Sweet 15

The rise of the all-out, over-the-top, super-spectacular, bank-breaking quinceañera.

March 2009By Comments

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 than the enormous white gown she had been blessed in by her parish priest that afternoon. “My quinceañera is as untraditional as it can possibly be, because I’m untraditional,” Andrea told me. “I’ve got the dress, but that’s it. The other stuff is, I don’t know, just uncool, I guess.” (When a friend urged her to do the Macarena, she rolled her eyes.) Andrea was funny and down-to-earth, hardly the spoiled rich girl who might have played the starring role in this celebration, given that her father, Joe, had made a small fortune in biomedical testing and sales. Still, the setting for her quinceañera exuded a sense of privilege, from the Longhorn cattle and horses that grazed in the pasture behind the Treviños’ five-bedroom ranch house to her father’s second car, a pristine Corvette Z06, which he drives only once a week. Yet because Andrea had nixed any formalities, like having a court of teenage attendants who would flank her during her debut or waltzing with her father, I was told by several guests and her mother, Christina, that this was “a low-key quinceañera.”

So what, I wondered, would qualify as over-the-top? Some inquiries turned up fantastic stories, which were true, of a Phantom of the Opera—themed quinceañera that Alonzo Cantú, a prominent McAllen homebuilder, and his wife, Yoli, had thrown for their daughter in 2007. At the Cantús’ behest, the Cimarron country club had been transformed for one night into the Paris Opera House, replete with velvet curtains, chandeliers, candelabras, and floor-to-ceiling murals of a balcony and a descending staircase. The chairs had been wrapped in melon-colored taffeta that had matched fifteen-year-old Allysa Cantú’s couture gown. There had been a band for the adults and a deejay for the teenagers, as well as a sit-down dinner for six hundred featuring filet mignon and hand-wrapped chocolates bearing the birthday girl’s likeness. Allysa and her court had performed a waltz in masquerade and then a hip-hop routine that had involved backflips and matching homegirl outfits. Between costume changes, Allysa had showcased her singing voice by turning in a pitch-perfect rendition of the treacly Andrew Lloyd Webber ballad “Think of Me.” So many guests were in attendance that she and her court had done a repeat performance in the adjacent ballroom. “My husband said, ‘Don’t do it cheap, don’t cut any corners,’ ” Yoli told me when I visited her palatial home, whose walls were lined with signed photographs of her family with Bill and Hillary Clinton. “And I said, ‘Oh, don’t worry, honey. I won’t!’ ”

Like many of the women I met who had planned extravagant quinceañeras for their daughters, Yoli had come from humble origins. “I didn’t have a quinceañera,” she told me. “My mom didn’t have one, my sister didn’t have one, none of my friends had one. My mom was one of six kids, and she started working when she was fourteen, so there wasn’t any money for something like that. This was a quinceañera for all of us.” Andrea’s grandmother, Mary Vela, had politely stifled a laugh when I’d asked her about her quinceañera. “My quinceañera?” she said, leaning forward in her chair, as if she had misheard my question. “Oh, no, that wasn’t possible. There were four of us, and our mom raised us by herself. Mom’s education was very limited.”

But there has been a cultural shift over the past few decades; in previous generations, families of modest means threw simple quinceañeras or just declined to have them. Now it is common for middle-class and working-class families to throw extravaganzas, relying on a network of relatives and friends to help them foot the bill. These padrinos and madrinas (“sponsors,” or literally, “godfathers” and “godmothers”) assume the cost of various expenses so that a girl’s parents are not saddled with insurmountable debt. “If there are only a few padrinos, then the parents have money,” Wally Mejia, an upscale cake maker in Edinburg, told me. “But in the barrio and in the colonias, there are padrinos for everything: the band, the cake, the drinks, the flowers, even la quinceañera’s underwear.”

And yet the longer I stayed in the Valley, the more I came to see that a quinceañera was more complicated than just an exercise in conspicuous consumption. Yes, materialism often overshadowed the event’s spiritual significance, and yes, there was an element—as author Julia Alvarez writes in her insightful study of the tradition, Once Upon a Quinceañera—of “keeping up with the Garcías.” But throwing a quinceañera also served as tangible proof for a family that they had realized the American dream and demonstrated that they still remembered, and appreciated, where they had come from. For the many teenage girls I met who spoke spotty Spanish and pronounced their last names without rolling their R’s, quinceañeras were a source of enormous pride, as if the more assimilated they had become, the more significance the old-world tradition had taken on. They were flamboyant in their exuberance for all things Latina, which had not been the case when their mothers were coming of age. Mary Aleman, one of Elizabeth Miranda’s madrinas, told me that she had not had a quinceañera when she was a teenager in the seventies because it would have raised eyebrows in her parents’ middle-class milieu. “My family was educated,” she said. “We had moved to McAllen from Matamoros, and I only spoke Spanish, which was looked down upon. There was no bilingual education in the schools back then. My family had the financial means, and I could have had a quinceañera if I wanted it. But girls had cotillions, not quinceañeras. We didn’t flaunt our heritage. Now we embrace our culture much more easily than we used to.”

The weekend before Elizabeth Miranda’s quinceañera, I attended the Latina Bridal and Quince Girl Expo, which drew 2,400 people on a balmy Sunday afternoon to the Travis County Exposition Center, in Austin. The expo was put on by Strategic Events and d, a three-year-old national magazine out of Dallas whose glossy covers feature girls in ball gowns beside enthusiastic headlines (“10 Cool Quince Themes!” “Find Your Celebrity Style!” “Real Q Girl Makeovers” “Scepters, Tiaras, Shoes . . .” “Learn to Waltz 1-2-3!” “Will My Crush Notice Me?”). Cindy Benavides, the expo’s animated producer and owner of Strategic Events, greeted me at the ticket counter. “When I started doing bridal shows, back in 1997, about eighty percent of the focus was on weddings, and the rest was on quinceañeras,” Cindy said. “Now those numbers have flipped, and our focus is about eighty-five percent quinceañeras.”

The reasons for the shift were not just the influence of the MTV reality show My Super Sweet 16, which showcases lavish birthday parties—including six-figure quinceañeras—but simple demographics. “We have a larger Hispanic population than ever before,” Cindy said. “More than four hundred thousand Latinas turn fifteen in the United States every year. It used to be that if you had a quinceañera, you were probably first-generation, but that’s not true anymore.” Cindy, who had not had a quinceañera when she was growing up in Dallas in the seventies, laid out her theory as to why there had been a paradigm shift. “As families assimilated, they lost the tradition,” she said. “Parents would tell their children, ‘I don’t want you to walk in the shoes that I walked in. We’re only going to speak English at home, and we’re going to Americanize ourselves.’ That was pretty common in the sixties and seventies and eighties. But as more immigrants came to the United States, Spanish became the principal language in a lot of neighborhoods, and schools began adopting a bilingual approach. Families felt more comfortable being bicultural, and they started wanting to hold on to their traditions. Once girls started saying, ‘I went to this really cool quinceañera, and I want to have one too,’ then it took off. Kids drive the whole thing.” But, she observed, something had gotten lost in translation between the old world and the new. “For the family, a quinceañera is all about the tradition and the religious significance and the girl’s transition, in her parents’ eyes, into a woman,” she said. “For the girls, it’s all about the party.”

Inside, the fashion show was about to begin. “Buenas tardes and welcome to the Quince Girl Expo!” cried the emcee over live synthesizer music as a crowd gathered by the stage. Around me were girls in jeans and T-shirts and plastic tiaras, chewing gum as they stood on their tiptoes to gape at the finery. Those who had already gotten makeup lessons at one of the expo’s cosmetics booths sported false eyelashes and fantastically teased hair, looking less like worldly sophisticates than children who had raided their mothers’ vanities. Before them, a succession of teenage models glided across the stage in gowns whose colors departed from the traditional white and baby-pink; instead the palette was topaz, fuchsia, scarlet, gold, amethyst, iridescent green. (“The next big color is black—a black overlay over pink or aqua or deep turquoise,” one sales rep told me as she looked on from her booth.) The aesthetic was part Cinderella, part Scarlett O’Hara, with corseted bodices and gigantic hoop skirts supported by multiple layers of crinoline and embellished with endless sequins, rosettes, pickups, and beadwork. “Our next model is wearing a strapless matte satin gown with dazzling beaded lace appliqués!” the emcee announced. “Tulle overlay gives more volume and dimension to the ball gown skirt!” Most of the gowns were strapless, but they were accompanied by matching bolero jackets that could give a girl a more demure look for church. “¡Aplausos, por favor!” the emcee exclaimed as the models pivoted and walked off the stage. “What beautiful girls!”

The price of each gown, which the emcee did not divulge, ranged from $500 to $800. And that’s just to outfit the birthday girl. She typically has fourteen damas, or attendants (one for each year of her life), who, like bridesmaids, wear identical dresses and may change into additional dresses or costumes if la quinceañera is performing a choreographed dance number as part of her debut. There are also the chambelans, the young men who serve as the damas’ escorts, who usually rent tuxedos for the occasion. “And then you have the girl’s mother and her aunts and all the madrinas, who want to wear a similar style and color,” Cindy told me as we made our way past vendors who were busy hawking everything from cake toppers and pew bows to bustiers and champagne fountains. “Latinas are waiting longer to get married, so the quinceañera has become the focus.” And what, I asked, could a family expect to pay for such a mini boda (“wedding”)? “A high-end quinceañera runs twenty-five thousand dollars and above,” she said. “That’s what we call ‘princess-style.’ The middle range is eight to ten thousand dollars. The low end is three thousand. The low end is what I would never want to do. You make your own food and put up your own decorations, and your family is exhausted by the time the party rolls around.” Her figures were lower than what I had heard in the Valley, where I was told that a $10,000 quinceañera was “very modest” and that middle-class families regularly spent anywhere from $20,000 to $30,000.

After making the rounds at booths that showcased fifteen-tiered cake stands and bubblegum-pink Virgin of Guadalupe kneeling pillows and guest books whose covers were embossed with the words “Mis Quince Años,” I was sufficiently convinced that weddings had, in fact, taken a backseat to quinceañeras. As Belen Guerrero, a bubbly fourteen-year-old I had met in McAllen, put it, “You don’t know if you’re ever going to get married, but everyone turns fifteen.” I wondered if it wasn’t just the deferment of marriage but the prevalence of sex before marriage—according to the most recent study, the number of teen births in the Valley is higher than anywhere else in the state—that had elevated the importance of the quinceañera and its implicit celebration of virginity. One mother told me that she had wanted her daughter to wear white for the occasion because “it was the only time I could take her to the altar to be blessed and know that she was still pure.” And yet quinceañeras are full of mixed messages. A girl can pledge to remain chaste until marriage at her quinceañera mass, only to star in a coquettish dance routine at her reception a few hours later, with professional dancers serving as her chambelans. (Some girls dispense with having damas altogether so all eyes will be on them and their chambelans.) “You can see Grandma and Grandpa sitting there, watching these kids do hip-hop moves like they’re in an MTV video,” Nadia Valdez told me. “And you know they’re thinking, ‘Oh, my God! ¡Dios mío de mi vida! What are they doing? What are they touching?!’ ”

Elizabeth’s mother, Bertha, had already spent a great deal of time reflecting on such things while gluing all those pink rhinestones. She knew the hazards of growing up too fast. She had gotten pregnant six months after her own quinceañera and was sixteen when Elizabeth was born. (A quick marriage to Elizabeth’s father did not last, but her second husband, Joe, had raised Elizabeth since she was nine years old as his daughter.) “I want to keep her from making the same mistakes I did but not pull the leash so hard that she will rebel against me,” Bertha said. “Sometimes it’s a hard balance.” She and her daughter had always been close, she told me, but they had grown closer while planning her party. “That’s one of the best things about a quinceañera,” she said. “It’s a lot like a wedding, but when it’s all over, you get to take your daughter home.”

The last rehearsal for Elizabeth’s debut began at five o’clock in the afternoon on the eve of her quinceañera, at Las Palmas the Club, a once-hip eighties nightspot on the east side of McAllen that boasted an all-mirrored interior, sunken dance floor, and miles of wall-to-wall carpeting. Most quinceañera receptions are held in banquet halls, and the Valley has an abundance of them—vast, air-conditioned salons that were built for just such occasions, featuring rococo touches like gilded Corinthian columns and oversized fake floral arrangements—but Elizabeth had wanted her quinceañera to be edgier, so she had chosen this former nightclub. She had also asked Nadia Valdez to choreograph two ensemble dance routines for her and her court. (Not long ago, a girl would have just danced a waltz with her father at her quinceañera reception, but music videos had changed all that.) Elizabeth and her chambelans were to perform a waltz together before the showstopper: a flashy—but not too provocative—dance number with Elizabeth’s full court, set to the Puerto Rican hip-hop star Chelo’s Spanglish hit “Cha Cha,” for which the girls were to wear flapper dresses and the boys were to don zoot suits.

When I stopped by the club, Elizabeth was giggling in a corner with her damas while Nadia was putting the chambelans through their paces. “Okay, we so need to do that again. That was real messy,” Nadia shouted. Though she was small in stature, she commanded the room; she was dressed entirely in black with an enormous rhinestone-studded cross around her neck, and she paced the floor as she issued directives. “I need you to focus,” she pleaded. “You’re not focusing!” Demonstrating how she wanted the boys to move, she walked with exaggerated machismo across the dance floor. “Think of the twenties—you know, zoot suits, the barrio,” she said as they tried to mimic her. “It’s real pachuco, real gangster.” She strode over to her boom box, and when she started up the music again, I watched as Elizabeth made her grand entrance. She lay, diva-style, across the shoulders of three of her chambelans, who carried her onto the dance floor and then gingerly set her down while the rest of her court fell into place behind her and began performing a remarkably complex piece of choreography. The dance was not, in fact, a cha-cha, but an updated version of the Charleston, if the Charleston had been performed by the cast of a Broadway musical with a hip-hop influence thrown in. The Roaring Twenties theme was a reference to the song’s jazzy, big-band sound, which was paired with a catchy electronic beat and Spanglish raps (“Oye, muchacha / Tell me what is going on / ¿Ay que te pasa?”). On the dance floor, the court was shimmying, clapping, dipping, swaying. “More, girls, more!” Nadia cried. “Sassy! I need you to be sassy!”

“Oh, my gosh,” exhaled a friend of Bertha’s who had stopped by to watch. “What on earth are they wearing?”

“Flapper dresses,” Bertha said, exploding with laughter. “You know—real Mexican!”

Elizabeth and her court had met every weekend to rehearse for the previous two months, but many of her chambelans were missing. She had the misfortune of having her quinceañera fall at the end of high school football season, which meant that several guys had been sidelined with sprained ankles and torn ACLs (“We’re down to eight who can dance,” Bertha told me). Even the chambelan de honor, the boy who was supposed to be Elizabeth’s dance partner, was out of commission with a broken leg. Earlier that week, Nadia had managed to convince a friend of her younger brother’s, a high school junior named Alec Guerrero, to fill in as the last-minute chambelan de honor. Alec was blond and lanky and a graceful dancer—he was on the Edinburg High School swim team—who was completely unfazed by the prospect of starring in a complicated dance routine that he would have to perform in front of hundreds of people after only a few days’ practice with a girl he did not know. “Not really,” he said with a shrug when I asked if he was nervous. “I’ve done it before.”

“All right, we’re going to practice the presentation,” Nadia said. “And guys, I’ve told you three or four times now—no gum!” Once the damas and chambelans had taken their places, Nadia began to read her script. “At this time, I would like to present . . . the royal court!” she announced. “Mr. Christian Garcia is escorting Miss Crystal Mayeve Salinas! Mr. Steven Lee Lopez is escorting Miss Lexis Arroyo! Mr. Miguel Valdez is escorting Miss Stephanie Iris Martinez!” Each couple promenaded together, arms linked, until they had reached the edge of the dance floor. Then Nadia cleared her throat. “Ladies and gentlemen, the moment we have all been waiting for,” she said. “Will everyone please rise and join me in a big round of applause for our beautiful and lovely quinceañera: Miss Elizabeth Oyuki Miranda, who is making her debut into society!”

Elizabeth grinned, a little sheepishly. She was still in her school clothes, and the club was empty, except for her court. (Oyuki, I later learned, was a character in a popular telenovela.) Nadia led her to a chair at the center of the dance floor, where she would sit during her presentation, and told her what she could expect the following evening. First she would surrender her ultima muñeca, or “last doll,” in exchange for a bouquet of roses, symbolizing the end of her childhood. Then there would be the ritual changing of her shoes from flats to heels, signifying her transition de niña a mujer (“from girl to woman”), followed by the father-daughter dance. By the time Nadia had covered everything, the group was running late for the church rehearsal.

“You’ve got to change quickly, girls!” Nadia said. “We’ve got to be there in twenty minutes.” Before the group dispersed, she announced that the quinceañera mass would be entirely in Spanish, eliciting groans. “If you don’t understand, just smile!” she said brightly.

Elizabeth was full of nervous energy. “I don’t know how I’m going to sleep tonight,” she said.

“I know, mi hija,” Bertha said, smoothing her hair. “I know.”

The next time I saw Elizabeth, she was walking down the aisle of Holy Spirit Catholic Church carrying a bouquet of pink roses. Her dark hair was swept up off her face, which was framed by a glittering pink tiara; cascading curls fell past her shoulders over a pale pink dress, embroidered with silver thread, that looked as if it had been fashioned out of cotton candy. Her skirt, which was buoyed by multiple petticoats, was so colossal that she had difficulty maneuvering herself once she reached the altar; she tried to sit in the chair that had been placed there for her benefit but nearly lost her balance. Bertha crept up behind her and steadied her with both arms, easing her into her seat. Her chambelans, attired in tuxes and pink satin ties, and her damas, in black cocktail dresses with pink sashes, sat behind her, impassive. The priest, an older man with white hair and a beneficent smile, spoke about the importance of Elizabeth’s honoring her parents as she made the transition to adulthood. Bertha approached the altar and blessed her daughter, making the sign of the cross on her forehead and kissing her cheek as Elizabeth wiped away tears. When it was Elizabeth’s turn to speak, she delivered a prepared statement in English. “Oh Lord, may your grace not be wasted on me,” she said. “Take my heart and make me a worthy daughter of yours.” Elizabeth’s padrinos and madrinas—of which there were only a few—presented her with jewelry, which was sprinkled with holy water and then put on her, piece by piece. Everyone took Communion, and then Elizabeth placed her bouquet at the foot of a portrait of the Virgin Mary.

¡Felicidades!” one woman whispered, squeezing Elizabeth’s arm, when the mass was over.

¡Que bonita!” exclaimed another.

After the photographs were taken, there were two hours to kill before the reception began. Bertha had arranged for something called the Party Bus to drive Elizabeth and her court around McAllen, and I followed them on board. The interior had circular seating and window shades that shut out the daylight; recessed neon tube lights gave the bus a purple glow. There was a wet bar—which was not stocked, due to the age of the partygoers—as well as a sound system and a karaoke machine. The teenagers exhaled with delight. “All we had for my quinceañera was a limo, so it was crowded,” said one of the damas. “Our knees were touching. This is nice.” But as the bus drove up and down McAllen’s wide boulevards, Elizabeth and her court grew quiet, as if they were too tired or too bored to know what to do; most of them sat in the dark, staring at their cell phones, texting. One of the chambelans studied Elizabeth, who was resplendent in pink. Her dress took up the entire back of the bus, and it appeared as though she might disappear into its folds. “You look like a retarded flower,” he offered.

“Thanks,” she said, her voice dripping with sarcasm.

“My feet are killing me,” muttered one of the damas.

The driver stopped for a few minutes at the National Shrine of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle, where Elizabeth and her court posed for pictures. (As I looked on, the Party Bus’s driver, David Estrada, told me that his son had recently celebrated his quinceañero—boys having fifteenth-birthday bashes has become an increasingly common phenomenon—“because he didn’t think it was fair that only girls got to have quinceañeras.”) When we got back on the bus, the chambelans took turns at the karaoke machine, competing to see who could sing the most off-key. Elizabeth grabbed the mike when Aqua’s “Barbie World” came on. “I’m a Barbie girl, in the Barbie world!” she sang. “Life in plastic, it’s fantastic!” The damas kicked off their shoes and clapped their hands. Everyone was dancing, and when the driver took a corner a little too fast, they all leaned into the turn, still swaying to the beat. We rolled up to Las Palmas as the reception was about to begin.

Inside, the club looked far more glamorous than it had the previous evening. There were floral centerpieces, pink balloons, chairs wrapped in jewel-toned tulle, soft lighting, a chocolate fountain. An enormous three-foot-high ice sculpture of a diamond stood near the entrance, backlit for added drama. Elizabeth’s birthday cake, which was surrounded by fourteen smaller ancillary cakes—one for each of her damas and chambelans—had pale pink frosting with darker pink polka dots and was topped with a giant E studded with Swarovski crystals. The mariachi band struck up old standards like “Las Mañanitas” as kids in formal shoes and starchy collars ran underfoot, playing tag in the crowd of about three hundred.

Older folks circulated around the room, greeting relatives from Reynosa who had come across the border for the occasion. Two of the injured chambelans sat by themselves, their crutches propped up against the wall. Bertha had saved money where she could by having a buffet of finger food rather than a sit-down dinner and asking guests to bring their own alcohol. Still, all told—when she added up the cost of the photographer, the videographer, the choreographer, the venue, the clothes, the bouquets and boutonnieres, the Party Bus, the chilled shrimp, and all the other odds and ends that a year and a half’s worth of planning entails—she had spent around $20,000. “I told Elizabeth, ‘That’s it, girlfriend—I’m broke!’” she said.

“May I please have your attention,” announced Nadia, who was serving as emcee. “We are about to start the presentation!” The lights dimmed and a video collage of Elizabeth, from birth to present day, played above the dance floor. Nadia introduced the court, and the damas and chambelans filed in, each holding a flute of pink champagne. “Ladies and gentlemen, the moment we have all been waiting for!” Nadia said. “Will everyone please rise and join me in a big round of applause for our beautiful and lovely quinceañera!” The crowd roared as Elizabeth, radiant under the lights, was led to the center of the dance floor by her mother and grandmother, clutching a pink teddy bear (traditionally, the ultima muñeca is a porcelain doll, but Elizabeth had struck a more American note). “At this time, we will watch our quinceañera go through a transformation that occurs to all little girls who reach this age of fifteen,” Nadia said as dreamy music played in the background. Elizabeth gave the teddy bear to Bertha and was given a bouquet of roses in return. Bertha then knelt down and reached under her daughter’s petticoats to swap her flats for a pair of silver rhinestone heels. Elizabeth wept when she was done. “The time has come to embrace the metamorphosis of a little girl who once dreamt of being a princess and has reached her journey of transformation,” Nadia said, as flutes of pink champagne were handed out to all the guests. “We wish you the best of luck, and may God bless you!” There were screams from the crowd, and several girls yelled, “We love you!”

Before the dancing could begin, there was one more thing. “Okay, Elizabeth,” Nadia said into the microphone. “I know you’ve been waiting anxiously for this moment . . . so if we could please have the regalo de sorpresa!” The “surprise present” is a staple of the quinceañera, and I had heard stories of girls receiving cars, horses, puppies, Rolexes. A small box was brought out to Elizabeth, and she anxiously tore into it, digging through pink tissue paper until, at last, she extracted a pair of hot pink Nikes decorated with pink swooshes. She held them up for the crowd to see, unable to hide her disappointment. “Oh, wait—” Nadia said, with mock surprise. “There’s another present!” A much larger pink box with pink balloons attached to it was brought onto the dance floor. When Elizabeth had torn off enough wrapping paper that she could see what was underneath, she covered her mouth, her hands trembling. It was a brand-new Apple MacBook with a color printer—a gift, Bertha later told me, that she had justified because Elizabeth could use it for school. The crowd gasped. “That’s a really good present,” exclaimed one of the boys standing next to me.

In order to head off any family conflict, Elizabeth did no fewer than three father-daughter waltzes: first with the most beloved of her padrinos, who was her godfather; then with her biological father; and then with her stepfather. When she took her father’s hand and began to dance to Tim McGraw’s “My Little Girl,” she lay her head on his chest and started to cry. But when the time came for her to perform with her court, her game face was on. The group waltz with her chambelans went off without a hitch, and I watched, mesmerized, as the boys who had been so sophomoric earlier that day on the Party Bus were reborn as debonair dance partners. Elizabeth was giddy with excitement, enjoying her moment in the spotlight.

When the song was over, she curtsied as each chambelan kneeled and proffered her a pink rose. For the more elaborate number, Elizabeth changed into a hot pink, midriff-baring flapper dress and ended up stealing the show. She hardly seemed fifteen; she executed each move perfectly, dancing with such self-assuredness that you couldn’t help but watch her. At the song’s conclusion, balloons burst overhead, raining down confetti as the crowd screamed and broke into wild applause. Then the deejay took over, blasting a huapango. What looked like the entire party, young and old, took to the dance floor. Elizabeth changed into yet another dress, a fuchsia baby-doll-style cocktail dress with silver straps, and joined her friends, laughing as they shimmied to “Super Freak.”

At midnight, Bertha invited everyone over for an after-party that she called a tornaquince—a reference to the late-night gathering that often follows a wedding, a tornaboda. There were menudo and tamales, and people lingered until five o’clock in the morning, talking and laughing until they wiped tears from their eyes. By dawn, the house was quiet. Several of Elizabeth’s damas had fallen asleep on her bedroom floor, which was littered with torn wrapping paper. Elizabeth padded around the house in her pink sweats and tiara, unable to settle down. “The tiara has to come off!” Bertha told her, amused. “Princess day is over. Back to reality!” Yawning, Elizabeth begrudgingly handed it over. Then she hugged her mother goodnight and crawled into bed.

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