Wednesday, September 3, 2014


During my last trip to Mexico I had the privilege of attending a traditional cultural event: a Quinceañera. Having been to many bar/bat mitzvahs (including my own), I figured I knew a little something about teenage coming of age parties. But having never been to any party in Mexico, let alone a large party in a small Mayan village, I guess I really did not know what I was getting into.

Here are the logistics of a modern day Yucatec party.
1. Party starts at 11pm. And everyone attends (including babies, children, families, grandparents, and even dogs).
2. Dinner is served at midnight. There is nothing to drink except Coca-Cola. Nothing else.
3. Dancing (and music so loud your ears can't stop ringing) gets going around 1am.
4. Party ends anywhere from 6am to 8am.

I left the party at 2am, having to drive half an hour home via dusty dirt roads. I was the first person to leave the party. Eating dinner at midnight left me feeling icky and itching to get home to bed.

Being a novice in regards to Mexican party rules, I was warned ahead of time, "these parties are hard to handle if someone is not used to the hours." So in a sense I knew ahead of time about the late hours. But there was absolutely was no way I was going to miss attending this once in a lifetime Mexican cultural experience.

But did I mention the actual event started at 7:30pm with a Catholic Mass? Oh yeah, I went to that too (to take pictures for the family).

Family photo with the Priest

I also consider myself extremely blessed to have been welcomed in to such an important milestone for this humble and religious family. I haven't known the family long, but they immediately invited me in and treated me like an extended member of the family. This is typical of the Yucatec hospitality I have come to know and love.

But almost nothing else about this 
quinceañera was typical. Beforehand, I decided to read a little about the significance of a 15th year party for a girl. I assumed the importance was because turning 15 indicates the girl is ready to marry. Turns out I was correct. Not too difficult to figure out. And, fortunately, no longer a modern day practice.

I found a lot more about quinceañeras that I didn't know. A quince, "constitutes a ceremony on a girl’s fifteenth birthday to mark her passage to womanhood, to give thanks to God for his blessings, and to present a young woman to the community."
1 Sounds about right. There's more. "The young woman’s fifteenth birthday begins with a Misa de acción de gracias, or mass to give thanks for a completed childhood."1 Check. Next, "around the celebrant are seated her damas (maids of honor) and chambelanes (escorts)."1 Check. But then, traditionally, "the festejada, or adolescent woman celebrating the birthday, is seated at the foot of the church altar resplendent in an elaborate pink or white formal dress."1 Did I see this? No. Pecque wore a turquoise dress.

Pecque and her attendants post-mass

At the Quinceañera I was frequently asked, "do you have this kind of party in the U.S.?" My answer was always, "Yes. There are quinceañeras in the U.S. But we also have additional types of similar coming of age celebrations, depending on the culture. And some people even celebrate the 16th birthday more as a custom than a religious celebration."

Which led me to think about Pecque's turquoise dress. "The origins of [the Quinceañeraare shrouded in the history of the Mexican people. As with so many things Mexican, it combines both Spanish-Catholic traditions with a rich indigenous heritage."1 But there was nothing Maya nor Yucatec about this party. 

For example, men in the Yucatan typically (and often) wear shirts called guayaberas. Women wear white dresses with embroidered flowers called huipils

Lucy in a huipil and her escort in a quayabera              Young Pecque in a huipil with her sister Lucia in a huipil

Five years ago, at her sister Lucia's Quinceañera, Pecque's sister wore a huipil. So did 10-year-old Pecque. Lucia had a traditional Quince, which consisted of a Catholic Mass, family photos, and a small reception on site at the church.

What Pecque had last month was a glamourous party. And not a traditional quinceañera. 

Pecques' attendants, cakes, and gifts

Not traditionally Mexican. Nor Mayan. "Every region in Mexico [has] added their own local traditions and customs to the European-derived balls. Regional and local traditions as well as the economic status of the celebrating family exert an influence on the ceremony, determining the atmosphere of the religious service and the party."1

But this not a wealthy family. They do not travel, don't wear new clothes, don't needlessly spend money. In other words, I have no idea how they could afford this celebration. It was an expensive affair; one in which the tiny little town of Ixil (try to find it on a map) found its inhabitants out dancing at the municipal building until 6am. What was this humble family trying to prove? That they could throw an expensive party for their town? It was a fun event, but at what price?

The morning after Pecque's quinceañera, the sun rose; everyone packed up and went home. And Pecque awoke to find herself no longer the center of attention. Her turquoise shoes, turquoise dress, and turquoise eye shadow were now gone. But at least I was there to take the pictures.

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