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In Heartbreak Trail, the subject of my fifteenth birthday comes up quite suddenly. Mother asks me what I would like to do for my quinceañera. It’s possible that some of you have never heard that Spanish word before. Quince means “fifteen,” and the añera comes from año, the word the means “years.”
I know all about the quinceañera. Living in California all my life, I’ve seen many ranch hands and neighbors of Spanish heritage celebrate this special rite of passage. My family adopted this birthday fiesta for ourselves. Melinda celebrated it and so did I. And just a year ago, we all threw a party for my best friend, Rosa’s fifteenth birthday.
The quinceañera celebrates all the virtues of love, honor, and family–and recognizes a girl’s journey from childhood to adulthood. This tradition, Mother told me, goes all the way back to about 500 B.C. and the Aztecs. Luckily, I read that part of my history book and learned the Aztecs lived in Mexico before the Spanish conquistadores conquered Mexico. At fifteen, an Aztec girl became marriageable (yikes!), and an Aztec boy became a warrior. They grew up fast back then, I reckon.
The Spanish blended their European customs with the indigenous people and by the 1700s, this custom was well entrenched in the upper-class Mexican society. Young girls in the wealthy class were not allowed to dance in pubic before age 15. The quinceañera was their ticket into this aspect of adult social life. (I’m not sure how that works now in 1883. I’ve seen Rosa having a good time at the McLaughlins’ barn dances before she turned 15.)
The quinceañera focuses on God, family, friends, music, food, and dancing. Back in colonial times in Mexico, wealth was a big part of a family’s social status. It was important to throw a fancy party for their young daughter. She wore an opulent, handmade gown, gold jewelry; they made her a lavish cake. Part of the reason for the custom was to ensure the family’s chances of landing a good husband in the future. This means a poor, lower-class girl like Rosa would have never been given a quinceañera. To be honest, I think the only reason Rosa got this party is because Mother insisted. Jose and Nila seemed overwhelmed by this blessing for their daughter.
Besides all the fun, food, and friends, the quinceañera is a time to affirm a girl’s faith, family traditions, and her good moral character. It welcomes the young lady into adulthood, but thankfully–even though I’m now supposed to be grown up–it doesn’t mean I have to welcome any advances from wife-seeking young men. (Although Rosa’s family welcomed Hector’s request to call on Rosa. I think she’s a little loco for going along with it.)
Since most Latin people are Catholic, a quinceañera includes a strong Catholic element. (Mine did not, since we are not Catholic). Rosa received a cross, a prayer book, and a rosary. Her family asked a priest to come out to the ranch to say a special service for her.
For my quinceañera, Justin did pray, and so did Mother, but then we got right to the party. There was plenty of food, flowers, music, dancing, and a cake, of course. I agreed to wear an elaborate ball gown and waltzed with Justin. (For her party, Rosa waltzed with her father, which is the traditional way.) Then the guests all toasted me and offered their best wishes and congratulations.
I feel very blessed to be and American in Spanish California. This means that not only do I get to celebrate a fifteenth birthday quinceañera, but the very American “sweet sixteenth” birthday when it comes along in another year.
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