Sweet 15

The rise of the all-out, over-the-top, super-spectacular, bank-breaking quinceañera.
Sweet 15
Elizabeth Miranda, photographed on December 19, 2008, in McAllen.
Photograph by Sarah Wilson

The theme is going to be pink diamonds,” Elizabeth Miranda was telling me, trying to make herself heard over the mariachis who were serenading a nearby table. We were sitting in the corner of a mostly empty Mexican restaurant in McAllen, and Elizabeth was wearing pink sweatpants, a pink hoodie, a pink T-shirt, pink-and-white Nikes, and pink nail polish. Even the tiny rubber bands on her braces were pink. It was two weeks before her fifteenth birthday, and she and her mother, Bertha Lopez, had agreed to meet me to discuss Elizabeth’s upcoming quinceañera, the “sweet fifteen” celebration that would mark her transition into adulthood and reaffirm her commitment to Catholicism.

Everything is going to be pink,” Elizabeth was saying. “And there’s going to be a chocolate fountain and an ice sculpture that looks like a diamond—” She could hardly get the words out fast enough. She was pretty and petite, with a luminous complexion and dark brown hair that ran all the way down her back. “My court is going to do a waltz with me, and then we’re going to do the cha-cha, but a hip-hop version,” she said. “I have the most amazing choreographer.”

Bertha smiled at her daughter’s enthusiasm. “When I was her age, I wanted a sweet sixteen—something really American, you know?” she told me. She was thin and high-energy; when she spoke, she emphasized her words with her hands. “But things have changed so much. Now most of Elizabeth’s friends are having quinceañeras. She went to four just last month.”

Elizabeth nodded wearily and then exhaled. “Some girls ask for a trip instead, or they want a car,” she said. “But you can always take a trip. And you have to get a car when you go to college, anyway.”

Oh, really?” Bertha said, turning in her chair. “You have to get a car?”

I’m just saying—you only turn fifteen once,” Elizabeth said. “It’s now or never. You only get one chance to have a quinceañera.”

Bertha laughed. “My quinceañera was much simpler than Elizabeth’s will be,” she said. “My mom made my dress. The party was in the parish hall of our church, and my family prepared the food—mole, beans, and rice. We had mariachis, but I didn’t have a court, so I just danced with my cousins.” She sighed. “It was perfect, but Elizabeth’s quinceañera has to be more than perfect,” she said.

Mom, it will be amazing,” Elizabeth said.

I’m in the position that I can offer her more than I had, and I’m proud that I can do that,” Bertha explained. She was a receptionist at a local bank, she told me, and her husband was in construction. “We’re not rich, but we’ve been saving for this for a long time,” she said.

Mom’s been thinking about my quinceañera since the day I was born!” Elizabeth added.

It’s true,” Bertha said. “In my family, you have to have a quinceañera. There’s no getting out of it. I never gave her an option.”

I always wanted one, anyway,” Elizabeth said. “I mean, I’m proud of my culture. And I wanted a pretty dress. And a big party.”

A quinceañera is like a wedding without the groom and the commitment,” Bertha said. “But you still have all the stress, all the money …” She leaned closer and lowered her voice. “Elizabeth actually had the audacity to ask me the other day, ‘So, Mom, what are you going to give me for my birthday?’ And I was like, ‘Are you serious?’ ”

You know, a nice dinner, a cake …” Elizabeth said, giggling.

Mind you, I’ve been planning this party for a year and a half,” Bertha said. “We sent out two hundred invitations, and I glued fifteen pink rhinestones onto every single one. I’ve glued them onto forks, cake plates, champagne flutes. Our kitchen is covered in pink rhinestones. My husband walked in the other night and said, ‘You didn’t do any of this when we got married!’ And I said, ‘That was just our wedding,’ ” she remembered, laughing. “‘ This is our daughter’s quinceañera.’ ”

I had come to the Rio Grande Valley in hopes of understanding why lavish quinceañeras have suddenly become so popular. What used to be a simple, down-home tradition—a pale pink dress, a blessing at the church, and a backyard fiesta with some barbacoa and a norteño band and papel picado for decoration—has morphed into something grander, pricier, showier, more American. Just a decade ago, no one could have foreseen the stretch Humvees; the catered sit-down dinners for four hundred; the grand entrances on carriages and thrones; the smoke machines and light shows and music videos starring the birthday girl; the baroque floor-length dresses with gigantic hoop skirts; the professional dance troupes of teenage boys who bump and grind in unison; the brand-new cars that are driven onto dance floors and presented to girls too young to have driver’s licenses; the budgets that rival—and sometimes even surpass—those of weddings. “Nowadays if you have a traditional quinceañera, people think it’s boring,” Elizabeth’s choreographer, Nadia Valdez, told me. “People expect a big production. They want costume changes; they want something totally original; they want to see la quinceañera thrown into the air. They want to be entertained.”

The first quinceañera I attended, at a sprawling ranch in La Feria, a dozen miles north of the border, featured an obstacle course, a rock-climbing wall, a karaoke machine, a snow-cone truck, and a poolside dance party with a deejay who blasted Justin Timberlake’s “Bringing SexyBack.” The girl of the hour, a willowy redhead named Andrea Treviño, swayed to the music in a silk shantung cocktail dress that was less confining

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