COLUMBIA — As the sound of a triumphant march blares from portable CD player speakers, a procession of 12 boys enters the activity center at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, pacing their steps to the sound of the music. They range in ages from 9 to 17 and are practicing a "vals," which is a choreographed waltz.
Their hands start off placed properly behind their backs, as they should be, but soon end up stuffed into their jeans pockets or on a cell phone, expertly texting away. Maribel Arzate, their instructor, barks orders at them to listen to the beat of the music and to watch the size of their steps. It is March 21, and in a few short weeks, the boys will be chamberlains, and their audience will be bigger than the handful of amused parents who are watching them learn.
This choreographed entrance is the opening act for the ceremony’s actual focus: the quinceañera of Selene Márquez. Selene celebrated her 15th birthday on Saturday, which is a milestone year for a teenage Latina.
At age 15, a Latina traditionally has a birthday celebration with extravagance rivaling that of a wedding. It is an occasion marking the coming-of-age in both areligious and cultural sense comparable to that of a bat mitzvah in Judaism. Although the ceremony is not required as part of Latino Catholic faith, it is an event many Latinas look forward to.
After participating in 10 other quinceañeras, Selene was finally able to plan her own. She was planned for four months and got ideas from borrowed videos of other quinceañeras. An acquaintance offered to design and make her dress, so Selene had periodic appointments for fittings. She chose an all-male court that consisted of her brother, friends and cousins. Three young girls, all cousins, were also in the court but did not dance.
Jokes fly during the practice, the first of three that will take place before the day of the event, but Selene turns serious and attentive if someone needs extra help with the steps. Then she practices her own entrance, arm-in-arm with her first escort, her father, Mariano Márquez.
“I’m happy that I’m able to make her dreams come true,” Mariano said.
Eight years ago, Mariano came to the United States from Chihuahua, Mexico. After he found a job in Missouri, his wife, Clara, son, Mariano Jr., and daughter joined him four years later.
“It was weird because I didn’t even know how to speak English and I missed everybody in Mexico, too,” said Selene, remembering what it was like when she moved to the U.S. During the past four years, the family has lived in Midway, Columbia, Fulton and now in Moberly.
Although Moberly has a smaller Latino community than Columbia, the family is still able to maintain ties to its culture through traditions such as the quinceañera celebration. It is practiced in the same way it would be if the family still lived in Mexico, except that the guest list is smaller here.
“My dad, since I was little, said he was going to do a quinceañera for me,” Selene said. “But sometimes when I got in trouble, he said, ‘I’m not going to do it,’ but he was just saying it to make me not do that again. He always said it was his dream to see me in the dress and everything.”
Besides commemorating a birthday, a quinceañera and her guests participate in a personalized Mass. On April 4, approximately 60 guests sat in the pews of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Columbia and watched Selene walk down the aisle with her parents at her side.
Her court preceded her, walking in two-by-two before sitting in the front row. The standard jeans-and-T-shirt wardrobe of the male teenage court changed to a black collared button-down shirt, black pants and cummerbund that perfectly matched the bright-blue hue of Selene’s glittering dress. The three young girls wore miniature versions of Selene’s gown, along with tiaras.
“(The religious significance) is usually lost with the other festivities,” said Sister Francine Koehler, a Catholic nun who has served at Sacred Heart for the past five years and is active in the Latino ministry in Columbia. “It is a turning point from child to adult. (The celebration) comes from the Aztecs where the quinceañera offers herself to God in service of community.”
The service started with a reading and a psalm from Selene's mother, Clara Márquez. Then the Rev. Steve Kuhlmann presided over the remainder of the Mass. Selene, her parents and godparents were brought forward to stand in front of everyone. She read a passage and gave thanks to God and everyone present for their support.
A quinceañera is expected to fulfill some sort of community service, and Selene shared that she helped serve food to the poor. After a group prayer, Selene was presented formally as a young woman who is now in charge of her own religious choices.
The service ended with her placing a bouquet of red and yellow roses at the foot of a statue of the Virgin Mary inside the church. Guests showed their congratulations with applause.
“It’s an opportunity for us to give thanks to God for giving her to me for 15 years,” said Clara. Although Selene is not quite an adult, in the eyes of the church she and her mother are now equals in terms of personal responsibility for their religious paths.
“It’s different now because she is older," Clara added. "There are different ways of treating her, not like a child, but as a young lady.”
The religious significance of the quinceañera was important to Selene's mother, who attends Mass at Sacred Heart every week. It is the only Catholic church near Moberly that offers a service in Spanish. The only other Spanish Catholic service is in Jefferson City.
Because all the publicity about the Spanish Mass and the Latino Catholic community comes via word-of-mouth, it is difficult to determine how far the Latino outreach extends beyond Sacred Heart. Sister Francine, who helps families organize quinceañera services, has seen two or three ceremonies every year for the past five years. Selene’s was the first of five scheduled to take place this year.
Although Selene always knew she would celebrate her quinceañera, her mother said that there was a time when she was not sure if it would be a reality. The expenses of the custom-made dress, hall rental, food, music and other details reached approximately $6,000 for the Márquez family.
Usually a quinceañera has "padrinos," or godparents, for that particular day, to help with the planning and festivities as much as possible. They do not have to be the same godparents as for her baptism or first Holy Communion. Selene’s godparents provided the music and food for the party.
Although the contribution of the godparents helped, both Clara and Mariano had to put in extra hours at work to cover the expense. “She had a lot of hopes for this day so we said, 'No, we have to work hard and do this,'” Clara said.
The couple had been saving little by little for the celebration for the past year. Never having had one herself, making a quinceañera possible for her only daughter was worth the extra work for Clara.
After the church service, the guests moved to the VFW hall on Business Loop 70 where they finished the day with food and dancing. The aroma of homemade "arroz con pollo," or chicken and rice, filled the room as the 100 or so guests arrived.
The hall was decorated in a blue-and-white motif. Everything from the five-layer cake, balloons and streamers were in Selene’s favorite color, just the way she had planned it
Adults mingled with long-separated relatives, asking children if they remembered them. Friends and family flown in from Mexico, Kansas and Colorado gathered to celebrate and listen to the live band, Sentinela.
Toward the end of the night, the vals was performed with minimal mistakes. Overall, Selene said, she was happy with the way everything turned out. She said the dance was the best part of the party. Although her place was set in the middle of the long table reserved for the court, Selene frequently flitted around, greeting and beaming at her guests.
A ninth-grader, Selene invited friends from Moberly High School. Most of them knew what to expect out of a quinceañera celebration, but some were surprised by the grandeur of it all.
After living in the U.S. for four years, Selene continues to identify herself as Mexican, despite the dramatic changes she has experienced. Her words flow easily between Spanish and English, depending on whom she is talking with, and there is no sign of discomfort between cultures. The Márquez family openly welcomed those who could reminisce about their own quinceañera and those who had never heard of one.
To remember the night, guests were given a "recuerdo," which is a little souvenir of the ceremony, in the shape of a glass slipper, appropriately reflecting the fairy tale-like image of the tradition.
The day, filled with cultural and religious implications, means something slightly different to everyone involved.
“To me, it means now everyone knows you’re 15, and now you get to go to parties and dance with your boyfriend and friends,” Selene said. “You get to date.”
Editor's note: Quotes from Clara and Mariano Márquez were translated from Spanish to English for this story.