By Conor Sanchez
Across Latin America, it is traditional for girls turning 15 to have a fairly elaborate celebration with friends and family to mark the occasion, which for centuries, has signified the transition from childhood to womanhood. Here in Nicaragua, the celebration is known as a quinceañera (in some countries they call it a fiesta de quince).
Every country celebrates it a little differently, but the gist is this: at a banquet hall or restaurant, tables are set up for guests and decorated with table cloths and centerpieces. The girl turning 15, who wears a very large, elaborate, and brightly-colored dress, is escorted inside by her father and received by her mother and other family members on the other side of the room. Someone makes a toast or a priest gives a blessing, guests eat dinner, the daughter and father do a dance called El Balet.
In our time here, we’ve been lucky enough to attend two celebrations, one for a student of Michaela’s at the community center for English and another for a student of mine from the local high school. Both celebrations were very distinct from one another, but the flow of things were very similar.
At least in the town where I live, guests arrive much later than the official time given on the invitation. We learned this the hard way by showing up en punto once and having to sit at an empty table for an hour. At our second celebration, we showed up a bit late (meaning we were right on time!). We also knew a lot more of the guests, so we didn’t feel so out of place. The family usually sits at a long table at the front of the room facing out towards the guests. One or two of the tables is is usually filled with a raucous group of chavalos and chavalas (teenagers).
During the fiesta, someone usually gives a toast, but the last one we attended actually had a fairly religious component to it, including a short prayer from a priest and a blessing. Supposedly this is a recent development in some countries as less and less families regard it as a true transition into adulthood.
In any case, a brief timeline of the girl’s life is given, listing her milestones and accomplishments up until this point. They talk about her growing responsibilities as she grows older and what she hopes to accomplish in the future.
Then, the chicheros begin playing (a traditional Nicaraguan brass and percussionist band that shows up for all types of events). Then, the soft drinks come out, including Fanta or Coca-Cola. Then you eat some grilled chicken with rice and beans. And then dancing. By 9pm things have settled down and it’s time to go home.
It’s an enormous rite of passage for girls, not unlike a bat-mitzvah or a confirmation in the United States, but it’s actually quite rare in my town for girls to have a huge quinceañera party. Many of them opt to have a small quite celebration with family in their homes.
In Managua and other cities that have a lot of wealth, I’ve heard they are much more common and girls even have an entourage of male and female escorts (more typical of Mexican quinceañeras). In Nueva Guinea, throwing a party that big requires a lot of money, which most people don’t have. Even if you do, it’s considered a little fachenta to host one (fachenta means showy or ostentatious), so some families opt out.
In any case, it’s still far more common to hear about quinceañeras than weddings. In fact, in my time here, I haven’t known a single person to get married. Even my counterpart, who is expecting his first child in December is not getting married, although he’s committed to his partner and plans to move in with her soon. Overall, I think there’s a lot of distrust toward the institution of marriage in my town. People think it does little to keep families together and that it’s just as likely for them to break up regardless of what vows are made. This really surprised me. I guess I expected the opposite for some reason.
Instead, the biggest milestone celebration you’ll see, if you see one at all, is the quinceañera. And we’re happy have witnessed two of them.
It definitely gives us some ideas for Michaela’s doble-quince in July!