From prayers...to a party
Hispanic quinceanera custom finds a place in Morgan County
story by Kathryn Purcell
photos by Angelina Bellebuono
Music plays as Juana proceeds down the middle aisle of the church, dressed in a formal, floor-length golden gown with matching shawl, followed closely by a long line of family and friends.
A chair is pulled from the wall of the church and placed ahead of the altar, directly in front of the priest. Before she can sit, the priest motions to the attendants to move the chair back slightly. They do, and she takes her seat, legs crossed with her hands set properly in her lap.
The mass begins; Spanish-spoken prayers, scripture and sermon roll off the priest's tongue and onto the ears of a quiet and captive congregation. The service centers around Lent, as it is the Holy season, but the priest interjects special words about her as well as special prayers for her throughout.
Her parents leave the frontmost pew where they are seated on the end, next to her, and bring the wine and water to the priest for the Eucharist. After more song and the Lord's Prayer, she answers the priest's questions, re-affirming her faith, and receives communion.
The service concludes, the recessional music begins and Juana leaves the church, followed again by her family, friends and the rest of the congregation. Leaving the sanctuary, she also left her life as a child, and became a woman.
Last Sunday, Juana Lezama, a Morgan County teenager, celebrated her Quinceanera -- a Hispanic coming-of-age tradition.
Derived from Spanish and early Central American culture, the Quinceanera is a celebration of a young lady's 15th birthday.
"The quinceanera tradition goes back hundreds of years, most likely rooted in Mayan and Aztec rites of passage which were blended with the pomp of Spanish court formalities, said Michaela Murphy, an editor at Quince Girl magazine," a 2007 Associated Press article by Monica Rhor states. "Each ritual -- the last doll, the waltz, the crown and a special Mass -- represents an aspect of the transition from childhood to adulthood."
The Quinceanera is a rite of passage with both religious and cultural elements. It is a time for the young lady to give thanks to God, and to be debuted to society.
Typically, the young lady has a special Mass dedicated solely to her on Saturday, where she is to renew the vows of her baptism in God's presence. There are as many as 14 escorts to accompany her, one for each of the years of her life. Often items representing her childhood, including her rosary, prayer books and a bouquet of flowers, are placed by the young lady on the altar to honor the Virgin Mary. In some cases, she receives other items of religious significance.
"The most important component of the celebration is invariably a Misa de accion de gracias (thanksgiving Mass)," according to an article on the Mexico Connect Web site, www.mexconnect.com. "The birthday girl arrives decked out in a fancy full-length dress -- frills, pastel tones and matching hats or headdresses prevail. Flanked by her parents and padrinos (godparents), she is specially seated at the foot of the altar throughout the service. She may be accompanied by up to seven damas (maids of honor) and as many chambelanes (chamberlains), selected from among close family and friends...[T]he quinceanera deposits her bouquet on the altar on in a niche honoring the Virgin Mary, most often that of the ubiquitous Virgen de Guadalupe."
While Juana did have the dress, was flanked by her parents and did attend Mass where she was seated front and center, her Quinceanera was comparatively demure. The Catholic church is currently in the Lenten season, and Catholics are supposed to be very somber during this time. For this reason, many of the Quinceanera traditions were toned down.
Thelma Lopez, currently 18 years old, was in attendance Sunday. Watching Juana, she remembered her own Quinceanera.
"We had it on Saturday," Lopez said. "My church was exclusively for me. We had a mariachi band, but you can't now because it's Sunday at Lent. There were six escorts, three on each side of me...In Mexico, you walk from the church to the reception. The mariachi band follows you. It lasts for two days. You have cake, and then you have a party the next day."
The one tradition Juana took it upon herself to break, however, was that of the dress color. In Cuba, the dress is typically white; in El Salvador, among other places, pink; in the Mexican interior, a pastel colored dress is required.
Juana, on the other hand, chose gold.
"Before, the dress has to be pink," Monica Jordan, Ecuadorian native and current Morgan County resident, said. "Nowadays, girls get to choose their colors. She doesn't like pink, so she didn't wear pink."
However, the dress color was almost the only tradition that Juana chose to break. The current trend among Hispanic young ladies in the United States seems to be skipping the Mass altogether and going straight to the party, according to a May 11, 2006 New York Times article ("Latinas Make Sweet 16-ish Their Own").
"The priest said that he liked the idea that I went to church and celebrated with Jesus instead of having an excuse to have a party," Juana said.
The decision by Juana to participate in the Mass was an especially timely one, given last summer's decision by the Vatican to approve Quinceanera-oriented prayers for its American dioceses.
"(T)he Quinceanera has long been divisive in the American Catholic Church, where it is viewed as either an exercise in excess or an opportunity to send a message about faith and sexual responsibilty," a 2008 Associate Press article states. "But the Mass won an important endorsement last summer, when the Vatican approved a new set of prayers for American dioceses called Order for the Blessing on the 15th Birthday. It was an acknowledgment of the changing face of American Catholicism."
Generally, Quinceanera tradition prevents Hispanic girls under the age of 15 from everything from wearing high heels and make-up to dancing or having boyfriends. Making her way through the halls of the church and towards her family's car, the first thing Juana did was unbuckle and take off the clear, gold-laced high heels she wore in Mass.
"They hurt my feet," Juana said, now in a floor-length gown and a pair of flip-flops.
Juana's party was held in a barn at Southern Cross Ranch in Buckhead, where Juana's parents work and where Juana gives horse-riding lessons. Streamers and decorations abounded, as did the food. Tables were set in lines along the wall and the middle of the floor was open for dancing, as one corner of the barn housed the deejays whose job it was to spin Spanish songs with a beat, of course.
"It took us three hours to decorate, from 8:30 to almost midnight last night," Juana said.
The multi-tiered cake sat on a table of its own, practically melting and dripping with frosting. Presents, including two large dolls, laid on the next tables over.
The doll represents another coming-of-age tradition. As it's a symbol of childhood, the doll is the last present the girl is to receive before being recognized as a young woman.
"It's like your last toy," Juana said.
Juana also received a ring, among other gifts, representing her first piece of adult jewelry.
Many of the symbolic gifts and elements of the party came from Juana's various godparents, another Quinceanera tradition.
"I have godmothers for different things -- the cake, the flowers, the ring, the dress," Juana said. "They are like close friends."
The festivities, the eating and dancing, the traditions lasted throughout the afternoon and into the evening, much to Juana's delight.
"It was short notice that we were going to have a party...This whole week I was looking at the radar like 'Go up, go up,'" Juana said.
In the end, however, it was up to Juana's parents as to whether she would have a Quinceanera celebration. Traditionally, at least part of the decision is based on whether the parents think the soon-to-be 15-year-old is worthy of such festivities, not to mention mature enough to be presented to society as an adult.
"It depends on if your parents think you've been good enough, if you've been good and if you're ready for it," Lopez said. "This is where your family shows they want you to have this [celebration]. They decide to present her to the public as a woman."
Juana's mother, Dora, expressed that she was proud of her daughter, and pleased that Juana made it to this milestone in her life.
"She's very proud and happy," Juana said, translating for her mother. "She thanks God she's still alive and celebrating this."
Juana seems to be proud of turning 15 years old and honoring the tradition that marks her, now, a woman, despite the comfort level of her high heels.
"It means I'm grown up now," Juana said. "From a delicate flower, sprouting into a woman."
For more photos, see LOCAL SHOTS, Quinceanera photo gallery.