A glimpse into a centuries-old tradition celebrated in Baltimore's Latino communities

From the moment Daniela Rodríguez-Islas stepped out of the limousine one Saturday afternoon in May, she garnered glances from passersby.

Wearing a sparkling tiara and a luminous lavender gown, embellished with jewels and beads, she walked through Federal Hill Park with her entourage of friends, family and a professional photographer. A little girl about 7-years-old ran up to her to ask if they can take a picture together.

“Are you a princess?” Daniela laughed and said, “No, it’s my birthday.”

Daniela was celebrating her quinceañera or quince, as it is commonly known — a coming of age celebration for a girl’s 15th birthday. The Spanish term is used both to describe the birthday girl and the boisterous bash that comes with it.

But, a quince isn’t just about the flashy party, the decadent cakes and fancy dress. The centuries-old tradition has cultural and religious significance.

More than a party

Today, it is widely celebrated among many Latino families around the world, including Baltimore — though the customs behind it can vary across cultures and faiths.

The celebration has its roots in coming of age rituals for young men and women practiced in indigenous communities in the México region, said Juliana Martínez, Assistant Professor of World Languages and Cultures at American University.

After the Spanish invasion of Mexico in 1519, the tradition was co-opted by the Catholic Church.

“The historical idea is to show that the young woman is now ready for womanhood, which used to mean, marriage and mothering. It was kind of a space to showcase young women to potential suitors,” said Martínez.

While that aspect has disappeared almost entirely, the purpose today, Martínez said, is to strengthen community bonds and have the values represented by the church be an important part of that young woman’s life.

Daniela, whose parents are Catholic, had to be up bright and early the day of her quince. Her services included her baptism, first communion and Mass.

Next stop was the photo shoot with her court of honor — which can consist of a mix of boys and girls in roles similar to bridesmaids and groomsmen.

Then it was off to the long-anticipated party.

Years in the making

As Baltimore’s Latino population grows, so does the demand for quinceañera planning services. Especially during spring and summer, said choreographer Jesús Pérez, who has rigorously coached Daniela and her court through five dance routines.

“The Latinos [in Baltimore] are growing, and we’re bringing our traditions with us. And this is one of them,” said Pérez.

While a student at Patterson High School, Pérez played a role in many of his friend's quinces, to the point that other friends’ parents started asking him informally for planning help.

“It was a hobby at first, and slowly it turned into what they call it here in Baltimore — a ‘side hustle’” Pérez explained in Spanglish.

Growing up in a Latino household, it’s almost guaranteed you’ll participate in or attend a quince. Whether a girl has one depends on her personal preference, the family and their finances.

For Daniela, the prospect of having a quince looked fun, but the thought of planning one made her anxious — she figured she wouldn’t have one.

Things got serious over a year ago when a TV commercial advertising cruises for quinceañeras piqued her mom’s interest. Carmen Islas quickly picked up her cell phone and dialed her daughter's number. She eagerly told Daniela to come downstairs and asked that she bring a binder.

“At first I thought she was joking,” the 15-year-old said, “And I was like, ‘It’s happening’. So I couldn’t really say no.”

Similar to a wedding, a quinceanera requires a great deal of planning, and it can be just as costly.

Glenda Sierra-Schulz, a quinceañera planner, designer, and co-owner of Annapolis-based Xios Events, says families plan years in advance – still, she gets those last minute calls.

While planning her own daughter’s party, Sierra-Schulz had trouble finding someone in the area who understood the cultural context of Latino parties and quinces, so she started her own company in 2005.

Today, Sierra-Schulz has grown her business to a one-stop-shop for quinces.

Her shop is lined with dozens of brightly colored ball gowns and dazzling crowns of all shapes and sizes. While Sierra-Schulz used to order dresses in bulk from shops in Los Angeles, California, she now orders them online directly from the manufacturers.

“The girls lately, they go on Pinterest, and they search, and they come to the store and say, ‘This is the dress that I want,’ and we just take the measurements and we order the dress for her,” Sierra-Schulz said.

Dresses can range anywhere from $350 to $1,500, she said.

The total cost of the party varies. In Baltimore, Pérez said they can range anywhere from $20k to $50k.

To offset the costs, it’s common for the quinceanera to have padrinos, or godparents, who pitch in by making food or paying for various services.

The big day

What sets a quinceañera apart from a wedding is the symbolic dances and rituals that help tell the narrative of a girl transforming into a young woman.

The first, if not the most crucial part, is the entrada or the entrance.

That night, the DJ introduced the parents, the court — and finally, Daniela made her grand entrance. She gracefully traversed the lavender-decorated hall filled with around 150 people.

She then got into position alongside her court and “Tiempo de Vals,” the 90s hit by Latino pop singer Chayanne, began to play.

It’s unclear how this became the song, but girls lately are dancing to more contemporary songs, said Martínez.

The father-daughter dance almost always brings the crowd to tears. Other rituals include the surprise dance, the presentation of her last doll and the changing of the shoe, where someone in the family changes the flat shoe to a high heel or customized sneaker.

New tradiciones

The tradition is constantly evolving, and younger generations now have more of a say in how they choose to celebrate.

Some girls are leaving the poofy dress behind for sleek and stylish dresses or pants. They’re also ditching the huge party for a trip abroad.

Martínez said that’s exactly what she did while her sister took the traditional route.

“We each needed our own space, and the tradition allowed that. It’s a tradition that highlights the young woman, which is important because we don’t have enough spaces that center young women. This makes it about her.”

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