For would-be party crashers out there looking for free food, booze and of course one hell of a rumba, never mind weddings – get yourself invited to a quinceañera.
A quinceañera is a great way for Gringo travelers on a shoestring budget to enjoy a great night out as well as learn about Colombian family life through an event deeply rooted in Latin American culture.
Derived from “quince,” the Spanish translation for the number 15, and the root word for “year” in Spanish, the quinceañera is a coming of age party for young Latina girls when they reach that median age, where they are not quite yet a woman — but no longer daddy’s baby girl.
That is evident in how they dress up for these parties, their makeup, hairstyles and all the ritualistic customs in between.
It’s as formal as a wedding but without the annoying complication of a groom. There is a “novio” in the traditional quinceañera, but he is largely symbolic.
Some accounts date the quinceañera tradition as far back as Pre-Columbian times in Mexico, when Aztec boys matured into warriors. Likewise, girls were presented into their communities as young ladies. The tradition has since spread into the United States and down to South America.
The equivalent in Western Culture would be a debutant gala in high society circles, or the average American’s Sweet 16 party – which seem pretty much non-existent these days.
Not so in Colombia. Families can spend months planning the event for their daughter, or as is the case in huge Latin American families, daughters. The more daughters, the more expensive having a large family can be.
A Colombian friend explained that how extravagant the quinceañera can get depends on the “estrato” of the hosting family.
“Some families in estrato 1 or 2 will never enjoy a Mariachi,” she explained, for example, referring to the iconic Mexican musical groups.
She also explained there are several different styles. The one experienced by this Gringo author in early September was in “el estilo guayabera.” In this style, everyone wears white, she explained.
It later occurred to me the virginal connotations how appropriate the white dress at a birthday party for a 15-year-old.
It wasn’t necessarily crashing, however, because another Colombian amiga actually invited me a week or so in advance. Which wouldn’t have mattered anyway, because there was surely more than enough food and booze.
After touching down in Barranquilla on an afternoon flight from Miami, we spent the afternoon hustling across Barranquilla looking for white pantalones and a matching Guayabera – long sleeved for some reason. Then the shoes. You know the kind, the pointy ones that seem to be fashion in everywhere in Latin America, from Guatemala on down. Thankfully they haven’t quite caught on the United States.
I felt a little self-conscious walking around the barrio Campo Alegre looking like the Good Humor Ice Cream man before the party, but then realized it was a normal sight in Colombia – the only thing out of place being my blonde hair, white skin and green eyes.
I didn’t realize the elegance of the outfits until we arrived to the event. All the men wore the white Guayabera threads, and the women, well they wore whatever they damn-well pleased. And there were no complaints from the men.
The 15-year-old-of honor was immaculately dressed and looked more like an 18-year-old model. And her demeanor was definitely rehearsed as such – right down to the smile frozen on her face because of the hired photographer trailing behind her like a paparazzi on his first day on the job.
As introductions are very important in Latino culture, the young woman made the rounds, shaking hands and executing the traditional “besito” – one of my favorite Latin American nuances, especially with gorgeous women.
And then the cocktails arrived. At this party, a “mesero” (waiter) brought a bottle of Something Special Scotch Whiskey to the table, a pail of ice and a round of glasses. No beer at this soiree.
As the whiskey flowed, and the guests became a little more lose, the dancing began. The quinceañera did her traditional dance with her father, sporting a shaved head and a look of pride perhaps mixed with the warm waves of a whiskey buzz coming on. The DJ played formal ballroom type music as the quinceañera then danced with her “novio,” symbolizing a father’s letting go of his daughter into adult society.
And then the Mariachis came in, in all their wide-brimmed-sombrero glory. Having been to a couple of quinceañeras in Mexico, I was excited to see this shared. But then again, it was the Colombian version of the Mexican tradition.
Then of course, there was the ubiquitous conga line before the younger teens in the crowd took over the dance floor demanding hip-grinding reggaeton rhythms over the Cumbias and Merengue.
The food at quinceañeras is delicious and abundant.
So for those readers tired of the disco/club scene, a quinceañera is a perfect diversion and a great way to share a great part of Colombian tradition and meet real Colombians.
And for those whose idea of a party crasher comes from Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson in The Wedding Crashers, don’t worry, there are women. Just because the party is for a 15-year-old, don’t forget, she has primas, hermanas, tias and amigas.