Big business of quinceañeras on display

January 28, 2019

Girls dressed in ball gowns glided past cakes nine tiers tall as the air throbbed with the sounds of mariachis, kumbia and “Taki Taki.” All of it — the dresses, the jewelry, the food and entertainment — was for sale, competing to make a young woman’s quinceañera, or 15th birthday, a dream come true.

Mia Fuentez, 14, walked through the satin and tulle-lined aisles of the Quinceañera Expo at NRG Stadium Sunday afternoon with her mother, Debbie Fuentez, and grandmother, Juanita Rodriguez. Debbie and Juanita had never celebrated their own quinceañeras — Debbie hadn’t wanted one, and Juanita grew up in northern Idaho, where the Latino coming-of-age celebrations were rare. But all three generations of women were excited to celebrate Mia’s.

“It’s a little more hyped up than it was back then,” Debbie said. “We’re all living through her.”

Quinceañeras have become a burgeoning industry as the population and spending power of Latino Americans have grown. The Latino population in the United States has grown by 12 percent between 2012 and 2017, according to Census estimates; its spending power grew by 27 percent over the same time frame. That expansion had been mirrored by the growth of the Quinceañera Expo, which only had a handful of vendors in 2001 when it was first founded. Sunday afternoon more than 4,000 people crowded into the hall to browse the offerings from over 80 vendors.

And those offerings have grown extravagant. While Lilian Juarez, who organizes the expo, remembers her own quinceañera in El Salvador as a simple backyard affair, these days, budgets easily top $15,000.

Veronica Anaya, owner of Supreme Kakes, described an especially lavish quinceañera cake that had cost $12,000 (it resembled a life-sized dress and took four bakers four days to create). Sometimes banks come to the expo as vendors to offer financing. Many families at the expo had begun planning more than a year in advance — while the birthday girls were still 13 — in order to prepare their budgets.

Thirteen-year-old Sophia Simmons had come to start planning her birthday in 2020.

“Her dad is a numbers guy,” explained Sophia’s mother, Liz Simmons. “So he wants to plan everything, to know how much everything costs.”

Likewise, Mia’s family began shopping when she was 13. At last year’s expo, the family, which has budgeted between $10,000 and $17,000 for the occasion, nailed down a caterer that makes chicken and pasta.

At this year’s expo, Mia, her mother and her grandmother sampled cakes and looked over dresses and videography.

But Mia was most impressed by an alcove draped with trailing pink flowers. Inside, a throne stood atop a glass stage filled with hundreds of lights; the Roman numerals XV stood in the background. The flower arch, stage and furniture could be rented separately for prices ranging up to $600; the resulting scene was worthy of an Instagram museum.

Mia sat down in the throne and smiled as her mother and grandmother snapped photos.

Ashanty Garcia, who found her dress at Sunday’s expo, said social media had intensified the appeal of quinceañeras. “Social media is where you get excited and find ideas,” she said. “I feel like whenever you see other people’s quinces, you can’t wait to have your own.”

“The quinces from now to the old times are so different,” said her mother, Zuzy Reyes. “Now they put too much emphasis on decorations. Before it was just who would sing and how long you’re going to dance.”

But while many mothers marveled at how different quinceañeras are from when they were children, when asked about what their daughters’ 15th birthday meant to them, they gave the age-old response.

“I can’t believe how fast she’s growing up,” said Griselda Castellano, who had come to the expo with her daughter, Mariah Castellano. “The other day I was thinking about it — she’s going to college soon — and I started crying.”

And Mia’s mother, Debbie, who had brushed off quinceañeras when she was young, said it was powerful watching her daughter approach her big day.

“Seeing her from a toddler to a higher schooler, I’m excited and emotional at the same time.”

rebecca.schuetz@chron.com; twitter.com/raschuetz

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