CELEBRATING SWEET 15 Quinceanera is a rite of passage and affirmation of a culture

Through the glass panes at St. Patrick’s Church on 7th and Vaquero streets in Rodeo, just enough clouds give the brilliant blue skies a picturesque softness. The winter rains that threatened this last Saturday in January have stayed away and the sunny reprieve sets the scene for Patty Huerta’s quinceañara.

The procession entering the church could be mistaken for a wedding party. Two priests lead the godparents. Couples, arms interlinked, step behind, their youth given away by the occasional gum-chewing and self-conscious giggles.

Patty enters last, flanked by her father, Hector, an engineer, and her mother, Gloria, a Spanish teacher. Instead of the traditional tiara and resplendent gown in the color of her birth gem an ensemble that pronounces the girl as a princess for a day Patty wears a sleeveless, tea-length, white dress that emphasizes her slender form; a delicate floral crown sits atop her dark, curled hair. As she approaches the dais, her chambeln de honor takes her hand and accompanies her in the final steps to the ring of chairs encircling the altar.

The term “quinceañara” derives from the feminine combination of “quince aos, ” or 15 years, and refers to the birthday ceremony as well as a rite of passage a girl making her transition into womanhood. Like many girls of Latin heritage, Patty, who is a second-generation Mexican-American, continues a tradition descended from the ancient rituals of the Mayan, Toltecas, Aztec and other tribes. By the age of 15, a person had lived half his or her life span and was prepared to take his role as a warrior or her role as wife and mother of a warrior.

After the Spanish conquest in the 16th century, the male rites mostly disappeared, surviving only here and there in certain cultures. The quinceañara, however, was enfolded within the rites of Catholicism.

The modern ceremony presents the young woman not as a matrimonial prospect, but as one making her debut into society. “I view it as a girl growing up, ” Patty says. “I just see it as something really special.”

The structure of the ceremony nearly duplicates that of a Catholic wedding in its attendants, Mass, gown, ring and reception. And since Mexican custom dictates that the groom’s family pay for nuptial expenses, a young woman’s family, depending upon their socioeconomic level, is expected to throw a lavish 15th birthday celebration.

Patty, a freshman at John Swett High School in Crockett, decided long ago to forgo much of the opulence, explaining, “I’m not really into huge flashy things.” She did adhere to some formalities, mailing engraved invitations, settling upon a church and planning the evening banquet, including the centerpiece cake. She also decided upon a full corte de honor (court of honor) of 14 damas (ladies) and 14 chambelanes (lords). The number 14 corresponds to a quinceañara’s 14 preceding years, and some courts use a total of 14 attendants to cut down on expense and logistics.

Patty requested that her chambelanes simply don black pants, white shirt and a tie instead of having them rent tuxedos. Her damas could wear whatever blue dresses they owned, rather than be tailored into duplicate outfits. Patty also reduced the six months of formal training sometimes required to laser-printed handouts and an afternoon church retreat one week before. The retreat emphasized to her friends and family that the quinceañara “is not just a big party, ooo, I’m turning 15, yeah, ‘” Patty says. “They realize how important it is to my culture.”

Best for the guests

Often family and friends act as padrinos, sponsoring various aspects such as the mariachis, cake or the brindis (toast). The Huertas undertook most of the expenses, Gloria says. “We basically treat the guests as guests and offer what we can.” Knowing she would not live to see their quinceañaras, Hector’s grandmother bestowed upon each of her three great-granddaughters $500, which the Huertas invested to pay for the event.

Their oldest daughter, Letty, celebrated her 15th birthday in 1994. “Most people were thrilled by it because they said it was the first quinceañara that was not a performance, ” Gloria says. Elsa, 14, their youngest, is excited about her celebration and already plans a bigger one than Patty’s.

For all three daughters, the Huertas choose to emphasize the religious aspect. Patty’s ceremony emphasizes a union not between a woman and a man but between a girl, God and her community.

“It links the social life and faith life of a person, that’s why I like it, ” says the Rev. Augustine Joseph. This is the parish priest’s first quinceanara, and he leads the Mass with Patty’s uncle, deacon Ruben Gmez.

“We are so proud of you, the young boys and girls, ” Gmez says to the gathering. “It is wonderful to see the transformation and recognition of the passage from a young child to a woman.”

Each rite that follows bonds Patty with her faith and her people. The ring that her godparents present to her symbolizes the circle of the community and God’s love. The ceremony of the rosary consecrates her relationship with the church, and the bouquet offered to the Virgin Mary requests that she protect Patty as she grows into a young woman. At this time, Patty also reaffirms her baptismal vows.

Newfound privileges

Despite its more symbolic role as a rite of passage, the quinceañara is “not just a big party, ” Patty insists. “It’s important to my culture.” In sifting through her heritage to craft a repertoire of music and rituals for her celebration, she has assumed the responsibility of carrying on traditions of her people.

“I don’t necessarily think a lot is going to change, but I don’t know, ” says Patty. “I probably think of it as maybe becoming, like, I’m older and I’m losing my childhood, ” she says with mock tears.

She will have some privileges. “Now that she turns 15, she’s allowed to participate in social occasions, ” explains Gloria. This means, Patty says, “I can date” (“In groups, ” her mother amends), but she won’t be granted unlimited freedom. With studies and extracurricular activities, among them saxophone lessons, pep band, science club, newspaper, drama, mock trial and later swim team tryouts, she has many years to explore the paths to her future.

Her mother has seen a change in her daughter’s attitude in just the last month before her quinceañara. Although a good student, Gloria says, Patty had some problems adjusting to high school life. Recently, however, she began taking more initiative in her schoolwork and other aspects of her life.

“I’m not sure that’s maturity or she’s actually beginning to appreciate what the world is giving her, ” Gloria says. “We’ll see what comes out of it.”

A party to come

The last benediction is offered and Patty rises to face the congregation. Her eyes are cast downward while the trio of musicians, Los Ruiseores, plays the last two songs, “Las Maanitas” and “Maanita de Los Dandys.” She still has the evening reception at the Hercules Historic Clubhouse before her, where she will take the first waltz with her father and partake in the brindis, the toast to celebrate her passage to womanhood. Although she is ready to go, she stands straight waiting for the song to end. After all, this moment is not only for her, but for her family and friends as well.

“Feliz este da, felices quince aos. Happy day, happy 15 years. We who are singing wish you to remember it always, as we will remember this day, this day that we celebrated these 15 years. May you be very happy, beautiful quinceañara, may you find love in life.”

This article originally appeared in the Contra Costa Times