Jaset kneels at the altar at Santa Isabel Catholic Church during her quinceañera. / Photo by Jonathan Olivares
Jaset kneels at the altar at Santa Isabel Catholic Church during her quinceañera. / Photo Jonathan Olivares
Jaset kneels at the altar at Santa Isabel Catholic Church during her quinceañera. / Photo Jonathan Olivares

Her transformation was already well under way. Her fingernails sparkled. Her hair was curled and sprayed into place. And her make-up matched the custom-made dress that was laid out on her bed: pink, green and blue.

Jaset Alonso was still wearing jeans at 10 a.m. on the big day. But a team of photographers was already at her family’s modest Alvarado Street apartment to document her formal presentation to society. Jaset said she was feeling good, but also a bit nervous ”” especially about the church portion of the event.

After taking formal photographs all morning, she said, standing on the sidewalk in front of the church: “I’m looking forward to the party.”

Jaset and her immediate family ”” along with a host of friends and relatives ”” had been preparing and saving money for her quinceañera for almost two years, but Jaset has been dreaming of her quinceañera since she was a young girl.

(See photo slideshow below)

In Latin American cultures, quinceañeras mark the transformation from girlhood to womanhood. The rite of passage ”” typically celebrated with a Mass or blessing and a party sometimes on par with a wedding reception ”” takes place when a girl turns 15.

The tradition is said to be thousands of years old, and the ritual has traditionally signaled to society that a girl was ready to be married. It’s evolved over the centuries, from tribal to modern times. The celebration also varies slightly from country to country.

A Big Pricetag
No matter a girl’s background, however, one thing is certain: quinceañeras cost money, sometimes lots of it. With the dress, shoes, hair, make-up, professional photography and party, quinceañeras are often likened to weddings. And they can cost from a couple thousand dollars to as much as $100,000, according to Michele Salcedo, an editor with The Associated Press who in 1997 wrote a comprehensive guide to the celebration titled “Quinceañera!”

Quinceañeras can be “very controversial,” Salcedo said in a recent telephone interview from her Washington, D.C. office. “There are certain people that say, ‘Why are you spending so much on this party when you can save this money to educate your daughter or go on a trip?”

In some cases, the total cost adds up to more than a year of college. (The California State University system says the average cost of attending one of its campuses last year, including tuition, fees, books and supplies, was $7,552. Jaset’s quinceañera, held April 14 at Casa Grande on César Chávez Avenue, cost $18,660.

But her family didn’t shoulder the entire cost. Jaset had 25 padrinos, or patrons, who helped sponsor her quinceañera. Her mother and father contributed approximately $10,000, a significant chunk of their income for the couple, who earn a living by sewing. (In the Boyle Heights community, the average annual household income is $31,500, according to a study conducted by UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs in 2011.)

Whatever the family spends, Salcedo said, quinceañeras celebrate the physical and spiritual process of growing up and making the transition to responsibility and maturity. “It doesn’t matter if you have a big party with chambelanes, a cake, or thousands of people, or a party in your house or take a trip,” Salcedo said. “It’s important that you and your family mark that passage in some way. It should be in a way to reflect the girl and her family.”

One of the biggest costs, besides catering, hall rental and music, can be the dress. According to a quinceanerasmagazine.com survey, most girls are willing to spend $800 or more on their quinceañera dresses. Out of the 2,174 girls surveyed, 601 ”” the most of any category ”” said they would pay top dollar, compared with 363 girls who said they would be willing to pay $200 to $299. Only 183 of those surveyed would pay $100 or less.


Rhinestones and Ruffles
Jaset, who just finished her sophomore year at Roosevelt High School, had her dress custom-made by Los Angeles-based Mexican designer Wilhem Zeda. The strapless dress was covered in rhinestones, with ruffles that reached the floor.

Jaset, her family and sponsors gave out 200 invitations. Guests were invited to a party at Casa Grande, as well as an afternoon ceremony at Santa Isabel Roman Catholic Church. Jaset’s brother, 17-year-old Jayro Núñez, a recent Roosevelt graduate, served as her chambelan de honor (or escort), and walked her down the aisle.
Núñez initially thought that his sister’s quinceañera was “too expensive” and that the money could have used for “college purposes.” But, in the end, he said, “I kind of changed my opinion on it. I’m still against it, but my sister was happy, and that’s what mattered to me.”

The nature of the church ceremony depends on the family’s wishes. It can be as elaborate as a mass or just a simple blessing. For Jaset, the Rev. Genaro Zavala officiated at a mass and sprinkled holy water on her. In a homily, Father Zavala gave Jaset advice about decision-making, urging her to listen “the word of God” to give her strength against peer pressure.
Jaset, who turned 15 in February, and her court were whisked from the church in a limo. After riding around Los Angeles, they arrived in time for the party, which started at 6 p.m. and lasted past midnight.

Jaset had picked her dress colors to complement the theme of her party: candy. Giant lollipops, doughnuts, cupcakes, gummy worms, Starbursts and assorted other sweet treats

covered tabletops in the hall. As she stepped into the room for her grand entrance, a mariachi band performed several songs for her, including “Feliz Cumpleaños” (“Happy Birthday”).

Shortly after her entrance, the “birria” ”” Mexican barbecue of goat traditionally served at celebrations ”” was served. Soon, it was time for her first dance with her chambelanes, or members of her court. She started with a slow waltz, and as she danced her dress twirled, creating a rainbow of color. Then she was crowned. She changed from sneakers to hot pink high heels and received gifts.

In rites of passage, “We look to God, to the community, to help us interpret that we are changing,” said Juan Martínez, associate professor of Hispanic studies and pastoral leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary.
“Los quinces is the day you stop playing with dolls” and start preparing to date, Martínez said. “We celebrate that you are becoming an adult.”

Not long after her quinceañera ended, Jaset reflected on it. “I think it was perfect for me,” she said. “Everybody was there whom I expected, and I would do it all over again.”

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