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Quinceanera: Catherine Anne Melendez Celebrates Her 15th Birthday With Cultural Flair…Princess For A Day

Lavish Ceremony Escorts A Latina Into Womanhood\ Quinceanera: Catherine Anne Melendez Celebrates Her 15th Birthday With Cultural Flair

Jason Song

July 18, 2003
Copyright © 2003
The Baltimore Sun. All rights reserved. 

Catherine Anne Melendez walked down the aisle, looking resplendent in her white dress as her mother dabbed away tears and the cameras clicked.

After she was given away, the 15-year-old looked at the pastor and swore to "wait for true love."

"It looks like a wedding, but it's not," said Eric Lofberg, one of the guests. "It's a quinta ... it's a quinta-what?"

It was a quinceanera, a Latina's 15th birthday that marks her transformation from girl to young woman. The ceremonies are commonplace in Latino hubs such as Los Angeles, New York City or Miami, where it is easy to find the right dress and tiara. But in Baltimore, not exactly known as a Latino stronghold, having a quinceanera means being the only 14-year-old in the bridal store trying on dresses, flying to the family's native Puerto Rico to find the perfect table settings and explaining to many of the guests just how to pronounce quinceanera. For the record, it's "kin-say-NYE-ra."

"I learned something about my own heritage during this. It's not really something I knew a lot about before," said Kristina Engen, who is half-Honduran and one of Catherine's 14 female attendants .

The quinceanera - derived from quince, which means "fifteen" in Spanish - is a centuries-old mix of Catholic ritual and New World coming-of-age ceremony that presents a girl to society. There is no equivalent for Latino boys.

The ceremonies have evolved, especially in the United States, into lavish events costing up to $20,000 and end up being more like a debutante ball rather than a quasi-religious ceremony. "In many instances, it's turned into a social event to see who can out-do each other," said Patricia Arredondo, president of Arizona State University's Chicano Faculty and Staff Association.

Perhaps the surest sign of the tradition's evolution is Quinceanera Barbie, which is available in toy stores throughout the nation.

Although the Melendezes are Protestants, and most quinceaneras have Catholic roots, they wanted Catherine's to be as "traditional as possible," said her father, Victor, a pharmacologist for the U.S. Army. "It was important for us to put a seed of our culture in [her] so it could take root," he said.

Finding that culture in Maryland wasn't easy for the Melendezes, who live in Laurel in Prince George's County but attend church in Anne Arundel County. Nearly 46,000 Latinos live in the greater Baltimore region, according to the most recent U.S. census. By comparison, 1.5 million Latinos live in the Miami area. "It's harder to hang on to your culture here ... just because there are less of us," said Diana Melendez, Catherine's mother.

But there is every indication that Marylanders will see more cultural manifestations such as the quinceanera. The Hispanic population in the state nearly doubled over the past decade, to the 230,000, counted in the 2000 census.

Having a quinceanera was important to Catherine, who is fluent in Spanish and is an aspiring actress who idolizes Jennifer Lopez, another American with Puerto Rican roots. Catherine and her mother spent almost eight months planning the event and scouring the area for dresses and decorations. In big cities, there is often a plethora of stores that specialize in quinceanera dresses, which are similar to bridal gowns but generally have specks of color to match the attendants' dresses. "We spent a lot of time in bridal stores and I couldn't find what I wanted," said Catherine.

Besides being frustrated by the dresses with long trains or plunging necklines that "were made for adults," visiting bridal stores was "a little weird," Catherine said.

"A lot of people looked at me, wondering `Why is this little girl getting married?' " she said.

After visiting two bridal stores and countless Web sites, Catherine found Grace and Elegance Bridal and Tux in Pasadena, which is owned by two Latin-Americans. The store stocks quinceanera dresses and attracts customers from as far as Richmond, Va. "I sympathize with them," said Janise Fonseca, one of the store's co-owners. "I don't think there are a lot of stores like us around."

Even after finding the dress, Diana Melendez flew back to Puerto Rico to shop for table settings, party favors and the tiara - which was adorned with the number 15.

Altogether, it cost $4,000 to $5,000 to stage the event, the family estimated. "It's something we saved for," Diana Melendez said.

Even after all of the preparations, no one was calm the day of the quinceanera. The church services were scheduled for 3 p.m., but by that time most of Catherine's 14 attendants - one for each year of her life - were still milling around, smiling for pictures and modeling their lavender dresses with matching dyed ballet shoes.

"I've never done anything like this before," one of the girls said.

The confusion wasn't surprising. In the court, there were three blacks, one Korean, seven whites, Catherine's two sisters and her friend Kristina. All said they were unfamiliar with quinceaneras. "My friends come in all colors. But we had to do a lot of explaining. ... We told them it was like a sweet 16 for Latinos," Catherine said.

"Before this started, I knew it was a 15th birthday party and that's just about it," said Kaydee Carr, a friend.

The milling sea of guests and lavender dresses didn't help Catherine's nerves. She had bad dreams in the week leading up to the event. "What if I forgot to make a hair appointment?" she fretted. And she was jittery before the ceremony began Saturday at the Heritage Community Church in Severn, where the family worships. "Wow, all the Americans are here on time," she said in a worried tone as guests filed in. Many Hispanics jokingly refer to their culture's casual approach to punctuality as operating on "Latin time."

Diana Melendez was also showing the stress of having 130 guests, including family that had flown in from Puerto Rico. She clapped her hands frantically. "Everyone, line up. C'mon guys, line up," she told the attendees. "Everyone is here."

Catherine smiled shyly as she walked down the aisle with a friend and sat on a low couch in front of her guests. After a short sermon, her father put a ring on Catherine's finger that was inscribed with the phrase "True Love Waits" to symbolize her virginity and faith in God. If Catherine gets married, she will return the ring to her parents as a sign that she has kept her promise.

After the solemn ceremony, Catherine and her 14 attendants piled into a white stretch limousine to head to a reception at a nearby union hall. "Let's party!" the girls yelled.

But before the meal could be served and the dancing begin in earnest, there was one last task to be done. As she sat, Victor Melendez took off Catherine's flats and slipped her feet into a pair of white satin 2-inch heels, which symbolizes her adulthood, and led her to the dance floor.

There was a slight delay before the music started and everyone was silent, staring at father and daughter. "But we didn't practice," Catherine whispered, flushing slightly.

But then the music swelled and Catherine smiled brightly, held herself up a little taller and fell into step with her father. She was ready after all.

Princess For A Day

As Hispanics are assimilated into American culture, the elaborate rite of passage for young girls is changing

By Deborah Hirsch | Sentinel Staff Writer

August 15, 2003
Copyright © 2003
THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved. 

Dark blue curtains slowly part. Posed like a beauty queen atop a float, 15-year-old Nailea Herrera sits in front of a large silver moon cutout covered with white tulle and holiday lights. Her poofy white halter top dress and tiara glitter under the stage lights as the curtains close.

A moment later, the Cuban-American teenager reappears from the door next to the stage, making another grand entrance by passing through her "court" of six couples -- the guys wearing tuxedos and the girls in pale blue dresses. More than 100 guests watch as her father, Carlos Herrera, escorts her around the lavishly decorated hall and back to the center of the dance floor for a ceremonial waltz.

The elaborate presentation is just the start of Nailea's quinceañera, a Hispanic coming-of-age tradition that dates to the time of the Aztecs, about 700 years ago.

But her huge, expensive birthday bash is the exception rather than the rule in Central Florida. The quinceañera celebration is evolving as Hispanics assimilate. Girls can often choose whether they want to have a party or something else instead, such as a trip, a cruise, a car or money. Sometimes they opt to wait a year to go along with the American "sweet 16" custom.

"Things have changed immensely," says Lizette Valarino, a member of the Puerto Rican community in Orlando.

"From my perspective, it seems like perhaps the more professional crowd, business owners who have been here a long time, don't seem to follow the tradition as much as the new immigrants," she says.

"The kids who grow up here grow up in a different atmosphere, a different tradition. Here we don't have that pressure of everybody else doing it and family watching out for that special moment in the girl's life, and you certainly don't have the peer pressure."

Valarino celebrated her quinceañera in Puerto Rico with a gathering of 150 friends and family members -- though that's not that big by her standards. But her daughter, who grew up here, didn't want the party.

"She was more interested in the prom," Valarino says.

Similarly, Nailea's older sister decided to have just a few friends over.

"It just wasn't a big deal for me," says Daisy Herrera, 22, who works in retail sales. "I was more of a tomboy. Nailea wanted this forever. I'm happy for her."

Felix Matos Rodriguez, director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, City University of New York, says some Hispanic teens still embrace the quinceañera tradition. But many others say "over my dead body -- in the U.S. you don't do that and I don't want to have that brand of being different," he says. "At a time when you're growing up, being labeled as different is one of the last things you want happening."

But living in the United States has allowed some of those who do celebrate quinceañera to have more extensive festivities.

"Here, because a lot of people can make money, it's not a matter of social status, it's a matter of money," says Uva de Aragón, 59, associate director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University in Miami. "It has evolved to be a lot more ornate and baroque, and a lot more fancy and expensive. People can go crazy sometimes spending more than on a wedding. I've never seen anything like that in Cuba."

Aragón says she has seen girls emerging from gigantic pearls or renting several dresses to model during the party or in a photo shoot.

Quinceañeras have become big business in areas with large populations of Latino immigrants. Some companies advertise on the Web, and the first annual "Quinceañera Expo 2003" was held in California in March.

"If you go down in Santa Ana, [Calif.] you'll see a thriving quinceaneras industry: small dress shops, party planning rental places with signs 'For your quinceañera needs,' " says Vicki Ruiz, a professor of history and Chicano/Latino studies at the University of California-Irvine.

Early roots

The roots of quinceañeras can be traced to the Aztec societies of ancient Mexico. Because Aztec women were valued as homemakers, girls began learning cooking and weaving skills to help them become good wives early on. When nearing age 15, a girl was taken aside to learn more of her history and proper behavior for marriage.

The girl's parents formally acknowledged her passage into womanhood with a community celebration. If her family was wealthy, she would study to be a priestess at a temple. Otherwise, she married right around her 15th birthday.

When the Spanish conquered the Aztecs in the 1500s, the quinceañera tradition was integrated into the Catholic religion. Now, presenting a young woman to her community serves more as a rite of passage.

A traditional quinceañera Mass is held on the girl's birthday or the closest Saturday. She walks to the front of the altar with her parents, grandparents and escorts (usually 14, each representing one year of her life). The church congregation gives thanks for the girl, and family members present her with gifts, customarily jewelry, prayer books or rosaries. The young girl -- the quinceañera -- also might give a bouquet to the Virgin Mary or make a speech.

At the party afterward, the quinceañera may present a younger sister with a doll to represent passing into another stage of life and leaving childhood behind. Or her father might replace her flat shoes with heels to show he now accepts her as a young lady. Some of the more expensive parties have mariachi bands and last until the 3 or 4 in the morning, maybe with a breakfast served later.

Central Florida churches with large Hispanic populations estimate that they have about 25 quinceañeras Masses each year. But that's out of a population of more than 300,000 Hispanics, according to the 2000 Census.

Part of the decline in quinceañeras could stem from the migration of many Latinos to other Christian denominations, whereas in Mexico almost everyone is Catholic, says Sharon Mujica, director of educational outreach at the Consortium in Latin American Studies at Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Tradition with a twist

Back at the Westmonte Civic Center, Nailea rejoins her court to perform a synchronized salsa dance. Her mother starts a toast.

"Nailea is a star with a very special light. We're united here to see her shine," Maria Herrera says, raising her glass of champagne. "For having a princess who's turning 15 years old, for Nailea."

The celebration continues with food and dancing. Adding up the professional photographers, caterers and decorations, the whole thing amounts to an $11,000 gala.

"I'll do anything for my children," says Maria Herrera, 41. She says the family made sacrifices to afford Nailea's quinceañeras.

Nailea also spent about eight months preparing for the party and choreographing the court dances.

"I've dreamt about it my whole life," she says.

Even though she knew she wanted to celebrate her cultural background, she opted out of the traditional religious service.

"There are things I changed to make it my way," she says. "It's tradition, and it's my tradition. It's new times, and I've got to change things because of that."

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