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The Sun Valley Guide magazine is distributed free twice yearly to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area communities.

Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express newspaper will receive the Sun Valley Guide with their subscription.

Photos by Barbi Reed 

Fifteen for a day
In 21st century Idaho, ancient Hispanic traditions thrive thousands of miles from home. Jennifer Tuohy discovers the quinceañera, and its living history, here in the Wood River Valley.
Photos by Barbi Reed.

The stretch limousine arrives. The congregation stirs. A beautiful girl emerges from the white car, clad in a sumptuous white gown. She greets her assembled attendants with a nervous smile. The big day has finally arrived: Wood River High School freshman Amy Tamayo is about to embark on one of the happiest days of her life, her quinceañera.

The Tamayo family—Amy, left, Audari, Delia and Auralio—celebrates the religious significance of the quinceañera at St. Charles Catholic Church in Hailey.

A centuries-old Hispanic tradition, the quinceañera (pronounced keen-se-an-yeh-ra) is an elaborate celebration of a girl’s 15th birthday. The custom marks her transition from girlhood into womanhood and is a thanksgiving to God for the gift of 15 years of life. The traditional observance involves a fiesta and a special Catholic Mass, where the quinceañera (the term is used for the girl as well as the celebration) renews her baptismal promises and receives communion.

The exact origins of the quinceañera are unknown. Some sources believe the tradition has Aztec roots. Others believe it is an outgrowth of the French cotillion, a hangover from when France ruled Mexico in the 1800s. Still others claim the tradition was created to honor fathers, since many often died before their daughters married.

The quinceañera in America

While it is practiced to varying degrees in many Latin American countries—including Peru, Panama, Brazil, Cuba, Argentina and Puerto Rico—the quinceañera is most prevalent in Mexico and among Mexican emigrants. It first became popular in the U.S. in the 1930s, and is practiced today in many Hispanic communities.

However, the quinceañera’s existence in the melting pot of U.S. society has brought many changes to the tradition. In her New York Times article, Donatella Lorch surmised that in the U.S. the tradition has morphed into a celebration of a family’s Hispanic roots.

"If this centuries-old Latin American tradition both marks a young girl’s passage into womanhood and celebrates her innocence, it also highlights the powerful role that age-old rituals play in modern American society," writes Lorch. "The quinceañera, celebrated wherever Hispanic families live, is as much a family statement, a reaffirmation of its cultural identity and its unity in a new world as it is an overblown birthday party."

Amy and her court throw down some hip hop moves at the fiesta following the church service.

As with most traditions assimilated into American culture, the quinceañera has not been immune from the influences of commercialism. It is increasingly common for many Hispanic-American girls to opt for an elaborate and expensive 15th birthday party, devoid of any religious elements. Such a party has become known as the Sweet 15, an amalgamation of the quinceañera and the classic Anglo Sweet 16. Consequently, some communities now have paid quinceañera planners (similar to wedding planners) and many have specialty quinceañera stores (Aracely’s Boutique in Jerome, just south of the Wood River Valley, specializes in quinceañera and bridal accessories). Web sites such as, quinceañ and have also appeared, all extolling the virtues of turning the 15th birthday party into the most special day of a young girl’s life—as long as you spend lots of cash.

Another increasingly popular option for the modern quinceañera is to take the money and run. Parents may give their daughter the option to spend the money that would have gone to a party on another gift, such as a trip or a car. Fabianna Ancajima, a 25-year-old Peruvian who works in advertising sales in Ketchum, chose a trip to Disneyland with her grandmother over a quinceañera. For Fabianna the choice was made due to fashion. "At 15 there was no way I was going to wear a pink dress!"

But some girls still hanker after tradition. Amy Tamayo’s parents offered her and her sister, Nancy (now a student at Boise State University), the option of a car. Both declined. "I thought ‘I only turn 15 once,’ so I wanted to do this," said Amy. "But I do have a friend who had a party but didn’t have the church ceremony, and one who chose to get a car—she got a brand new PT Cruiser."

The classic white wedding has also influenced the quinceañera. While it has nothing to do with marriage—it is not of the ilk of European debutante balls, where the purpose was to find the young lady a husband—the quinceañera and its surrounding celebrations have evolved over the years into a remarkably similar spectacle.

Sister Regina Burrichter, the on-site coordinator at Hailey’s St. Charles Catholic Church, is firm that this is not a design or desire of the church. "It is just the way it has evolved. In fact, we discourage turning a quinceañera into a wedding. It’s not supposed to be but, as you can see, the outer trappings of it can make it seem similar."

The most striking similarity is the elaborate dress the quinceañera wears. Traditionally pink, white has recently emerged as the color of choice. In addition, the quinceañera has attendants, known as her court. Comprised of men and women (chambelánes and damas), they carry out similar duties to those of bridesmaids and groomsmen. Yet more similarities include a bouquet, a ring, a big party—complete with a beautifully decorated cake—and a waltz between the quinceañera and her father.

While the Catholic Church tolerates this behavior, it does not encourage it and is openly critical of any overt extravagance or obliteration of the tradition’s religious elements. Toleration of some of these tangents however, is in part due to the usefulness of the quinceañera to the church, as a tool to maintain a foothold among young Hispanics in the U.S.—many of whom are becoming increasingly wary of religion. In Hailey, any young girl wanting a traditional quinceañera ceremony is required to take religious education classes. Amy Tamayo attended five classes with Sister Regina prior to her quinceañera Mass.

Success and the spectacular party

As with many rituals from many different cultures, the extent to which a quinceañera is celebrated has as much to do with social and family status as the individual wishes of, in this case, the birthday girl. For many Hispanic immigrants, providing an elaborate party is a mark of their success in a new world. And while the quinceañera fiesta can be a simple backyard affair, according to Amy’s father, Auralio Tamayo, the typical quinceañera costs upwards of $10,000.

In her story for the Times, Donatella Lorch found that many families went above and beyond their means to throw an impressive quinceañera. Sister Juanita Martinez of St. Anne’s in Houston, Texas, told Lorch that, "After the quince you discover the phone is disconnected and (the family is) over here in the social ministries for help to pay rent and bills."

Here in the Wood River Valley, Sister Regina agrees that the quinceañera is sometimes presented as a mark of success, illustrated by the fact that tradition is stronger in Hispanic families whose roots are still fresh. "That is absolutely true," she said. "But I would say the majority of people are still close enough to their Mexican roots that the tradition is stronger than the enculturation they are beginning to experience."

The spare time and extra money traditionally spent on an elaborate celebration are not commodities available to many families, regardless of their cultural background. However, some of the financial burden of a quinceañera is traditionally borne by family and friends, who are given the honor of being padrinos or madrinas—godparents. "(the quinceañera) finds a different madrina or padrino to donate such things as the Bible, the rosary, the bracelet, the earrings, the muñeca—a gorgeous, great big, very special doll," explained Sister Regina.

The doll is the most significant symbol of a quinceañera. "The doll represents my last day as a child, my last toy," explained Amy. "After that day I’m a woman, I’ve moved on to a different phase, leaving all my toys behind and my childhood behind."

The Tamayos’ big day

Amy and Nancy Tamayo, first generation Mexican-Americans, celebrated their quinceañeras in Hailey’s St. Charles Catholic Church: Nancy’s in 2003 and Amy’s last August. The girls’ parents, Auralio and Delia Tamayo, moved to Blaine County from California 12 years ago. "I was never very happy there," said Auralio. "People here are very respectful, we don’t feel rejected here."

Auralio enjoys a final dance with his baby girl.

The family lives in a new, single-family home in Hailey’s Woodside subdivision. Delia, a cafeteria worker at St. Luke’s hospital, is clearly proud of her beautifully kept home. While the Tamayos have adapted well to life in America, their Mexican roots are something they still cling to firmly. They readily admit to rarely venturing outside their comfort zone. Auralio, a qualified engineer who works as a custodian at Hemingway Elementary School, says he feels unsure socializing with Anglos, primarily due to his limited grasp of English.

"It’s easier for us (to mix mainly with Mexicans) because of our traditional roots," said Amy. "We have dinner parties where we’re all accustomed to the same things. Without meaning to, without knowing that you are doing it, you just lean that way."

Not every Hispanic girl in the Wood River Valley has a quinceañera. Even though the congregation is approximately 60 percent Hispanic and the pews are filled every weekend, St. Charles performed only six last year. "I guess most girls want it, but it’s difficult. It’s a lot of work and sometimes expensive," said Auralio.

The Tamayos’ close ties to their heritage led them to embrace the traditional quinceañera in their new home. For Delia, who grew up with 10 siblings in Jalisco, Mexico, it was particularly meaningful that her daughters celebrated the custom. "It is very important for girls to have this, very traditional," explained Auralio. "Both my daughters are good girls and good students, so we make a real effort, and sacrifices in some cases, to be able to offer these things."

The custom can also be a highly emotional event for a family, reuniting relatives (Amy’s grandparents traveled from Jalisco for the event) and evoking strong feelings from those intimately involved. "I’ve seen many a mother with the tears rolling down her face, probably remembering that she never had this," said Sister Regina.

At Amy’s quinceañera the event that brought tears to Delia’s eyes was an affirmation of her success in raising her daughter. "At one point a microphone was passed among the guests," said Amy, translating her mother’s words. "A lot of them were thanking me for being a good role model to their little girls. A lot of the little girls look up to me, and look up to this day. That makes me want to be a better person."

"It’s harder now, today," admits Amy. "Because a lot of girls don’t see the traditional roots of this. They grow up, become teenagers, get cars, drive around, be silly. It’s like ‘Freedom! I’m 15 now. I can date.’ But my parents always reinforced that if I behaved myself I’d get the party of my dreams."

For Amy’s mother, who was not able to have a quinceañera herself, it is clearly a source of great pride that both her daughters chose to celebrate their 15th birthdays in the traditional way. Instead of asking for a car or a trip to Europe, which would help further assimilate them into American culture, Delia Tamayo’s daughters chose to celebrate an ancient custom, adapting it to their modern, Hispanic-American lives here in the Wood River Valley.

Symbolic Elements

The traditional gifts to the quinceañera have special religious meanings for the celebration.

Tiara or crown: Denotes a princess or queen before God and the world; a triumph over childhood and ability to face the challenges ahead.

Bracelet or ring: Representing the unending circle of life, it symbolizes the emergence of the young woman’s abilities and future contributions to society.

Earrings: A reminder to listen to the word of God, and always hear and respond to the world around her.

Cross or medal: Signifies her faith, in God,
in herself and in her world.

Bible and rosary: Important resources to keep the word of God in her life.

The quinceañera doll: The quinceañera’s last doll as a child, symbolically thrown to other female children in attendance.