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The Cost Of Tradition: Holding On To Quinceañeras In The US

Kate Sheehy
Professional photographs of Julissa Canal greet guests as they enter the hall for her quiceañera.

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The Cost Of Tradition: Holding On To Quinceañeras In The US

The Cost Of Tradition: Holding On To Quinceañeras In The US

Kate Sheehy

Professional photographs of Julissa Canal greet guests as they enter the hall for her quiceañera.

LAS VEGAS — Waves of Latino immigrants have introduced the quinceañera or "Sweet 15"  into the American mainstream. It's often a glitzy affair with rituals to mark a girls transition into womanhood. As the Latino population in Las Vegas has grown over the past decade, so has the business of quinceañeras. Families empty their pockets to throw a party, sometimes bigger than a wedding, for their little girls.

The mannequins in Casa de Calderon are adorned with dresses fluorescent in orange, pink and green, jeweled bodices and layers of tulle.

“I can make the dreams of the girls come true in a gown,” said Elizabeth Calderon.

She makes these elaborate gowns by hand at the shop she and her husband own in East Las Vegas. She said the dress is the most personal detail for a quinceañera.

“It’s incredible how it’s been growing, it’s very, very popular,” she said.

But style doesn’t come cheap. She said sometimes parents pay several thousands of dollars just for the dress, which is only a small part of paying for a huge bash.

“Sometimes, you’re not going to believe this, sometimes they stop making payments on their homes, sometimes they sell their cars," the dressmaker said.

For Julissa Canal’s quiceañera, 200 people fill the party hall Palacio Del Sol. Her mother, Erica Arellano, is nervous.

“There’s so many details, and you’re running around until the last minute because you’re worried you forgot something and also it’s a lot of money,” she said.

Arellano said with the help of extended family, they forked out $15,000 for the event. At the entrance is a poster-size picture of Julissa. The tables are decorated with silver and blue to match Julissa’s sparkling dress. There’s a buffet, a fancy cake, a D.J. and later a live band.

Alberto Hernandez is the owner of Palacio Del Sol. It’s one of about 35 venues off the strip that host these parties. He said quinceañeras are 75 percent of his business. Hernandez said lately he sees more working class families struggling to pay for these huge celebrations.

“It used to be people that they’d pay up front $7,000 or $8,000 cash, with no problem, and now people are coming every paycheck with $300, $400," he said.

Many Latino immigrants, like Julissa’s mother, didn’t have the money decades ago for their own glamorous Sweet 15. So many times this celebration is more important to immigrant parents than their American-raised Daughters.

Valerie Ochoa is a 19-year-old student at a local university. She said she didn’t feel like turning 15 was a big deal and she didn’t want all the attention a quiceañera brings. But her grandma felt otherwise.  

“And so she went and she bought a big dress and these really glittery shoes and she called me into her room one day and was like, ‘Oh come try on your quinceañera stuff,’ ” she said.

Thankfully, Ochoa said her party was a smaller affair, at her family’s church. And she said she wasn’t angry with her grandma.

“For once I let her, let my grandma put me in this crazy dress and do something like this for me, even though I didn’t want to, but I think it was important to her," Ochoa said.

Calderon said that for many parents the sense of pride and tradition is worth the financial sacrifice.

“They try their best to get the special dream for their little girl,” she said.

Calderon’s family didn’t have the money for a fancy quinceañera for her. Still, she remembers her 15th birthday fondly, she had flowers in her hair and a cake. But she said now she designs dresses that she would have wanted to wear.

“Because even the American people they say, ‘Oh my gosh, I wish I can wear a gown like that, at least once!’ What I think is that every woman would like to have a day like that," she said.


Kate Sheehy is very happy to find herself back with Fronteras: The Changing America Desk as a Senior Field Correspondent in Tucson. Sheehy thinks being a reporter is the most amazing job because no other profession allows you to learn about a variety of subjects and provides the chance to meet people from different walks of life.