The ancient tribes of Mesoamerica celebrated detailed rites of passage for their girls. To them, becoming a woman was an honor, something sacred, a privilege and something to truly cherish and commemorate. Young girls were raised at their mothers’ sides and trained to work as their mothers worked from the time they began to walk. They learned to cook, clean, sew, raise a garden, tend to babies and all the other things that women must do to keep the family going.
On her tenth birthday the young girl makes the rite of passage to adulthood. Typically the girls’ parents would tell her what adult life is like; which she already knew from living and working by her parents’ sides. Explaining it formally makes it a ritual. The parents explain to the girl that she will soon begin to menstruate and will then be able to give birth. The girl is encouraged to become closer with her mother so that she may ask her questions about it all.
During this family ritual younger siblings are excluded. Older siblings are present and are given their turn at telling her their own stories of passage into adulthood. The parents then explain that outside her family responsibilities, the girl must also contribute to the community as a full member. This birthday transition involves a lot of talking, lecturing and explaining.
The girl is then presented to the community. She may make a speech and specifically announces to the community that she will look for ways that she may serve them from now on. The community then accepts the girl. The whole community prays together for the young girl and then they eat together.
The Spanish conquistadores brought different customs to the New World such as the Catholic faith and the European practice of cotillions, debutante balls and presentations at the Royal Court.These cultural bits and pieces have evolved and combined with the Native American practices into what is known as the Fiesta de Quince Años, which translates literally to “party of fifteen years.” Quinceañera literally translates to “fifteen year old.” The word, Quinceañera can also refer to the actual birthday party for the fifteen year old girl.
As the coming of age rituals have evolved over time, at some point the age of fifteen for the transformation from girl to woman was settled upon. This seems to be a reasonable age for the ritual. In contemporary American culture, most of these positive associations are lost. The girls are typically not vested with any additional responsibilities or expectations. Typically, at the age of fifteen a young girl is allowed to begin shaving her legs, wear makeup, talk to boys and attend adult parties.
Since the fifteenth birthday is a major rite of passage there is usually a grand party. The god-parents, family and friends who care for the girl might be a sponsor and provide some aspect of the party as a gift, such as the food, the band, the dress or whatever may be considered important to pull off the grand fiesta. Many families want to incorporate the importance of their religious faith in their daughters’ transition to womanhood. They will arrange for the entire party to go to mass where there is a special blessing for the young lady. Most often dinner and the party follow the church service. Many families forego the religious aspect entirely.
The rite of coming of age is an important part of the history of the Hispanic culture. The fascinating evolution of the ritual from that of a simple agrarian indigenous tribe in the jungles of Guatemala to the extreme Quinceañera Expo’s of the United States is worth the devotion of an anthropologist.
Stay tuned for more articles about the Quinceaños!