MONTEVIDEO: Claudia is a shy, stout adolescent, but today she looks like a princess in a fluorescent fairy tale as she dances in her electric blue gown and jewel-encrusted sneakers for the 250 guests at her 15th birthday party in Mexico City.
More than 4,000 kilometers away in Colombia, Catalina is also wearing bright blue for her 15th birthday, though she has opted for the traditional high heels — which her grandmother knelt to slip on her feet in a symbolic welcome to womanhood.
This is the “quinceanera,” or Sweet 15, when Latin American families traditionally pull out all the stops to celebrate their daughters’ birthdays with a lavish rite of passage.
Despite criticism that they are patriarchal, outdated and kitsch, these “fiestas de XV” are as popular as ever in Latin America, a region whose reputation for machismo belies the rapidly changing role of women in the family and workplace.
In one of the world’s most unequal regions, the celebration is also a show of status that fuels a massive industry, with wealthy families spending tens of thousands of dollars on opulent parties or trips to Disney World, and poorer families saving and borrowing in a race to keep up.
Claudia Itzel Perez’s family spent two years saving the $10,000 they spent on her party.
She started her day with a two-hour makeover by an “image designer” at her family’s modest home in a working-class neighborhood of Mexico City.
The beautician covered her in powder, concealer, eye shadow, fake eyelashes and lipstick — all sealed with an airbrush to keep it in place.\”This makeup lasts 24 hours, and she’ll always be smiling. Even if she’s actually crying or nervous, it will look like she’s smiling,” said the make-up artist, Jenny Chavarria.
“Smile!” she commanded Claudia as they tightened the corset of her gleaming gown, which featured a bulky skirt of tulle and crinoline and a giant bow on the back.
After a one-hour photo session, a white Hummer limousine took Claudia to church for a mass in her honor.
Then came the party.
With all eyes on her, she entered the ballroom in a cloud of fog, descended a staircase and took the stage, dancing a carefully rehearsed hip-hop routine in a sparkling tiara, surrounded by four professional male dancers.
Next came waltzes with her father, brother and godfathers, kicking off a feast that lasted well into the next day.
“It’s an unforgettable day,” said Claudia. “It’s something you only get to do once in a lifetime.”
Claudia, who shies from the spotlight and rarely wears make-up, hesitated about having a Sweet 15, said her mother, who is also named Claudia.
Her father offered to pay for a trip or buy her a car instead. But the teen finally decided she wanted the party, and the family saved up everything it could from her father’s small construction supply business to make it happen.
“You can see the sacrifice” that some families make, said her make-up artist, whose services cost $200 to $300.
She told the story of a quesadilla vendor who paid her in a trickle of installments of $5 to $15.
For Catalina Arevalo’s family, organizing a Sweet 15 meant four months of planning and scraping to come up with the roughly $1,500 they spent on her reception for 80 guests.
“I’ve taken out loans, worked night shifts, everything, because I wanted to do things that had never been seen before… so she’ll enjoy it and never forget what I’ve done for her,” said her mother, racing to get everyone ready on the morning of the party despite having worked through the night at her job as a security guard in Bogota.
The quinceanera fits into the tradition of coming-of-age rituals around the world, including Sweet 16 parties in the United States.
Its origins are unclear.
Scholars speculate it evolved from European debutante balls, though some say it comes from an ancient Aztec coming-of-age ceremony.
There is no equivalent for boys — a fact critics say shows the tradition’s sexism.
The fiestas fell out of style toward the end of the 20th century, criticized by feminists as a “male chauvinist” spectacle, said Nicolas Guigou, an anthropologist at Uruguay’s Universidad de la Republica.
“But lately there’s been a major resurgence,” he said.
Valentina Napolitano, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, said there is an empowering element buried in this “wedding without the groom,” as she calls it.
“It’s one of the few public celebrations where young women are at the center of it,” she said.
Underlining the central role of women in Catalina’s fiesta, it was her maternal grandmother who ceremoniously slipped her sparkling high heels on her feet — not her father, as tradition dictates.
Such subtle shifts hint at the changing role of women in Latin America, where more than 70 million women have joined the workforce in the last 20 years, swelling the ranks of the middle class.
The popularity of the quinceanera “could be a desire for a past that is stable in a world that is fast-changing,” said Napolitano.
“Now women are required to work outside the home and juggle many more tasks. It’s both a romantic attachment and a way that women construct pride around their families.”
A booming industry has meanwhile grown up around the tradition.
“It’s impressive, everything that has emerged around these fiestas, all the services. It’s endless,” said Sandra Lanzillotti, the editor-in-chief of Miss 15, a Uruguayan magazine dedicated to all things quinceanera.
Her magazine recommends girls start planning their fiestas two years in advance.
It offers advice on venues, caterers, photographers, decorators, DJs, limousine services and more — with ads for products ranging from chewing gum to make-up to contraceptives.