Skip to comments.For Latino Catholics, Quinceanera Ritual Provides Lessons On Faith, Family — And Sex
Posted on 01/10/2008 10:08:18 AM PST by NYer
DENVER — On the day she is to become a woman, Monica Reyes sits in front of the church for Mass. Her white dress — sewn in her mother’s Mexican hometown — spills over her chair like an oversized lampshade.
The priest urges her to live as a daughter of God. Her parents give her a gold ring shaped like the number 15. Near the end of the service, Reyes lays a bouquet of roses before a statue of the Virgin Mary.
Monica Reyes has her picture taken at the alter after her Quinceanera Mass in Denver Saturday, Sept. 8, 2007. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)
Then she steps through the worn, wooden doors of St. Joseph’s, a Roman Catholic parish for generations of poor, Hispanic immigrants, and into a 20-seat white Hummer limo that rents for $150 an hour.
Before long, a stretch Lincoln Town Car arrives for the next Quinceanera Mass.
An elaborate coming-of-age ritual for Hispanic girls on their 15th birthday, the Quinceanera has long been divisive in the U.S. Catholic Church, where it’s viewed as either an exercise in excess or a great opportunity to send a message about faith and sexual responsibility.
The latter view won an important endorsement last summer, when the Vatican approved a new set of prayers for U.S. dioceses called Bendicin al cumplir quince anos, or Order for the Blessing on the Fifteenth Birthday.
Consider it an acknowledgment of the changing face of American Catholicism. Hispanics account for nearly 40 percent of the nation’s 65 million Catholics and 71 percent of new U.S. Catholics since 1960, studies show.
Here in the Archdiocese of Denver, Hispanic ministry leaders view the Quinceanera craze as not just a chance to strengthen faith and family, but as a weapon against teen pregnancy.
Before Reyes could get her Quinceanera Mass, she and her parents had to enroll in a four-week curriculum introduced last year at Hispanic-dominated parishes that combines Catholicism 101 with a strong pro-chastity message.
“Some girls come to the class expecting to be taught how to dance,” said Alfonso Lara, the archdiocese’s Hispanic Ministry coordinator.
The girls in Reyes’ class gathered in a stuffy room with a map of Mexico on the wall and a crucifix on the table.
One lesson included tips for safe dating (avoid dating Web sites in favor of group outings in public places like the mall or family barbecues). Then there is an explanation of the difference between simple abstinence (a way to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases), and chastity (living like Jesus and Mary).
Monica Reyes is the model pupil. Once her Quinceanera is over, the high school junior her sister calls a “girl’s girl” will be allowed to go to parties and date, as many of her classmates do. But Reyes isn’t eager to join them.
“I’m still too young,” she said. “I could have a bad experience. So I’d rather wait.”
In Mexico and other Latin American countries, the Quinceanera once signaled that a girl was officially on the marriage market. The downside to that legacy: The Quinceanera Mass is sometimes seen as sexual coming-of-age moment.
Although teen pregnancy rates have generally been in decline across ethnic lines over the last 15 years, 51 percent of Hispanic teens get pregnant before age 20, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.
“Even now, immigrant parents don’t talk to their young daughters about sex,” said Timothy Matovina, director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame. “There is not an open conversation going on about the value of waiting till marriage or the economic pitfalls of becoming a single mother.”
Matovina said the Denver archdiocese’s efforts will resonate with some families and be ignored by others, much like couples who go through the motions of marriage preparation classes to get a church wedding.
A blend of European court traditions and ceremonies from Latin American countries, the Quinceanera at times has the feel of an out-of-control prom in the United States.
A $400 million-a-year industry has sprouted up catering to Hispanic immigrants seeking to maintain cultural traditions while showing they’ve made it in their new countries, offering everything from Quinceanera planners and cruises to professional ballroom dancers to teach the ceremonial waltz.
At the same time, the ritual is a point of tension with the Catholic church because Catholic families want their faith to be part of the celebration yet it isn’t a sacrament, like marriage.
The Reyes family does not attend Mass regularly, but would never consider the Quinceanera legitimate without the blessing of a priest. A portrait of Our Lady of Guadalupe watches over the living room of the family’s apartment.
“The reason to have the Mass is to be blessed, and to say thanks to God,” said Monica’s mother, Luz.
The family spared no expense, and the tension showed at times. Walking out of St. Joseph’s in her gold lame dress, Luz Reyes said to no one in particular, “Money, money, money.”
The family estimates it spent a staggering $20,000 on the Quinceanera, relying on savings, family and friends to pay for two limos, rental of a banquet hall, a buffet of Mexican and American comfort food, dresses, a DJ and more.
The cost is one reason that Monica’s 14-year-old sister, Marisol, shared the church altar and dance floor with her older sister. The family couldn’t fathom finding the money for another Quinceanera so soon.
Lara, of the Denver Archdiocese, said one goal of the classes is to send the message that it’s all right to arrive at church in a minivan instead of a Hummer — unless there’s plenty of money to send the girl to college, too.
The expense is worth it to the Reyes family, even if only now they will begin saving for college.
“It’s a prize for them being good,” Luz Reyes said.
It’s also the American dream realized. Reyes is giving her daughters something she never got growing up in Ciudad Jurez, Mexico, where her Quinceanera dress was a tattered gown and dessert was a simple layer cake.
There were perhaps 15 people at the Reyes’ Quinceanera Mass. The rental hall, Martha’s Golden Palace, has a capacity of 500, and Monica welcomed most of her classmates, a favorite teacher and the police officer assigned to her high school.
After an hour, the DJ turned down the deafening border music and strobe lights, and played the waltz that Monica and her court had been practicing for weeks in her apartment complex parking lot.
Later, Monica wiped away tears as she danced with her grandfather.
On the dance floor, she changed from flat shoes into heels, signaling her departure from childhood.
Her first meal as a woman was a bowl of beans washed down with strawberry soda.
“The big thing isn’t to have a party,” Monica said. “It’s that you’re going from a little girl to a woman. You’re thanking God you have been in this world for 15 years.”
Monica Reyes and her Partner of Honor Edgar Orosca lead the official party from the church after the Quinceanera Mass at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Denver on Saturday, Sept. 8, 2007. Her sister Marisol and her partner Alberto Sanchez follow. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)
Monica Reyes, arriving for Quinceañera Mass in Denver. The Vatican approved new prayers for the Mass last summer.
This is decidedly a more beautiful tradition than the typical American Sweet Sixteen Party.
How lovely! Thank you for posting this.
I sort of wish more people did a traditional “sweet 16” or something like this to mark this important transition, give girls (and boys) something to strive for and look forward to.
Sounds to me like a wonderful tradition. Dad gets to be proud without having to look at the hairy ape that’s marrying his daughter.
Quinceaneras, bar mitzvahs, sweet sixteens are all nice ways for parents to celebrate their child's coming of age.
Who cares how much they spend? What's wrong with it?
I imagine each family handles it within their means. A few years ago, a Long Island family threw a half million dollar 'sweet sixteen' party for their daughter. Definitely not in my league.
‘It could be done with lest cost.’ And so could weddings. And ....?
An example of the Church “baptizing” a secular event, and using it to proclaim the Gospel.
There are stories of Hispanic couples who put off their wedding for ten years and three kids, so they can afford a "real wedding," like Princess Di's. If these Quinceaneras generate loads of debt, and the family is okay with that, something's going wrong.
are you kidding? it’s about the only time you see them in church, and I’m not going to tell you what goes on at their parties afterwards.
And you spend so much and why?
I think it’s great that the Church is trying to get a grip on this tradition, which originally marked the age when a girl became marriagable. So even though the families want a Mass, it’s not really a religious custom, at heart, and I think this is an excellent and creative attempt to use it to make contact with girls and their families who might have a somewhat distant relationship with the Church.
Some of the parties turn into drunken brawls, some are just big dances, as with weddings or any other large celebration that people have. I know a police officer who has worked them as private security, and she said there’s a wide range. I think if the Church is “pro-active” and takes this as an opportunity for contact, it will help the girls and their families and will correct some of the things that are out of control.
We had a Quinceanera at our Spanish Mass a few weeks ago. We’ve also had “presentations” of children on their 3rd birthday, which is another Mexican custom. Mexicans, especially rural Mexicans, have generally had limited access to the Sacraments, and these events of popular piety have grown up to fill the void.
They can be excellent devotions, if the material excess is avoided. I’ll mention to our Hispanic Ministry leader that this is an educational opportunity for the future, perhaps also bringing in parents (since they have to drive the girls) for some basic catechesis.
Yes ... the parents will be the first to admit they are ignorant of their fait and for that reason, have enroled their children in rel ee. Educate the parents at the same time!
They tried this up in Quebec and the program was a huge success.
It IS a little like Christmas and Easter Catholics but they ARE exposed to the Mass and they include many young people who have never stepped foot in a church.
In our diocese, the bishop leaves it up to the priests and in our parish our priest won’t do one unless the girl is in Confirmation class and has been attending faithfully. They also have to have attended a mission trip and a retreat.
They usually have their party afterwards in the parish hall so there is no alcohol and the priest is invited.
I get upset because so many of them come to CCD until 1st Communion and then never come back until the 2 year confirmation program. But God can bestow His grace anywhere anytime and there are plenty of devout Mexican Catholics who get it.
Our coordinator (an American who lived 40 years in Spain) has ordered some instructional brochures in Spanish about basic concepts of the faith. Our Spanish ministry just started in September, so we’re getting many baptisms of children up to 3 or 4 years old, as word gets around among the Spanish-speaking people.
There’s so much to be done, and it can’t all be done immediately. We really need more people who are fluent in both English and Spanish!
>> Hispanics account for nearly 40 percent of the nations 65 million Catholics and 71 percent of new U.S. Catholics since 1960, studies show. <<
The journalist seems to make the mistake of comparing the number of Hispanics to the number of Catholics and creating a ratio. It doesn’t work that way.