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Quinceañeras a cherished tradition among Mexican immigrants

It was 31 years ago that Bertha Reta stepped into the world as a woman.

It was her Quinceañera, her 15th birthday, the biggest party of her life, and she still remembers how special she felt swathed in a pastel pink dress she had made herself with hints of white. Now 46, she smiles broadly as she recalls the day that was all hers.

“My Quinceañera was my best dream,” she says. “I remember when I was 8 years old, I counted every year to my Quinceañera.”

Reta now works in Ferndale making dresses at Colima Design, which she co-owns with her husband, Manuel Reta, and her customers include girls planning their big day.

“Everybody wants to have a Quinceañera in Mexico,” she says of the country where she grew up. “It’s so important to the parents. Ninety-nine percent have to have a Quinceañera, even poor families. Even if they’re not religious people they still have a Quinceañera.”

Though primarily a Mexican tradition, Quinceañeras are moving north as families come to America and bring their traditions with them. Bertha made five Quinceañera dresses over the summer, and she says many more local girls order their dresses from magazines.

“It’s becoming more popular,” Manuel says, though he thinks the parties are more common in Skagit County than Whatcom. “It’s a part of the culture that is not being lost. … It’s a beautiful history.”

SWEET 15

Quinceañera is the name of the celebration as well as the girl being celebrated on her 15th birthday, and it’s a rite of passage that dates back centuries in Mexico and some Latin American countries.

“The fiesta and the dance symbolize when a girl becomes a woman, something like a Sweet 16,” Bertha says. “That means the girl can go out with boys, to dances. … The old-fashioned way, it was the first makeup on her face. That’s how it was in the old times; I know they break the rules now.”

The Quinceañera culls her court from family and friends: traditionally seven girls make up the damas and seven boys are the chambelanes, with the Quinceañera the crowning 15th. The day begins with a Mass of thanksgiving followed by a celebration, filled with dancing, music, food and family.

The Quinceañera and her father have the first dance — a special routine that can take about two months to learn. After that, an announcer asks the godfathers and godmothers — padrinos — to dance, then everyone else dances.

Anneliese Deleon had her Quinceañera more than a year ago, but she had been looking forward to it since she was 10 years old.

“I was in my cousin’s Quinceañera, and I was like, ‘I can’t wait for mine,’ ” she says. “I don’t even remember the night because it happened so fast.”

She and her mother, Alice, planned for about a year to get ready for her quince, and aside from a snag with her hairstyling, it went off marvelously.

“Most of the Hispanic community that was involved in her Quinceañera had seen her grow up,” Alice says. “It’s getting everybody involved. It’s not just a celebration for her; it’s the community’s celebration for her.”

After her Mass, Deleon rode a horse-drawn cart to her party at the Northwest Washington Fair and Events Center Expo Building, where friends and family danced until midnight. For her opening song, Anneliese danced with her father to the Westphalia Waltz, which Alice used to play with her own father before he passed away.“It was a full day,” Anneliese says. “It started early: 6 a.m. for me and probably 4 a.m. for my mother. We went to sleep at 4 a.m.”

Alice Deleon estimates the Quinceañera cost about $4,000, spread out over the year before the party and among various godmothers and godfathers who served as sponsors. But every penny was worth it to watch her daughter step into adulthood.

“I think that point in any parent’s life is pretty spectacular, pretty fulfilling,” she says. “I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”

AN INTIMATE GATHERING

Quinceañeras range in size and grandeur, depending on the wishes of the girl and her family.

Bertha Reta estimates that she spent $10,000 on her first daughter’s Quinceañera. Though her second daughter opted for a car instead of a big quince, both birthdays were still emotional for Reta.

“It’s like another woman at home with you. It’s like being with your friend. That’s how it was when my girls turned 15,” she says. “It’s hard to describe that feeling.”

At the core of the celebration, though, isn’t a fancy party or a beautiful dress: it’s the Mass at the church.For Jennefer Lopez, 15, the Mass was enough to make her feel connected with her roots. Her parents were both born in Mexico, though she was born in America.

“I felt good because all my friends went through it, and my mom and my aunts went through something similar,” she says. “I was proud of the heritage that I come from.”

She decided against the large party, partly because it would have cost too much money, though her godmother threw her small surprise party after the ceremony.

“My godmother came up with me in front of the church,” she recalls of her May ceremony, in which she wore a tiara and necklace given by her godmother. “I was pretty nervous. I got a little stage fright.”

Traditionally, the Quinceañera was an opportunity for a young lady to make her debut in her community. Though many churchgoers knew Lopez from her performances with the church choir, it was still meaningful to her that they now see her as a woman.

“They’ve all known me since I was young, so it’s nice for them to know me as a teen, not a little kid,” she says. “It was definitely a milestone in the growing up process.”

No matter how big or small, Lopez relished the day as a chance to carry on a tradition that is so central to life in the country her family used to call home.

“It is part of your heritage; it is part of where your roots come from,” Lopez says. “It’s important to celebrate that because you don’t want to forget where you come from.”

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