Step Inside a Milwaukee Quinceañera

For Milwaukee’s Latinas, the quinceañera tradition is thriving, launching them into life’s next phase with jewels, cake and dancing. Step inside one of the galas.

Esmeralda Rodriguez at Mass

Messmer High School student Esmerelda Paredes Rodriguez, 15, is calm, and excited. She’s dressed in a champagne-colored ball gown with a bejeweled bodice and a skirt made of yards of organza. Pinned with a rose, her long brown hair is tightly curled and cascading down one shoulder. Accompanied by her older brother, Julio, and holding up her hoop skirt, she gingerly walks three blocks from her South Side home to St. Patrick’s Catholic Church for the beginning of a very special occasion: her quinceañera. It’s a celebration that’s been years in the making and cost her mother a four-figure sum.

In Latino culture, the quinceañera marks a girl’s 15th birthday (quince means 15 in Spanish), and the ceremony and celebration symbolize her passage from childhood. It begins with a Mass where the girl gives thanks for her life and family, asks for guidance and promises to uphold religious values. The ritual originated with the Aztecs, who prepared young girls to marry at 15. In time, Spanish and Catholic traditions mingled, and rich families added all the trimmings of a contemporary gala. As the demographic has grown here and nationally, more and more families are embracing the quinceañera.

And these coming-of-age ceremonies – which are similar in ways to bat mitzvahs and sweet 16 parties – have blossomed into elaborate, and expensive, affairs.

“It’s a tradition in the Mexican culture,” says Maria Rodriguez, Esmeralda’s mother, in Spanish. “It’s for our family and friends because Esmeralda is such a precious jewel to me.”

In Wisconsin, there are about 71,000 Hispanic girls under 18, according to 2015 Census figures. Many check out quinceañera websites, expos and shops offering products and advice on how to plan the big day. Often a stretch limousine or horse-drawn carriage ferries the girl and her family. “They can be as elaborate as weddings, with a huge cake, extravagant food, attendants, choreographed dances and fancy table settings and color schemes,” says Tim Brady, banquet sales manager at Serb Hall, a popular quinceañera venue.

A cherry-red sports car awaits

At Mitchell Street’s Hallelujah Fashions, colorful, glittering gowns for quinceañera line the walls with prices ranging from $698 to $950, says owner John Lahl. To accompany them, a display case offers glittering rhinestone tiaras, necklaces, bracelets and earrings. Employee Diane Sanchez has fond memories of her own quinceañera that she estimates cost her family $10,000. She had a choice of a trip or a car instead, but chose the quinceañera.

The priest who said Esmerelda’s Mass, the Rev. Timothy Manatt, thinks that cultural tradition has become too materialistic. He would prefer to see families emphasize the religious aspect instead of the party and frills.

A cake topped with real baby roses

After Esmeralda’s solemn church ceremony, and lots of pictures, she and about 200 others gather at the Park East Hotel ballroom. Friends queue up to a buffet of Mexican, Italian and American dishes. There are drinks, a DJ, a light show and a four-tiered cake decorated with melon-colored frosting and real baby roses. The tables are covered with white linens, and each has a small round box topped with a tiny doll – centerpieces made by Esmeralda and her family. Inside the boxes are chocolate kisses. As often happens, friends and family helped with various expenses, so Esmeralda’s single mother of five, who works as a housekeeper, could pull of the big day’s $8,000 price tag.

To start the festivities, Esmerelda receives a simple gold crown. Then her mother hands her a doll, which represents “the last toy she will receive.” Before her first dance, Esmerelda’s mother presents her with a pair of rhinestone decorated high-heeled shoes. It’s another traditional gesture that nods to a girl’s transition to womanhood. After she slips on the pumps, her brother, Jesus, 8, serenades her with a song, before Esmerelda belts out a few bars of her own – a few choruses of Adele’s “Hello.” With that, the night of dancing kicks into high gear. ◆

Photos by Little Giant Photography

‘Sweet 15’ appears in the January 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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