Spotlight: How quinceañera celebrations mark transitions for individuals and communities across Iowa

On a sunny summer day in 2006, I found myself in the vestibule of a Catholic Church in Marshalltown, Iowa helping to tie the underlayer of a giant pink hoopskirt which encased a very excited 15-year-old girl. The enormously poofy skirt was the stuff of small children’s princess dreams and harkened back to the days when the “quinceañera” ceremony was the Latino version of a debutante ball.

Quinceañeras (or quinces, for short) are celebrations of turning fifteen, rites of passage celebrated throughout Latin America and in Latino-origin communities around the world. There are unique traditions or practices that are typical to every region, including Iowa. I was lucky enough to spend the summer of 2006 traveling around the state, attending (sometimes crashing!) quinceañeras and working on a PhD in Anthropology. This is how I found myself in Marshalltown, digging through layers and layers of tulle, attempting to find an elusive drawstring.

Photo by Juan Carlos Herrera
Photo by Juan Carlos Herrera

The word “quinceañera” can refer both to a fifteen-year-old girl and to the celebration itself. And the tradition has evolved to occasionally include boys, too—or quinceañeros. Sometimes simply called a “quince años” celebration (particularly in the instances when boys have them), technically every person who celebrates their 15th birthday has a quince años. But a quinceañera as such is anything but a regular birthday party; it is a grand affair. That’s why you might hear a person say, “I didn’t have a quinceañera, my parents just took me out for dinner after church.”

As celebrations, quinces exist on a spectrum that includes a range of traditions, some celebrations with or without a religious component, and varying in size from a small family party in the backyard to six-figure price tag bashes like the ones featured on MTV’s “My Super Sweet Sixteen” (which has, in fact, featured quinceañera celebrations). While quinceañeras that have a religious component are often Catholic, some Protestant denominations also affirm the tradition with a religious ceremony.

An Iowa tradition

As prominent social scientists Matt Barreto and Gary M. Segura (authors of Latino America) have noted, “Each day every congressional district in the United States, and nearly every census tract, becomes more Latino than it was the day before.” The quinces that I witnessed in my research proved that even though we might sometimes think about Iowa (and especially its more rural spaces) as perpetually “the same as it has always been,” our region is actually the site of profound change.

In the last several decades, global economic and political shifts are felt locally in many Iowa communities that are now home to people from places like Mexico, Somalia and Laos. As they and their descendants have become hyphenated Iowans, they have enhanced and expanded what it means to be Iowan by creatively blending their Iowa lives and ethnic identities.

There are an increasing number of people for whom being Iowan or experiencing Iowa includes things like making pupusas or tamales with friends and family, marching in a parade to honor the Virgen de Guadalupe in December, eating Ukrainian soup on a cold fall day, competing in a dance group at the University of Iowa’s Nachte Raho, recognizing Chin National Day in February, eating dates at Iftar dinners during Ramadan and feting the Lunar New Year at Tet celebrations.

As a native Iowan and anthropologist, I have attended rural farmers’ markets where I can buy Amish zucchini bread next to a stand where I can buy Mexican-style corn on the cob (with cheese and chili). I have helped a Dominican family butcher a pig bought from a local farmer. I’ve watched my Chin Burmese neighbors laboriously cultivate their gardens and turn the produce, including some wonderful okra, into tasty contributions to a potluck. Even with their transnational references, these acts are the very essence of “buying local” and exemplify ways of life very familiar to many Iowans.

How we roll

People often think about culture in its most visible and essentialized forms: food, music, clothing and language. Our celebrations, like quinceañeras, combine these elements and become examples of culture that are easy to identify. However, it’s also important to recognize that cultural practices are never static. Rather, “traditions” are constantly changing as the people who participate in them and their social contexts change. The quinceañeras that I attended were often described to me as “traditional” or “typically Mexican.” Nevertheless, I also saw the celebrations as very “American.”

In practical terms, the celebrations were amended for the Iowa context. While quinceañeras are typically celebrated on or very near a young woman’s birthday, in Iowa some girls with winter birthdays chose to have their celebration in a warmer weather month (or in Mexico), because who wants to cover their beautiful dress with a winter coat? Iowa quinceañeras demonstrate American identity in other ways, too. In some rural Mexican towns it is common for a girl, her family and friends to parade on foot to the church. In the U.S., Humvees and limousines feature prominently as the preferred method of transportation.

Photos by Juan Carlos Herrera
Photo by Juan Carlos Herrera

Quinceañeras provide an opportunity to showcase the “American Dream” of Latino families. A number of girls I talked to let me know that even though they weren’t “super into” the whole quinceañera thing, they agreed to it because it was important to their family, especially female relatives like their mom and aunts or cousins who hadn’t themselves been able to have a big quinceañera because of economic constraints. The opportunity to have a quinceañera that highlights the financial stability of the family through American-style conspicuous consumption, is a key, if implicit, component of many quinces.

As it is for so many Iowans, family is the focus when marking significant life moments like quinceañeras. In some quinces, extended and symbolic family like cousins and padrinos (godparents) play important roles. Sometimes quinceañeras have lots of padrinos who each pay for parts of the celebration. There may be padrinos for the limousine, dance hall, food, DJ, mariachis, videographer or decorations—in short, anything that is expensive. Although sometimes people focus primarily on the economic aspect of these relationships (and criticize their materialistic nature), they also produce and maintain important social connections between community members. I would argue that in addition to demonstrating the economic success of a family, quinceañera celebrations may also serve as a counterpoint to the stereotype of Mexican immigrants as primarily male migrant workers by asserting the existence and importance of stable, extended family and social networks.

What's on the Table

Food is a key component of any successful party and quinceañeras are no exception. Frequently the food at a quince is made by family members, mostly aunts, the mother and grandmothers of the quince girl. But some restaurants are known for providing catering for events like quinces. Around Iowa it is common for local Mexican restaurants to do the quince catering when it’s not done by family, but there are also people (mostly ladies) known in the community for their cooking and willingness to cater events like weddings and quinces, even if unofficially.

If you want to throw a quince, you better be ready to work! For the main course, think meat dishes that are labor intensive (like slow-roasted meats and stews), alongside moles of different kinds. Moles are sauces and typical for celebration dinners in the Mexican tradition. Of course, rice, beans and salsa are typical as well. It is also de rigueur for guests to be gifted with leftovers to take home with them toward the end of the night. I have vivid memories of being handed foil wrapped packages of meat and saran-wrap covered plates of food to take home.

While some quinces are “invitation-only,” in many rural communities, anyone who expresses an interest (and sometimes a willingness to help as in my case trying to help tie a girl’s dress) will be welcomed to the celebration. If you are interested in quinceañeras, chances are there is one somewhere near you, and I can attest that it is one of the most fun ways to get to know people. Perhaps one day soon, you will find yourself up to your elbows in chicken and mole helping prepare food for a quinceañera in your community!

Cristina Ortiz is an anthropologist whose research focuses on belonging and identity in rural Midwest communities.

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