NEW YORK – As a native New Englander who skipped his return flight, I soon found that living in the tropics had some enduring collateral advantages. The year-round T-shirt, reliable weather (hot and hotter) and Tom Jobim, for starters — not to mention a culture blessed by informality in which the only honorific that counted was carnival queen.
Yet here I was, on a balmy December evening in Rio de Janeiro, trussed into suit and tie, dancing a waltz with my crown debutant, whom I was scripted to give away to a prince too young to shave. All this while trying to keep my eyes dry and not step on my daughter’s toes.
I’d heard plenty about turning 15 below the Florida Straits, the transformative moment when grown girls were painted and pearled and presented to society as good to go. Mexico is the gold lame standard of the quinceanera. Peru and Colombia are not far behind.
Popular culture has helped itself to the party, though not always in a flattering light. Last year, a Mexican debutant staged a faux kidnapping at her coming-out to a familiar narcocorrido, or drug cartel ballad, conflating the culture of fiesta and felony. The video went viral. In Amazon Prime’s “Jack Ryan,” the bash is a proxy for a rotten regime: The Venezuelan president kneels to swap his heiress’s flats for heels at the climax of an over-the-top quinceanera even as outside the gated palace his compatriots starve and mercenary avengers from the CIA scheme .
Sweet 15 is now a thing in the United States, as well. A girl’s 15th in Texas can set back families $30,000 or more. The camp, HBO Spanish-language television series “Los Espookys,” aimed at young Hispanic audiences opens with a quinceanera — another sign that Latin American soft power has snuck over the border in plain sight.
But how to explain the survival of a generations-old rite of passage when all the cultural codes it billboarded about family, femininity, matrimony and life’s aspirations have been scrambled or contested in a confusing new time?
After all, today’s teens are the progeny of parents who came of age under Latin America’s most pervasive interregnum of authoritarian rule. Cultural values and manners fell under scrutiny as society chafed against the military juntas or their civilian proxies and the toxic male dominance they represented. Cherished notions of family, matrimony, church and home fell out of favor as democracy returned. Paterfamilias and princesses were out, not least among the region’s bien pensants. In came feminism and iconoclasm.
“We had no interest in debutant balls,” my neighbor, Debora, a journalist who was brought up during Brazilian military rule, confided. “To my generation, nothing could have been more passe.”
The demographic revolution helped stir the upheaval. Urbanization brought about smaller families, as women had fewer children, went to class and to work. Thirty years ago, most Brazilian women married by age 23 or 24, and had their first child shortly after. Today, marriage and kids can wait: By 2018, the share of women who became mothers by age 24 had dropped to 39.4%, from nearly 52 percent in 1998. The number of first-time mothers aged 30 and over rose to 36.6 percent, up from 24 percent.
One result of all these changes: Coming out has lost most of its foundational mission. “Debutant balls no longer serve the purpose of presenting the eligible daughters of elite families to society,” Renata Fratton Noronha, who teaches the history of fashion at the University of Feevale, in Rio Grande do Sul state, said in an interview. “By age 14, many girls have already had their first kiss, go to parties without adult supervision and some even have boyfriends.” Yikes.
Other rites of passage overshadow the gowned ball, including voting at age 16, driving at 18 and legal adulthood at 21. Many teenage girls would welcome a trip or dinner with friends over a pas de deux with a prince.
And yet the ball must go on. Perhaps the clue to Sweet 15’s resilience isn’t in a chiffon-wrapped stroll into a past that may never have existed, but the predilection of today’s debutants to embrace a jumble of styles and sensibilities from pomp to pop. Or so it seemed to me as I negotiated the Viennese box step with my tiara-topped teenager to Christina Perri’s “A Thousand Years.” And this from the kid who binge watches RuPaul’s “Drag Race,” warns her Instagram following about machismo and eating disorders, swoons to Brazilian funk that makes me blanch and can’t decide if God is Nicki Minaj or Cardi B.
Complicating this busy aesthetic is the tendency among competitive peers to flaunt plumage and theatrics, turning birthdays into performances. My daughter summoned 15 besties in matching dresses to join in an elaborate choreography that had one slipper in the teen top 40 and the other in Bollywood.
Such spectacles can easily lead to financial stress, as the production values and costume budget swell. Crystal-studded tiara? Check. Floor-length ball gown for waltz? Sim, senhor. Flouncy second dress for the disco? Check again. And woe to the host who doesn’t spring for monogrammed flip-flops when the teens want to kick off their heels and dance.
The trend to excess has grown as families shrink, and doting moms and dads find it hard to say no to the vestal Mandarin of the house. “Setting limits is a big issue today,” said Rio de Janeiro psychoanalyst Gabriela Krebs, who counsels adults and teens. “Fathers and especially mothers get into a competitive thing, wanting their daughter’s party to be the most luxurious, so inflating the event.”
In many ways, the quinceanera is not the culmination but a way station on a journey from grade school thematic birthdays to spectacular wedding ceremonies, both of which are back and bigger than ever.
Witness the booming party industry: The hosts we hired had bookings well into 2021. Package deals start at 60 guests — good luck keeping it to double digits. The father of one of my daughter’s classmates told me he started saving when his daughter was 13. Another friend invited 350 friends to her quinceanera at a swank Rio de Janeiro club, which came in at around $125,000.
Such ostentation can be shocking, not least in Brazil, one of the world’s most unequal societies. But coming out is a dream that transcends the social register. Families of more modest means pool resources, combine guest lists and hold raffles to pay for their collective 15th birthday party. Others pay in installments, often more than they can afford.
The return of the debutant might also reflect a broader societal shift, by which aspiring families uneasy with the messy multicultural liberal world order respond by closing ranks and putting the forgotten rites of their grandparents on steroids. “As nations turn inward, traditions are going over the top,” said Amherst College political analyst Javier Corrales. “Celebrations like the quinceanera are back and bigger than ever, probably magnified by social media.”
Perhaps the return to a golden era of tradition is just part of the retro politics sweeping the globe, Latin America included, in which backward-looking candidates hail a fleeting and in many cases imagined way of life. “The extravagance in the ballroom may be a form of escapism, a desire to recover lost status and customs,” says Fratton Noronha. “It’s world of bygone femininity, where women are wives, mothers and homemakers.”
Today’s debutants are not unaware of the political contradictions. Coiffed and gowned, they step onto a stage built for them by nostalgic patriarchs — yet one that, however well-planned, can hardly contain them. Just check out their Instagram.
Mac Margolis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin and South America. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”