The quinceañera countdown has begun; my younger sister just turned 14. In truth, it started the moment she was born, but now it’s less than a year off, and we have to start figuring out the costs.
I, as her older brother, posed a radical question: Is this symbolic coming-of-age celebration worth the financial investment? I knew before I said it aloud that this might be a nonstarter. But I can attest that my first-generation immigrant Mexican American family living in Watts does not have a lot of disposable income. Money we spend on this party is money we won’t have to buy a car or start a college fund.
This is not my family’s first quince; my older sister had one too. I was 13 then, and my father had recently left us, so my mother had to organize everything on her own. Like many families who cannot afford to pay the full cost, we got help from padrinos. “Padrino” translates to “godparent,” but in a quince, you can have 11 different padrinos and each covers a specific expense.
In true novela fashion, something went wrong. The padrino for the salon (the event hall, which is usually the costliest item) was unable to fulfill his commitment. We adjusted, canceled the venue, and held it in the apartment complex in Long Beach where we lived at the time. Even still, the quinceañera cost about $8,000.
But that is nothing compared with the exorbitant parties that have become more common as this Latino tradition becomes Americanized. In this world of “Quiero Mis Quince” reality TV and Disneyland Resort’s Quinceañera Experience princess-themed balls ($20,000 and up), an extravagant celebration is a way to demonstrate wealth and success in this adopted country. At the same time, even struggling families feel pressured to observe the tradition. After all, they too came here for the American dream.
My tia, Lupe, held my cousin’s quince in the quintessential Compton banquet hall, Salon Brandy, and spent a total of $9,000 on the whole event. I pressed her: Was it worth that? “It’s tradition and beautiful to have this moment that my daughter can cherish for the rest of her life,” she told me. But my friend Sandra Caro, now 29, seemed not to cherish her memories so much that she couldn’t imagine other ways to have spent several thousand dollars.
“If you can afford it, have it,” she said. “But I felt in no way it was necessary.”
My family’s financial situation is not out of the ordinary for U.S. Latinos, who have a median household income of about $42,000 — almost 25% below the U.S. average ($51,400). For Mexican families like mine, the median income is $38,000; for Puerto Rican families, just $36,000. The $10,000 needed for an average quinceañera — spent on a dress, a large meal, dance lessons, a DJ for one night — accounts for a Latino family’s gross household income for three to four months.
Money we spend on this party is money we won’t have to buy a car or start a college fund.
We are a family of five, already writing out monthly checks for college loans, a mortgage and car payments. We haven’t yet decided how we will celebrate my sister’s 15th birthday. I’m still arguing for marking the occasion with a family trip overseas or by buying a car.
I would also make this case to Latino families in similar circumstances: By not spending on this traditional fantasy today, we can invest in a better reality for our hijas’ and hermanas’ tomorrow.
Elvis U. Díaz is a junior at Columbia University studying political science.