A young girl's sweet 15by Elizabeth Baier, Minnesota Public Radio
For young Latinas, a quince, or sweet 15 birthday celebration, is a coming-of-age milestone. The day-long event is filled with religious and cultural rituals for the girl, her relatives and their extended community. For Latino families in the U.S., it's also a milestone that shows they're on their way to achieving the American dream, while preserving their native traditions.
Minneapolis, Minn. — As music fills a brightly-colored beauty salon called Lupita's on East Lake St., Ruby Jimenez begins one of the most important days of her young life.
After years of anticipation, she's eager to see family and friends who've traveled from several states to be with her on this special day.
"My family came from Chicago and Wisconsin to come to my party for my 15," Ruby said. "I'm excited that they're here. I invited them one year ago, and they wanted to come, and now I'm really happy that they're here."
At a glance, Ruby looks like a typical American teen, wearing a pink plaid shirt, denim jeans, and white Nikes.
She scrolls for music on an iPhone, as her mom and a hairdresser decide how to style her long, brown hair.
But Ruby is also very Mexican. And on this day, she's thrilled to be celebrating her birthday the same way her ancestors have for generations.
A quince is both a cultural and religious event. It's about letting 15-year-old Latinas play out some of their last childhood fantasies of princesses, including pastel-colored gowns and an entourage.
For families in the U.S., it's also about preserving well-rooted, native traditions while embracing new American identities.
Less than an hour after leaving the salon, Ruby and an entourage of five tuxedo-clad teenage boys pull up to the Church of the Sacred Heart. They step out of the white limo and walk toward the church lobby.
Ruby's beaming in her satin turquoise dress, as she begins this religious rite of passage. Her dad, Abelardo, is excited by it all.
"Ever since I was a young boy, I dreamed of raising my children here," he said. "I think the majority of parents dream of that for their children. Of giving them the best. Of fulfilling our obligation as parents."
Inside the church, Deacon Carl Valdez switches between Spanish and English as he speaks to the teenagers sitting in the pews. He talks to them about the challenges young Latinas living in the United States face, like high pregnancy and dropout rates.
Valdez says sometimes it's easy for the birthday girl and her family to lose sight of the true meaning of the event.
"Like so many traditions, we do things automatically and we don't fully understand the responsibilities along with it," Valdez said. "It's part of what we call popular religiosity. Mixing the religion with the culture, doing it in the form of prayer, doing it in the form of thanksgiving. Doing it in the form of, OK, we go out of here, and we continue the celebration."
For Ruby's family, the celebration was a day-long event that ended late into the night.
In the U.S., the average quince can set a family back several thousand dollars. That's a lot of money for working class families like Ruby's.
Her stay-at-home mom took on a part-time job at a fabric store, and her dad worked extra hours as a manager of a lawn maintenance company, to save up for the day.
Later in the afternoon, Ruby walks into the reception hall in northeast Minneapolis. She says her family started planning the event nearly six months ago.
"We were close to not having my 15," Ruby explained. "We were like, 'It's too much stuff, it's too much money.' We were like, 'If you want a 15, then it could be not with a lot of stuff.' I'm like, 'OK, that's fine.'"
For Ruby's family, a modest party still meant dinner and a dance for nearly 300 relatives and friends.
At the reception hall, Ruby walks around the decorated room, mingling with early arrivals and checking to see that everything is in place.
She takes a seat on a white wicker chair in the front of the room. Someone already placed a porcelain-faced doll on the table. It's a customary gift that's meant to symbolize a girl's last doll.
Ruby says dozens of relatives and friends pitched in for the day, which ended up costing more than $5,000.
Some helped pay for the dress. Others for the limo and cake. The gesture is meant to represent the whole community coming together to let Ruby know that they are there for her.
Ruby says she plans on doing the same for her younger sister, Jenny.
"I'm going to pay for her 15," Ruby said. "She's the only sister I have. The things I don't have right now, I want to give it to her."
Throughout Latin America and now in the U.S., quinces are about family, culture and tradition. Ruby and her parents have eight years before they start planning their next quince.
- All Things Considered, 08/18/2008, 5:53 p.m.