute to his daughter's coming of age.

"Thaymmie, it seems like yesterday I brought you home from the hospital," he said. "I will always see you in my heart as Daddy's little girl."

He choked up at this point, and realizing he would cry, abandoned the mike to his wife as the crowd gave a collective "Awwwww."

At a table in the back, a blond woman leaned toward her companion and whispered, "I wonder how he's going to be at her wedding?"

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