Much like a wedding, it begins with a beautiful dress. At Andrea’s Bridal in Little Village, only three bridal gowns are on display. But there are dozens of dresses, in every color and color combination imaginable, for girls awaiting quinceañera parties—a “sweet fifteen” celebrated in many Latino cultures.
The dresses all have the same silhouette: a small bodice on top that sits on a huge, ruffled, layered bottom, supported by a large hoop skirt. Like something you’d see in “Gone with the Wind.”
Rocio Aguayo is the director of Quinceanera magazine. She’s also staging one of two quinceañera expos taking place this weekend in the Chicago suburbs. Her event is in Hickory Hills, expected to draw around 2,500.
“The quinceañera is basically the coming out, presenting of a young girl to society,” Aguayo said. “The main idea is she’s leaving her childhood and she’s entering into womanhood.”
Years ago, a ceremony would have included a dress, professional photography and a blessing at a mass. Maybe a small party.
Today what is spent on a quinces could easily rival a wedding. Aguayo says the average cost of a quinceañera is between $15,000 and $18,000.
Families will pay for a banquet hall, dinner, a multi-tiered cake, a big dress, photography. And now choreography. Girls have courts, much like bridesmaids and groomsmen. The girls are damas. The guys chambelanes. And they all have to know how to waltz.
Lily Garcia runs Magic Movements dance company. She provides choreography lessons for a basic waltz. Lily also has backup male dancers, for girls who do not have chambelanes. A basic waltz package starts at $800. The deluxe package featuring dancers is $2,200.
“Sometimes I cry because it’s so pretty,” Garcia said. “I would not like to take that away because they financially can’t afford it. So we do our best to accommodate them.”
She may have to accommodate Laura Delgado, who is on a tight budget. Her daughter Joselyn celebrates her quinces in July. Their limit is $5,000, for the whole event.
“You try to tell your children it might be better to open a bank account with that money,” Laura said.
“I want the party,” she said with a smile.
But some believe the giant events overshadow the basics of the tradition, which include a teen receiving a special blessing at a mass. Father Patrick Casey is one of those people. He performs quinceañera masses, but wonders why he bothers.
“I’ve had masses where the kids have been very very intense and participating. And then other kids that are absolutely bored,” Casey said. “Frankly, I would get rid of the quinceañera. But I don’t think we can do that because the cultural element of the people.”
While a party may exclude religious components, for Latino families a quinceañera is about passing on a festive tradition. They share the cost with so-called “sponsors,” a grandmother or an aunt who will pay for a dress, invitations, a cake or other items.
The night before Kassandra Santamaria’s quinces, she and her mother Ingrid thumbed through a photo album of Ingrid’s quinceañera. In the kitchen area of their spacious Bolingbrook home, they tear up anticipating the next day’s event. It is a party will cost them at least $16,000.
“I just feel so happy. I just thank my mom. I can be so mean sometimes. And I regret it. But I tell her everyday I love her,” Kassandra said while crying. Ingrid put her arm around her daughter and assured her.
“This day is going to be really, really special," Ingrid said. "And I’m pretty sure we’re all going to have fun.”
The night of the quinceañera was, in a word, peachy. At a Chicago banquet hall, peach-colored ribbons are tied around chairs. Peach napkins are on tables, peach roses sit on a seven-tiered cake. The damas have peach dresses, all to match Kassandra’s fluffy peach gown. While waiting for the party to start, guests get their pictures taken on a red carpet.
Arnold Correa is the night’s DJ. He says at least 50 percent of his quinceañera customers pay an extra $375 for the red carpet experience. For the works -- music, lighting, red carpet photography, and emcee services -- Kassandra’s parents will pay a little more than $1,300, the wintertime discount.
“Everyone wants to make their quinceañera more extravagant. Which is a good thing. For me and the other vendors,” Correa said. “There’s so much revenue coming out of this: boutique shops, cakes, choreographers, DJs.”
That is money, millions of dollars, recirculated within Latino communities throughout the United States. Because most quinces vendors are fellow Latinos.
But none of that matters to 15-year-old Kassanda. For her, the evening is nothing less than priceless.