The day her daughter turned 14, Celia Gonzalez started to plan for the teen-ager’s next birthday party. Gonzalez wanted to give her daughter, Cecilia, a traditional coming-of-age quinceanera ceremony on her 15th birthday.
“My daughter deserves it,” Gonzalez, 35, said in Spanish. “My parents were poor,” Gonzalez said, and she did not have a quinceanera of her own. “But I promised that, if I had a daughter, I would give her that pleasure.”
Gonzalez needed to take care of an infinite number of details to prepare for the ceremony. But the top priority on her list was finding a Catholic church that would bless Cecilia on her 15th birthday.
“They had told me that it would be hard to find a church willing to do the Mass, but I never expected so many problems,” said Gonzalez, a Canoga Park resident who visited four churches before finding one that would perform a quinceanera Mass exclusively for her daughter and would allow 14 couples to accompany the teen-ager, as is customary.
Gonzalez is among a growing number of Latinos who are frustrated over a set of guidelines published by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles that they say alter the fiesta de los 15 anos, a 400-year-old Latino tradition that has been likened to the coming-out parties of debutantes, but one that emphasizes religious renewal at the same time.
The “Pastoral Guidelines for Preparation and Celebration” of the quince anos were distributed to all churches in the Los Angeles archdiocese in January.
Father Douglas G. Ferraro, who heads the office of pastoral and parish services that published the guidelines, said their purpose is to raise the awareness and the understanding of the ceremony among priests in the archdiocese.
Father Anastasio Rivera, director of the Hispanic ministry in the Los Angeles archdiocese, said the guidelines were also a response to a shortage of Spanish-speaking priests in the archdiocese.
“There are a lot of churches that have been pushed against the wall because of the desperate need for priests who can lead Masses in Spanish,” said Rivera, who added that Latinos make up close to 60% of the church’s following in the Los Angeles archdiocese. “Some parishes are having to choose between doing weddings and baptisms in Spanish or quinceanera ceremonies.”
Rivera said the suggestions stress the solemnity of the event and play down the social aspects of it.
“Many times people forget the true purpose of the quinceanera tradition, which is to reaffirm your faith. There is alcohol served at the party after the Mass, and people spend money that they don’t have,” Rivera said.
A group that was formed soon after the booklet was published says the guidelines are preventing Latinos from celebrating the quinceanera Mass in a traditional fashion. The group claims that many parishes have interpreted the suggestions as hard-and-fast rules that do not allow for deviation.
Some parishes have stopped conducting quinceaneras Masses altogether, said Luis Yanez, the president of the Grupo Latino por Nuestras Tradiciones (Latino Group for Our Traditions). Yanez said 400 people have joined his group since its inception in January.
“They have no right to take away part of our culture like this,” said Yanez. As owner of a bridal shop in Reseda that designs and makes dresses for quinceaneras, Yanez acknowledges that he also has a business interest in seeing the tradition continue unaltered.
Yanez said members of his group are outraged by what they call a lack of understanding the authors of the guidelines seem to have about the quince anos tradition.
The group takes issue with statements in the booklet asserting that there is no tradition that mandates 14 couples (each one representing a year in the life of the quinceanera ) to accompany the young woman during the Mass. This was one issue that was high on the list of complaints the group sent to Archbishop Roger M. Mahony.
A national authority on quinceaneras, Sister Angela Erevia, said it is true that nothing mandates the presence of 14 couples during the Mass, but a majority of parents opt for the couples.
“Nothing is written in stone about quinceanera ceremonies. They are not a sacrament like a baptism or a first communion,” said Erevia in a telephone interview from Victoria, Tex. “But people have passed the ritual from mother to daughter from generation to generation.”
Another guideline that may conflict with some Latinos’ tradition, Erevia said, is the suggestion that churches should hold a quinceanera Mass for three or four teen-agers at a time, something Rivera said has become necessary in Los Angeles because of the shortage of Spanish-speaking priests.
Gonzalez, who wanted both 14 couples and a Mass exclusively for her daughter, said the first four churches she visited in the San Fernando Valley were following the guidelines and turned down her requests. On her fifth try, she found a church in Reseda that had not adopted the guidelines, St. Catherine of Siena.
“The other churches wanted my daughter to share one of the most special moments of her life with another three girls, and they would allow neither the maidens nor their escorts,” Gonzalez said. “I decided that I would either find a church that would do it the traditional way, or I’d call off the whole thing.”
In an attempt to have the guidelines revoked, Yanez and other concerned Latinos have met with Rivera, who said the guidelines may have been misinterpreted by some priests.
“There are priests who say the ceremonies are too . . . excessive . . . and too much trouble. They have opted to do the Masses once a month or not at all now that they have received this booklet,” he said. “That is a misinterpretation. We need to review the guidelines and possibly revise them.”
Father Domingo Zuniga of Our Lady Queen of Angels in downtown Los Angeles said that he is concerned over families spending too much money on the celebration, but that the church should not interfere in how the families spend their money. Yanez, the bridal shop owner, said the average family spends about $3,000 on a quinceanera, but he said some families have been known to spend up to $25,000.
Zuniga’s church, which is affectionately referred to by Latinos as La Placita, has not adopted the guidelines and up to four traditional quinceanera Masses take place there every Saturday.
“Sometimes the amount of money that people spend is a bit shocking,” he said in Spanish. “But we consider the quinceanera a family celebration here, and we respect the family’s traditions.”
Zuniga said the only requirements for quinceaneras who want a Mass at La Placita is that they have been baptized, have completed their first communion and have attended an intensive daylong preparatory class offered by the church. A number of churches have started offering similar classes to teach young people about “the spiritual importance of the event,” Zuniga said.
Gonzalez, whose daughter’s Mass was held a few weeks ago, said the Catholic Church needs to treat Latinos with understanding and accept their traditions.
“A lot of Protestant churches are willing to offer (services) for the quinceaneras, " Gonzalez said. “I believe that, if the Catholic Church doesn’t value our Latin traditions, a lot of people will leave it.”