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Quinceañeras: Keeping God at the center of centuries-old tradition

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On Sept. 30, Dayanara Martinez Lozano — pictured with her family members outside Our Lady Queen of Angels Church in Downtown Los Angeles — celebrated her quinceañera, a centuries-old cultural and religious tradition. (Photo/Victor Aleman)

The morning of Sept. 30 brought the arrival of a very special birthday celebration that Dayanara Martinez Lozano had been anxiously anticipating not just all year long, but as far back as she can remember. Lozano turned 15 years old, and she, like an estimated 400,000 other 15 year-old girls in the United States this year alone, would be celebrating her “quinceañera,” a time-honored Latin American tradition celebrating a young girl’s transition into womanhood.

“It’s a major tradition in my family,” said Lozano of the quinceañera celebration. “I have older cousins, and I remember being a little girl going to their quinceañeras, being in their court [a group of paired teen boys and girls selected by the quinceañera to escort her into the ceremony], so I’ve always been excited to have one of my own and celebrate with my family in my church. I thank God for my mother, father, family members and all the people who appreciate me.”

The quinceañera is far from being just a revered tradition in Lozano’s family — it’s celebrated by families of Latin-American heritage all over the world. Its roots can be traced back five centuries, to the customs of evangelization that Spain and Portugal introduced to the “New World” in Latin America. These customs were based on the recognition that, when a young woman turns 15 years old, she is ready to be married and become a mother. Of course, most contemporary urban societies no longer subscribe to that line of thinking. But the celebratory portion of the tradition has persisted throughout Latin America, particularly in Mexico.

While a quinceañera doesn’t always include a Catholic Mass preceding the celebration, the tradition adopted a strong Catholic identity over time, as Latin Americans celebrating the event began to recognize that the quinceañera could be a unique opportunity for a young woman to make a connection between her transition into womanhood and her Christian faith. This, according to Father Allan Deck, a professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, paved the way for the quinceañera to become one of the more fascinating examples in the Church today of what he refers to as “popular Catholicism.”

“The Catholic faith, when it is taught to people, takes root in the customs and ways of life that are proper to them,” Father Deck explained. “One of the strong features of the Catholic tradition is its sacramental character and ritual character, which allow people to bring their own symbols and rituals into a relationship with the official rituals and symbols of the Church. The Church kind of has room for many different systems of symbols and rituals. That’s one of the strong points particularly of Latin-American Catholicism.”

And according to Father Deck, the persistence of popular Catholicism may also provide an explanation as to why the quinceañera became a female-centric celebration that never developed a male equivalent.

“Remember the role that women have in Latin Catholic societies — women are icons of motherhood, and they are icons of the love and mercy of God, because Mary, the mother of Jesus, a woman, is the religious symbol of the Latin American people,” stated Father Deck. “A great deal of meaning is attached to the identity to the role of women in Latin cultures, certainly in Mexican culture. So this is a way in which they recognize that and give it a great deal of importance.”

Over the years, as more and more Latin American immigrants made their way across the border into the United States, the tradition of the quinceañera came with them. In fact, it became such a phenomenon in U.S. cities with high Latino populations, that in 2008 the Catholic Church formally recognized the tradition by publishing its own liturgy for the quinceañera Mass. Today, in American cities with sizable Latino demographics, such as Los Angeles, quinceañeras have become so mainstream that many parishes are likely to have a quinceañera coordinator on staff.

According to Father Deck, the staggering popularity of the quinceañera in the U.S. has perhaps even surpassed the popularly of the tradition anywhere in Latin America, including Mexico, a phenomenon he attributes to Latinos having tremendous pride in their heritage and striving to instill that pride in their children.

“I’ve been a priest for 40 years now, and the conversations I have about quinceañeras today are the same ones I was having 40 years ago — people are definitely interested and recognize it as something different,” he said. “Maybe that’s because the parents are looking for ways to remind their children of their Catholic Latino heritage that are very clear and that link them more to that heritage and those values. So I think they have latched onto the custom with perhaps more enthusiasm than in Mexico today.”

Though the Church has welcomed the quinceañera as part of popular Latin-American Catholicism, it remains wary of the challenges and difficulties that come with the celebration. For one, the quinceañera is so sacrament-like in nature, the Church remains concerned that young girls might view it as a substitute for the sacrament of confirmation, since both occur around the same age.

But the Church’s predominant concern involving quinceañeras is ensuring that, in the midst of the elegant ball gowns donned by the quinceañeras and the sometimes very lavish parties they plan, that God remains the focal point. In America, when you hear the phrase “sweet sixteen,” your brain might immediately conjure up images of either college basketball or parents spending excessive amounts of money to throw their daughter a luxurious 16th birthday party. And unfortunately, the quinceañera has not been entirely able to avoid that lure. In the U.S., the quinceañera has spawned a booming industry, as it witnesses parents spending an average of $15,000 on the event. And a handful of recorded instances have seen that number creep up to six or even seven figures of spending.

Despite this modern-day predicament, however, Father Deck contends that the quinceañera, after party and all, is largely a positive and unique opportunity to evangelize young women and their families, and help them encounter God.

“Celebration is a fundamental component of the sacraments,” said Father Deck. “In other words, it should be inherent in the whole approach to the celebration of sacraments, because all of them are encounters with God and important moments in life. And especially in the United States, those teenage years, anything that can help us [offer support with] the struggle that teenagers, especially young ladies, have in our society should be taken advantage of.

“So it’s great that teenage ladies like the idea of [quinceañeras],” he continued. “Maybe it’s because they enjoy the idea of dressing up in a fancy gown, and they like the pomp of the ceremony, and they like inviting their friends to the party, which is fine. ... But the fundamental challenge of evangelizing young people is in finding ways to communicate. What [does it mean] to be a Catholic in our society and our world as a young person and a young Latina in the United States today? Why is this important from the point of view of the Gospel and our faith in Jesus Christ? We have to be creative and inventive and learn how to communicate. And sometimes we don’t succeed, but at least the young people show up and we have the opportunity.”

That opportunity to communicate with young people is, perhaps, a bigger influence than we realize. In Lozano’s case, for instance, her favorite memories of her quinceañera included dancing with her parents, godparents and friends while the D.J. her parents hired played music late into the night. But she remembered just as fondly, and spoke just as passionately about Father Luis Estrada’s homily during her quinceañera Mass at Our Lady Queen of Angels (a.k.a. “La Placita”) Church in Downtown Los Angeles, near the infamous Olvera Street marketplace.

“[Father Estrada] said that this is like a second baptism,” recalled Lozano of the Mass, during which she was asked to repeat her baptismal vows as part of the liturgy. “He reminded me that, now that I am going from a kid to an adult, I have to take responsibility for my actions and be accountable for my sins. I think I’ll always remember that.”

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