My daughter, now a 19-year-old fully settled into college life, will still throw out an offhand comment every once in a while about having been deprived of a quince.
“I’m still mad,” she said when I broached the subject with her recently.
Granted, I don’t think she has completely forgiven us for forcing her to share our attention with her younger brother either.
A quinceañera—or quince for short—is comparable to a bat mitzvah or debutante ball: a ceremonial recognition of a girl’s coming of age in the eyes of her community. In Hispanic families, a daughter’s 15th birthday symbolizes her special moment of reaching maturity.
A “quinceañera”—or “quince” for short—is a ceremonial recognition of a girl’s coming of age in the eyes of her community.
Picture, if you will, a young lady wearing a brightly colored, sequined ball gown, donning a shimmering tiara and surrounded by a court of friends and escorts. Her parents and family beam with pride as the girl becomes a woman during this popular tradition for Latinos in the United States and throughout Latin America.
The quince has roots in the Catholic initiation ceremonies brought to Mesoamerica by the Spanish conquistadores as well as the elaborate rites of passage rituals celebrated by the region’s indigenous people. Faith is an important part of the quinceañera, and many celebrations begin with a Mass, or a prayer service if the family is not Catholic.
At a traditional quince Mass, the birthday girl is escorted down the aisle and receives special blessings. She gives honor to the Virgin Mary and pledges a commitment to purity. A celebration usually follows, with dinner and dancing. In some ceremonies, it is customary for the father to help his daughter change her shoes from flats to high heels as a symbol of her newly established maturity. Nowadays, the quince and her court commonly perform a dance routine.
Given the religious and cultural significance of the quinceañera, why did I chose not to celebrate one for my own daughter, Julia?
I saw less and less emphasis on the faith and heritage and more and more money being spent on extravagant parties.
I had my reasons. For one, I felt that quinces had lost touch with those roots. I saw less and less emphasis on the faith and heritage and more and more money being spent on extravagant parties.
Teens and their families appeared to be competing with “My Super Sweet 16,” an MTV reality show on which parents spend thousands of dollars for what is in essence a fancy birthday party.
Given how important it was to my husband and me to ensure our daughter could attend college without undertaking an overwhelming financial burden, those were dollars I had a hard time spending.
And, as it happened, around the time Julia was turning 15, we were saving money for a special summer vacation in Ireland, the country of my husband’s ancestors. We felt the education that our children would obtain traveling abroad and getting to know a different culture was invaluable.
I have nothing but respect for families who choose to host quinces for their daughters.
We had to choose between the party and the trip. We chose the trip.
Although I still get the eyeroll—“Thanks a lot, Mom”—whenever the quince topic comes up, I think the memories we still cherish from our time in Ireland outweigh my daughter’s sarcasm. Julia and her brother dangled their legs hundreds of feet in the air at the Cliffs of Moher. We toured a Viking castle and kissed the Blarney Stone. Most important, we spent time as a family enjoying each other’s company—moments that every parent cherishes even more as our children get older and find their own way in life.
Despite my personal reservations, however, I have nothing but respect for families who choose to host quinces for their daughters. Promoting the faith, preserving our Latino culture, developing a positive self-identity, strengthening family ties—these are the elements of a quince that had me “this close” to hosting a simple celebration in 2013. But the truth is, quinces were not part of my family’s history. My parents hail from the poor hillsides—the land of jibaros—of Puerto Rico. When I was a teenager in the 1980s in central New York State, I remember only one family having enough money to celebrate a quince.
My husband and I were able to instill in our daughter the values of service, faith, family and cultural pride.
I recall the ceremony vividly. The young lady wore a white lace gown—no poofy, princess ball gowns back then—and looked to me like a bride. But the event’s cultural meaning was lost on me at the time, and I really never gave it a second thought until I had a daughter—a daughter who I hoped would know and treasure her Puerto Rican roots.
I remember talking to Julia’s teacher at a local Latino dance company called Borinquen Dance Theatre about my conflicted feelings. Had I made the wrong decision, choosing the trip over the quince? The teacher, one of the proudest Boricua one could ever hope to meet, chuckled, gave my arm a little tap, as she does, and said, “M’ija, I wish I could go to Ireland.”
I realized then that heritage is not an either-or question. Through her eight years of dance with Borinquen, my daughter developed a strong sense of orgullo (pride) for her Latino roots, learning traditional folk dances from Puerto Rico alongside other Latinos.
I did not need a quince to show off my girl to the world.
My husband and I also provided her with a firm footing in the faith. Julia sang in the church choir and served as an altar server, lector and cantor at our Masses. Quinces often perform community service leading up to the ceremony; instead Julia volunteered with Habitat for Humanity and was a Girl Scout.
In our own way, my husband and I were able to instill in our daughter the values of service, faith, family and cultural pride that are commonly highlighted in a quinceañera.
My daughter may not agree with the ultimate decision, but perhaps one day she will appreciate the path we took. Perhaps it was that trip to Ireland that sparked her lasting interest in traveling to other countries and experiencing different cultures. She spent her summer between freshman and sophomore year working with children in Nicaragua and conducting research for her university. She serves on her university’s support team for Puerto Rican students who are completing their spring semester on the mainland while the island continues its recovery from Hurricane Maria. And she recently applied for a fellowship that could take her to Asia, Australia or South America this summer.
My husband and I could not be more proud of our daughter. We look forward to future celebrations for college and law school graduations—si Dios quiere (“God willing”), as my mother always says.
To quince or not to quince? The question reflects not only a personal choice but illustrates the beauty and the diversity of Latinos in our country and in our church. I did not need a quince to show off my girl to the world. She has made us proud with her own accomplishments. But that takes nothing away from the Latino parents who do continue to keep the tradition alive for future generations. We all share a common thread of love of family and a faithful commitment to being the best parents we can be for our children.
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