Twenty-first birthday parties are rites of passage for many Yalies. This Saturday, though, Yale’s Hispanic community threw a quinceanera, a slightly more traditional rite that celebrates a Hispanic girl’s 15th birthday.
The mock quinceanera — which was organized by La Casa Cultural and Ezra Stiles College — included a dinner, ceremony and dance Saturday night. The celebration is part of Yale’s annual commemoration of Latino Heritage Month, a series of events intended to inform Yale students about Hispanic culture.
“It’s about being inclusive of the whole Latina community,” said Mayra Macias ’10, who choreographed the court’s traditional dances.
The quinceanera, which falls somewhere between a white-gloved debutante ball and a raucous sweet sixteenth, is a tradition that dates back to the arrival of Spanish conquistadors in Mexico during the 1500s. The celebration arose out of Catholic missionaries’ attempts to Christianize the Aztecs while preserving their customs.
The evening began with a dinner of fajitas and vegetable rice on tables with white tablecloths, floating candles and centerpieces of twined blue and white balloons. In the back of the room on a raised platform stood a table reserved for the quinceanera and her court: six female companions, called damas, and six male escorts, called chambelanes.
The quinceanera in this weekend’s celebration was Angelina Calderon ’10, a Yale student whose real quinceanera is many years behind her. The male and female co-presidents of La Casa served as her parents and representatives of many of the Hispanic groups on campus formed her court.
After dinner ended, the court walked onto the floor couple by couple, followed by Calderon and her escort. The damas, or ladies, of the court wore black with blue sashes and the chambelanes, or men, donned blue ties. Their somber clothes accentuated Calderon’s pale blue, billowing gown.
Beginning a series of symbolic practices, a member of the court crowned the quinceanera and her mother and father, kneeling in front of her, exchanged her flat shoes for high heels, representing her ascent into womanhood. Her “godmother” — another member of the court — then presented her with a doll, intended to represent the remains of her youth. After a father-daughter dance and a scattering of rose petals, the quinceanera was given 15 roses.
“Back in the day, this was the time you were ready to be a woman,” La Casa student coordinator Susan Tovar ’09 said. “Girls would get married very young and they began to accept new responsibilities in the community.”
Although traditions vary from country to country, in the United States they have coalesced into a standard mixture of rites, she said. La Casa combined parts of quinceanera celebrations of several cultures to symbolize the sense of unity among Hispanics of various backgrounds for which La Casa strives.
Some attendees interviewed were disappointed by the omission of the religious ceremony that is often central to a quinceanera.
“I think that it would have better served their purpose if they had shown all parts of the ceremony, including the religious, instead of just the politically correct,” said Ashley Norman, a freshman at Beloit College in Wisconsin, who was visiting a friend for the weekend.
Quinceaneras — which include piles of decadent food, limousines and expensive clothing and gifts — are almost inevitably expensive affairs, making the celebrations a curious mix of the spiritual and the materialistic. But many interviewed found the tradition important and joyful and not much more extravagant than other rites of passage, such as bar mitzvahs.
“It’s such a symbolic event that even families who aren’t very well off put in a lot of money and energy into this,” said Maria Jordan, a senior lector of Latin American studies and one of the organizers of the event. “Certainly, some people criticize it for being excessive, like weddings. But the spirit is a pretty one.”
Latino Heritage Month, which began Sept. 15, commemorates the independence of five Latin American countries.