After four centuries of conquest, colonization, and intermarriage, it’s hard to overstate the influence of Spanish customs on the cultures of Latin America. But as Madre España adapts to unprecedented waves of immigration from her former colonies, this process of cultural exchange is rapidly changing directions. This includes staples like music, style, and food, of course; but there’s one particularly colorful Latin American custom that is also taking over the working class barrios of Spain’s major cities.
Sure, with all the courtly pomp and circumstance you probably assumed quinceañeras had their origins in the royal palaces of medieval Iberia, but according to a recent feature in El País, Spaniards aren’t quite sure what to make of this strange tradition from across the sea. In fact, it turns out that many Spaniards only heard about the iconic rite of passage after los XV de Rubí exploded into a viral phenomenon.
Indeed the origins of the quinceañera aren’t entirely clear, but all signs seem to point to Mexico, where European-style debutante balls became the rage amongst the country’s upper classes in the late-19th century. Whether or not this was rooted in Aztec and Mayan tradition, as many purport, the ritual eventually filtered down to the popular classes then spread throughout Latin America.
So it’s not surprising that las fiestas de quince años are actually a booming business among the Spanish-born children of Ecuadorians, Colombians, Peruvians, and Dominicans – and even some Spanish teens are catching on to the craze. But even so, mainstream Spanish society still hasn’t caught on to this cultural import brewing in the industrial outskirts of cities like Madrid. “It makes sense that Spaniards are not participating in these celebrations,” explains sociolinguist Luisa Sánchez Rivas. “Because for immigrants it’s a way of preserving them, of protecting their identity.”
Of course, Latinos in the United States are all too familiar with this complex liminal space between nationalities, but according to Sánchez Rivas, immigrants to Spain are only recently shifting from a paradigm of cultural assimilation to one of preservation – and it apparently piqued the anthropological fascination of El País‘s staff. Indeed, the article in question reads like the giddy field notes of a curious interloper overwhelmed buy the riot of colors, fabrics, and fade haircuts (apparently called “degradados” in Madrid) that characterize this beloved adolescent ritual. But as one new generation comes of age and gives way to another, all we can say to our primos in Spain is: get ready. This is just the beginning.