The patio that I had been invited into many times before had been transformed almost beyond recognition into a floating, twirling, pink paradise. There were balloons, alternately white and pink, strung like great plump marshmallows above me. Long tables with the same pink plastic were set for an unknown, and seemingly rotating, number of guests. Standing at the door, peeking in shyly, everything seemed to be moving in some beautiful preordained rhythm.
I was in Teotitlán, and in one of En Vía’s borrowers, Eugenia’s house, but it was not a usual visit, not a tour, not a class, not a workshop, nor a borrowers meeting. There were none of the family’s colourful tapetes to be seen. Everything in the living and working spaces had been swept, polished, turned upside down, and made clear for this special event: this fiesta de quince años or 15th birthday party.
Some say the custom of giving a girl a special party for her 15th birthday is an adopted Spanish coming of age tradition. Others say it has many strong echoes to much older indigenous ceremonies that existed in Mexico long before the European arrival. In many cultures in the world you will find ceremonies or events that acknowledge the transition of a girl from childhood to womanhood, and I am delighted to discover such a beautiful concept alive in Mexico.
Coming striding out of the kitchen, Eugenia spotted us and made a move to embrace us, but remembered at the last second that she had her arms stacked with plates of steaming stew. We were ushered upstairs by our dear friend, fellow En Via volunteer, and host, Alejandro, and were immediately seated amongst the other guests and given our fill of food and drink. There were about a dozen women at the party that were part of our program, and many stopped to greet us kindly as they passed among the crowd of family and community.
After everyone had eaten, the formalities of the party really began. Everyone was sitting—the men were on one side of the large patio and the women on the other—when the Quinceañera entered the room. Her pink and white dress bloomed around her. She looked like a princess, but she carried herself like a queen. I felt a little hush fall about her. The master of ceremonies, who stood to my right, tapped his finger on his microphone. “We are your family”, he said warmly. “We are your friends; we are the people that love you, and we are ready to welcome you”.
And so she drew a quick breath and stepped out onto the dance floor, for her debut, for her first-ever public dance. Traditionally, girls are not permitted to dance in public, except at school or family events before they reach 15 years of age. First she danced with her father, and in her first pair of high heels, I noted she was more than an inch taller than him. It was a waltz, and this surprised me after all the ranchera, salsa and cumbia that usually formed the soundtrack to the nights in the valley. With her young chamberlain or escort of honour beside her, she proceeded to dance with various members of the extended family and community in turn. In inviting each member to dance, they were formally recognised and appreciated for their role in her life and her upbringing to womanhood. In turn they each had the chance to acknowledge and welcome the Quinceañera as a new and valued adult member of their society.
I thought that the 6 young men, her chosen escorts or chambelanes, might have been there just to look handsome—and in their suits and matching pink ties they were a wonderful sight—but no, they impressed all by performing what seemed to me the most complicated of choreographed dances with the Quinceañera. I was literally stunned to witness it. As they danced, cascades of glitter fell from the terrace above. Small detergent bubbles caught the lights and were chased by children through the edges of the crowd. There was a beautiful flourish of rose petals thrown from unseen baskets. Sparklers and small fireworks burnt brightly in annunciation.
When it came time for her mother to give a speech, I could not understand the words, but I found that I knew exactly what she was saying. Tears were in my eyes as I knew there were in hers. Alejandro, whispered a translation from the Zapoteco to us, and it was if I already knew what he was going to say. She said that she knew things had not always been easy for their family through her daughter’s childhood, but that she was so proud of her and who she had become, and that she knew that she would continue to make her proud in her womanhood. From her heart, she wished her happiness, success, health, and love. The girl nodded seriously in acknowledgment, conscious of all eyes on her, and blinked away the tears that appeared on her perfectly made up lashes.
One of the most beautiful ceremonies of the night was that of La Ultima Muñeca, or The Last Doll. The Quinceañera was brought a big decorated box that contained 14 little toy dolls. She walked ceremoniously, and with grace among the guests, and she presented the dolls, one by one, to the little girls in the crowd. Just when I thought it could not be a more beautiful symbol for the leaving of childhood, someone came out with a 15th doll. It was wearing the same dress as the Quinceañera, and had the same long dark curled hair under a tiara. This was to be her last doll she would receive for her birthday. She rocked it in her arms with such tenderness. She was no longer a child, but this last doll would serve as her connection, to this stage, and all the stages of her life as a woman.
After this ceremony was the final crowning of the Quinceañera. The Quinceañera’s grandmother, dressed in the traditional skirt and blouse of the region, seated her granddaughter on a chair in the centre of the room and placed the glittering tiara onto her head. Her older sister was at her other side to assist. What a powerful image, the three of them there; the maid, the mother and the crone. It was an acknowledgement of the sacred stages of life of a woman, and a gift of living them out in this place, amongst this community who valued and loved her.
I will never forget the joy of being there that night. I will always feel honoured to have been included in something so special. I think I have said it many times before, but I remain in awe of the way these types of events are so intimate, yet at the same time public and inclusive. There were over 300 people invited to the party, and yet the feeling was if I were in the closest, most trusted, circle of the family. Under the pink and through the glitter, what precious symbols of growth and transition they taught me. I went away from the experience thinking of the faces of those little girls with the dolls who would become women soon themselves. I believe and hope, as I do for all women, that in turn they too will come to acknowledge and treasure their own daughters and their daughter’s daughters after them in a similarly beautiful way.