TAMPA — The planning for Jazmyn Fernandez’s quinceañera formally began two years ago. But really, it started when Marilyn Rivera discovered she was having a daughter.
Rivera never had her own quinceañera, a distinctly Latin American celebration of her 15th birthday meant to honor her transition from childhood to adulthood. She was determined to see Jazmyn shine in a ballgown on April 25.
Or at least that was the date of her quinceañera before the coronavirus forced the family to postpone the party until June.
“It broke our hearts,” Rivera said.
As social-distancing measures cancel gatherings across the U.S., Latino families in Tampa Bay and elsewhere find years of meticulous planning for quinceañeras come undone in a matter of days.
The celebration is, at face value, a massive birthday party, but across Latin America it’s more of a cultural tradition mixed with a family reunion that has grown into a lucrative international industry.
Various countries have their own customs. In Mexico, the father of the birthday girl changes her shoes from flats to heels to symbolize her first steps into adulthood, while her mother crowns her with a tiara to symbolize her new leadership role in the family. In Colombia, the girl lights 15 candles held by close relatives she chose to honor for supporting her throughout her life, said Esmeralda Solis, owner of Esmeralda’s Boutique in Land O’ Lakes and Tampa, who sells quinceañera dresses.
Regardless of the country of origin, the message remains the same.
“It’s not just a party,” Solis said. “It’s culture. It’s family. It’s tradition.”
And it’s not cheap.
The ball gowns traditionally worn for quinceañeras can cost anywhere from $450 to $900, Solis said. Some special designs can reach a price tag of $2,500. And that’s just the dress.
Families invest thousands into the event. In the U.S. in particular, it’s often a chance for immigrant parents to show how far they’ve come financially, inviting co-workers and even bosses to their version of a realized American dream. The festivities are often so elaborate, with choreographed dance numbers, that planning lasts at least a year in advance.
“You can’t organize a quinceañera in just a few months,” Solis said.
Some of Solis’ customers are still paying off their dresses with their party dates in limbo as they remain uncertain of when the coronavirus lockdown measures will end. One of the big draws of the festivity is the large crowds that gather.
Venues and caterers have been flexible in rescheduling, but families already have lost out on printed invitations and party favors engraved with the party’s original date, Solis said.
Since the quinceañera usually isn’t held precisely on the girl’s 15th birth date, some of Solis’ clients are concerned that by the time they can host the party, the girls already will be 16. And they don’t want a Sweet 16 party. They want a quinceañera.
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“It’s unbelievable to see so many dreams cut short,” Solis said.
Rivera’s daughter, Jazmyn, who turns 15 on April 28, was excited to be the first in her household to celebrate a quinceañera. It would be a chance to get all of her family together, to put aside any problems and just be there for each other.
“It was supposed to be a happy day,” she said.
There are at least 3,000 families in the same predicament in Tampa Bay, at least according to the Mi Padrino online and mobile app for planning and budgeting quinceañeras, said Kim Gamez, the app’s chief executive.
And there are at least 10,000 vendors nationwide on the app working to recoup losses and adjust party dates.
Solis is taking one-on-one appointments at her shops, she said, but most families are opting out and simply checking in on their dress orders over the phone.
Jazmyn’s dress remains tucked away at home for now. The reality of her quinceañera and getting to see her extended family struck her when she found her gown.
She had been looking for something similar to the white dress with gold trim she wore for her first birthday. She wanted a before-and-after effect. When she saw her final choice, she knew it was fate.
“It was magical,” she said. “It was literally the perfect dress.”
Now, the perfect dress will have to wait for the big day in June, barring any further postponement.
Jazmyn is a bit upset at the wait, but she’s trying to keep an open mind about it. After all, her mother’s been waiting for 15 years.
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