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A Quinceañera Got A Million RSVPs: The Story Behind The Ritual

When a father in northern Mexico sent out a video invite to his daughter Rubi Ibarra Garcia's 15th birthday party earlier this month, he never expected that 1.3 million people would RSVP.

Rubi's coming-of-age celebration, a Latin American custom called a quinceañera, has taken the world by storm, inspiring memes...

a spoof video with actor Gael Garcia Bernal...

and a pretty decent discount on airfare to Rubi's town.

To understand why Rubi's 15th birthday party, which takes place on December 26, is such a big deal in Latino culture, we spoke to Evelyn I. Rodriguez, a professor at the University of San Francisco and author of Celebrating Debutantes and Quinceañeras: Coming of Age in American Ethnic Communities,and Norma Cantu, a researcher on Latino cultural studies, a professor of English at the University of Texas at San Antonio and the author of Chicana Traditions.

How did the tradition of the quinceañera begin?

The quinceañera has a pretty fuzzy history, says Rodriguez. Based on her research, it was inspired by a mix of pre-Columbian traditions and European customs brought to Latin America by the colonizers.

Aztec boys and girls at age 15 had to undergo a set of trials, she says: Going hunting or spending a period of time in isolation without many resources. Why 15? One theory, cited in the book Quinceañera, edited by Ilan Stavans, a professor of European studies and Spanish at Amherst College, is that 15 was the midway point of the average Aztec girl's lifespan in the 1500s. At this age, girls were considered women and presented to other tribes as marriage candidates.

Then in the 19th century, Austria's imperial couple Carlota and Maximilian — who were named Empress and Emperor of Mexico in the 1860s — "brought this coming-of-age ritual [which happens at age 18] from their court," says Rodriguez. It was described in the book Once Upon A Quinceañera by Dominican-American writer Julia Alvarez as an "elaborate ball."

Native Mexicans found the European ceremonies enchanting, says Rodriguez. "It's not clear, but somehow those rituals were married to those Aztec traditions, evolving to what we know as the quinceañera today," says Rodriguez.

What's expected of a girl at this age today?

In some indigenous communities in Latin America, girls are still expected to marry after their 15th birthday, says Cantu. But for modern girls like Rubi, it's very different.

"Young women are allowed to have certain privileges: shave, wear lipstick or go to the discotheque," Cantu says. "And in Mexico, that's the age when you can get your driver's license. A lot of quinceañeras [the term for the birthday girl as well as the event] opt not to get a party but a car, a contemporary marker of being an adult."

Rubi's quinceañera will have a horse race with a big cash prize, live music and — just in case a million people do show up — extra security and the Red Cross on hand. I imagine this is not the norm!

There are a lot of guests, but more like 150 to 200, says Rodriguez. Generally, quinceañeras — practiced across all social classes — are a pretty big deal. "People would say it's 'wedding light.' "

To help foot the bill, a girl's family will "designate a padrinoor madrina, a godfather or godmother, to become the financial sponsor of the cake, the dress, or other components of the party," says Rodriguez. These godparents then have the honor of acting as role models and mentors to the girl.

A typical quinceañera will have a mass, held at a church, before the party. At the mass, the girl "publicly vocalizes a commitment to model herself after the Virgin Mary," says Rodriguez. "And the highlight is a waltz, performed by the girl and her escort, which they've rehearsed for months. That's where you see a direct connection to the Europeans."

What's your reaction to Rubi's video?

"It's very staged," says Rodriguez. "She's all dressed up. They look like a family who probably has means. It's professionally filmed — not an iPhone held by a sister or brother." And she finds that surprising, because, she says, "in Mexico, the upper classes see the quinceañera it as something outmoded or provincial." In wealthy circles, a 15-year-old girl might be sent on a cruise or a trip to a Disney destination instead.

Why do people still have quinceañeras?

"One of the most important findings of my research was this: These events are not about the girl," says Rodriguez. "The quinceañera is more about the family, their success, the virtue of their daughter: a visible display of their strong and expansive social networks. If they're in the U.S., it might also be a statement about being able to hold on to Mexican culture."

How does the quinceañera change a girl?

Some parents will lecture their daughter, says Cantu, telling her, "You are a member of our family as an adult and you have to prove responsibility." And that's not just talk. "It's amazing," says Cantu. "I've seen it in my own family. My niece, after her party, was more mature. You didn't have to get at her to wash dishes."

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Malaka Gharib is the deputy editor and digital strategist on NPR's global health and development team. She covers topics such as the refugee crisis, gender equality and women's health. Her work as part of NPR's reporting teams has been recognized with two Gracie Awards: in 2019 for How To Raise A Human, a series on global parenting, and in 2015 for #15Girls, a series that profiled teen girls around the world.