You might call it a coming out party or a debut to society if you lived in the United States of America thirty years ago. Some of my southern women friends participated in debutante balls just before women’s liberation took hold. For me, growing up in the wild west San Fernando Valley, Los Angeles, California, I went to Sweet Sixteen parties given for my more affluent friends — though I never had one myself.
Here in Teotitlan del Valle, the tradition of moving from girlhood to becoming a young woman is likely steeped village tradition as a rite of passage to marriage and motherhood. It was once celebrated quietly in homes with hot chocolate, bread or tortillas, a cup of mezcal, a parental blessing.
Fifteen years ago, there may have been a gathering of extended family members numbering fewer than 100 people who came together to recognize this coming of age. There was probably a mass at the church followed by a late afternoon dinner, followed by a traditional ritual village dance called the Jarabe del Valle.
Then the quinceañera would take to the dance floor to perform a selection to music of her choosing, creating the choreography, accompanied by a group of young men called chambelanes, dance escorts symbolically representing potential suitors.
Today’s quinceanera celebration is a grand affair, with hundreds of well-wishers participating. It’s almost like a wedding, complete with elaborate flower bouquets and gauze garlands adorning the church that are then moved to the home where the after-party will take place.
The quinceaños, as it is currently observed, is recent history here, practiced in grand style for only the past twenty or thirty years, according to a local friend. In recent years, it has become grander and costlier, costing as much as $25,000 USD.
It is not unheard of to start out with a breakfast of fresh-killed and cooked chicken topped with homemade mole castillo and comal cooked tortillas. Out behind the house, the women cook over wood-fired, make-shift stoves and outdoor kitchens.
In the meantime, the 15-year-old honoree is getting ready. She has already been to the beauty salon the day before for the hair and make-up make-over. She puts on her special dress, traditional gold earrings and necklace with a religious symbol. She is ready for the day.
After the church mass, celebrants return to home for the afternoon into evening festivities. The area is cleared to set-up tables and chairs for the multitude. There are two bands (each costing about 10,000 pesos, I’m told), a disc jockey, decorated cakes, a late afternoon lunch we call comida, plenty of mezcal toasts with beer chasers.
The afternoon meal is a special barbecue pork. The two pigs, raised from piglets in the back stable, were slaughtered the day before by a special maestro. Every part is used for the meat and broth.
Of course, in a Usos y Costumbres village like Teotitlan del Valle, this expense is not totally out-of-pocket. Many costs are covered by a host of affiliated supporters, like the Madrina and Padrino, usually a couple of high social and religious stature who provide financial, cultural and religious underpinnings. They will instruct the quinceañera in the values and traditions of the community.
Funding also comes in the form of the guelaguetza system where family and friends repay goods and services that have been given to them over the years, this includes labor, too. This a complex collaboration and accounting system keeps families connected, indebted to each other, and promotes strong community values.
Here, one can always count on a relative or friend to make blessings and offerings. They come with an armful of flowers, roses and lilies, a case of beer, a bottle of mezcal, a beautifully wrapped gift that might be a sweater, a dress, an apron or blouse, a pair of earrings, a purse. They come to the altar room where they are greeted formally by the host family and the quinceañera, giving and receiving thanks.
Guelaguetza, after all, really means giving and receiving, sharing, thanks and blessings, honor and tradition.
In the past, this was a fiesta to recognize that a young woman was ready to become a wife and mother, to become attached to another, to take on the role of helpmate in the household of her husband. These are vestiges. Today, it is party-time.
I asked two young women, now in their thirties, if they had quinceañeras. Yes, they answered. One said her parents gave her the choice of a party or a trip. She chose the party. She still loves to party! The other remembers her dance to the song of her favorite recording artist of the time.
The quince is dream time. The time to imagine, giving up the dolls and baby toys and think about how life will unfold. It is a time to celebrate family, culture, youth, energy. I recall how the DJ master of ceremonies called Lupita la muñeca, la princesa, la reina, la mariposa — the doll, the princess, the queen, the butterfly — as she danced and twirled, transformed. For one day she was all of that and hopefully, this will build upon her self-confidence to become her dreams.
Days after, after the tarp came down, the chairs and tables taken away, the millions of dishes washed, the house almost back to normal, I made a visit to Lupita, her mother and grandmother. Do you want to see my gifts? she asked, still glowing.
Yes, I said, as I took a seat in the altar room next to the family. Everyone was filled with pride. I saw how meaningful this event was for Lupita and her family. The rite of passage was complete.
My own mother was an aspiring feminist who never manifested her own profession but who supported her daughters in our quest for individuation and identity. Education was critical to our family to advance and reach beyond the struggle of immigrant grandparents. Our family spent money cautiously. Grand celebrations and rituals were not part of that experience.
It is important for any of us here in Mexico to understand, accept and appreciate lifestyle and traditions that are different than our own. Teotitlan del Valle is a village of connection and community, where the constant flow of fiesta is a way of life. I see it as a way of celebrating life, and it is a privilege for me to be living here.