A flock of teenagers in voluminous, technicolor dresses glides around the George R. Brown Convention Center, hair curled and teased and topped with crystal crowns, eyes downcast at cell phones. This is coming of age in Houston, 2018.
The occasion is February's Houston Quinceañera Expo, an annual event meant to showcase the latest trends in this niche industry, dedicated to blowout birthday parties for 15-year-old girls of Latino descent. It will draw 2,500 people, mainly mothers and daughters, here to examine the latest trends in gowns, cakes, cosmetics, decorations, even shapewear.
It’s sensory overload, with Latin music pounding over the speakers, punctuated by announcements in Spanish. Event planners, dressmakers, and cake bakers flaunt their wares: canopies and candelabras; cupcake-like gowns; five-, six-, seven-tiered confections.
A man on stilts covered in LED lights paces the venue, stone-faced. He’s the Explosive Light Robot, a walking advertisement for the special-effects entertainment company of the same name, which promises expo-goers that el límite es tu imaginación. (The limit is your imagination.) There are fabric samples, makeup demos, cake pops, and candy apples; dancers, DJs, and photographers-for-hire. It’s flashy and flamboyant—because it’s for teenagers.
It wasn’t always this way.
For the uninitiated, at its core, the quinceañera is a coming-of-age celebration marking a girl’s entry to womanhood upon her fifteenth birthday, not unlike a debutante’s introduction to society. Traditionally, blush-pink dresses represent purity and virginity, and rituals like trading flats for heels and receiving one last doll (done up to look like the quince girl, miniature dress and all) represent the transition. The fiesta portion of the quince is historically preceded by a Catholic Mass. The practice dates back, in some form, to indigenous tribes of Mexico.
“That’s when they were marrying off their daughters,” says Claudia de Velasco, who owns Houston event planning firm A Day To Remember and is herself of Mexican descent. “The quinceañeras done here in the U.S. are very, very different from native countries.”
She attributes that in part to an evolved political climate and, more recently, the “go big or go home” cultural phenomenon, as evidenced by the wild popularity of MTV’s My Super Sweet 16.
“That show I think was the big launching board to going super-extravagant, over-the-top,” de Velasco says. Now, it’s not uncommon for her to plan a six-figure quince for a client. Venue, catering, and entertainment for several hundred people adds up.
“I get it, it’s a lot of money to spend,” says de Velasco, who, it’s worth noting, chose a car over a quince for her own fifteenth birthday. “If you can’t afford to spend that kind of money, then don’t hold the party. But it’s not just about providing a party; it’s providing an experience.”
In a 2016 story, The New York Times examined the cultural shift of today’s keeping-up-with-the-quinces. In it, UT Austin professor and folklorist Rachel V. González-Martin explains the increasingly tricked-out celebrations this way: “The modern quinceañera has become the 21st-century manifestation of what it means to be visible in an American system on your own terms,” she says.
For her part, de Velasco has mixed feelings on the quince’s evolution. She speaks nostalgically of the simpler, more elegant events of yore. On the other hand, she adds, shifting the focus from presentation to party is a refreshing pivot toward female empowerment—and, for her, a paycheck.