Thursday, April 30, 2009

Latino tradition gets downsized

Economy has Latinos downsizing quinceañeras
By Leslie Berestein, SignOn San Diego, April 26, 2009

The current recession was years away when Nayely Casas' parents began saving for their oldest daughter's 15th birthday. Like many Latino parents in the United States, shortly after their daughter was born, they began dreaming and making plans for the ultimate party – her quinceañera.

Over the past few decades in this country, the Latin American coming-of-age tradition that was once a homespun celebration marked by a church service has evolved into a gala, generating business that rivals the wedding industry with specialized dress shops, photographers and emcees.

But as the economy has tightened, so have parents' budgets. And much as the wedding industry has slowed, so has spending on the cascading pastel dresses, Humvee stretch limos and elaborate ballroom banquets that have become trappings of the modern American quinceañera.

“My quinceañera was celebrated at home,” said Maria Casas, Nayely's mother, who grew up in Tijuana and now lives in Chula Vista. “It's totally different now, and you want to give them the best you can, within your budget. But we've had to think about cutting here, cutting somewhere else. We think, 'If there is more money, we can get more photos. Or maybe we'll have one video camera instead of two.' ”

Job losses, the threat of layoffs and other aspects of the recession have prompted some families to put their daughters' parties on hold, said Marco Salcedo, publisher of the San Diego edition of Quinceañeras magazine, a four-year-old Las Vegas-based magazine dedicated to quinceañeras and vendors. (One recent cover line: “A Limo: 6 Reasons Why Every Princess Deserves It.”)

The magazine, distributed in a dozen cities nationwide, is among a handful of quinceañera-related publications online and in print launched in the past few years.

“This year, the economy has really affected parents,” said Salcedo, whose magazine regularly sponsors quinceañera expos, much like bridal expos. “Many people have had to move their dates back. For girls who were going to be quinceañeras, the perfect excuse now is to wait until next year, when they're sweet 16.”

Derived from quince, the Spanish word for 15, quinceañera refers both to the girl being celebrated and the celebration. It is a tradition observed throughout Latin America and in the United States where Latino immigrants live.

At its heart is a religious ceremony, typically a Roman Catholic Mass, held to mark a girl's transition into womanhood. Decades ago, the service was followed by a simple celebration at home. While this still often holds true in rural Latin America, the after-church reception is now the far-bigger event for those who can afford it, here and abroad. As Latino immigrants in the United States have prospered, the receptions have become ever splashier.

Adding up the expenses of ballroom rental, food, decorations, dresses and tuxedos for the quinceañera and her court, entertainment, flowers, party favors and other expenses, the average event can cost at least $8,000 to $10,000, Salcedo said, on par with many wedding budgets.

Banquet managers at facilities that do quinceañera business – some offer packages, cake and flowers included – say that as with weddings, guest lists this year are shorter. Less expensive meals, such as chicken, are in demand. Some facilities have lowered prices to compete.

“People are looking for more value and bang for the buck,” said Margo Della, director of catering and sales for the Marriott hotel in Mission Valley, which does about 30 quinceañeras a year and twice as many weddings. “They'll come back to you and say, 'You know, about that ice sculpture . . . ' or, 'Can I have someone else do the cake for less?' ”

Quinceañeras have become a smaller piece of the hotel's banquet market this year than in 2007 and early 2008, said Della, whose packages start at about $30 per guest, a reduction of about 25 percent from last year.

At the California Fiestas rental hall in Chula Vista, quinceañeras continue to comprise 60 percent to 70 percent of business, banquet director Jose Luis Flores said. But while families are still booking banquet packages that run $4,000 and up, many now wait until the last minute to commit financially, he said. Flores noticed a slowdown around November, continuing into the first few months of this year.

“It was mostly because of the panic they were hearing in the news,” he said.

To be competitive, the facility began promoting Friday and Sunday bookings as an alternative to costlier Saturdays.

Rafael Aguayo, the Las Vegas-based publisher of the Quinceañeras chain, estimated that the industry nationwide has shrunk by about 15 percent since last year.

In San Diego, where the cost of living is high and numerous industries employing Latinos have slowed, quinceañera business is down by about 30 percent, Salcedo said.

“Many Hispanics have jobs tied to the construction industry, and construction has stopped,” Salcedo said. “It's logical.”

The Casas family, which derives its income from construction, has so far been spared, but not without sacrifice. Nayely's father, a project manager, spends Monday through Friday working in Las Vegas, then flies home on weekends.

It's inconvenient, but “there is more work there than there is here,” Maria Casas, 42, said. “Here, it's a little slow.”

The couple have done all right saving for Nayely's quinceañera in June. They have been putting money away for both Nayely's party and college since shortly after she was born, Casas said, and though the price tag for their daughter's 200-guest event will likely be twice the $8,000 their wedding cost 16 years ago, the party will go on.

“Her dream is going to come true,” Casas said. “She's going to have it. Even if the economy is bad, it's worth the sacrifice.”

Relatives and friends have also pitched in, Casas said. It's not uncommon for quinceañeras to enlist sponsors, referred to as madrinas and padrinos – or godparents – to help with a particular expense as a gift, such as a dress or photographs.

Cynthia Ponce of Spring Valley, whose daughter Jusel's quinceañera was this month, had help from a cadre of relatives, including a baker aunt who donated the cake.

There was a madrina for the dress, a madrina and padrino for photos and video, even sponsors for small items like the Bible she carried with her in church, said Jusel Ponce, 15. These sponsors are often thanked in the invitations.

In this case, though, “we only put in the madrina for the dress, because it would be a huge list if we put all of them there,” Jusel said. “But I plan on giving them thank-you cards.”

Sponsors are common for photos, one of the higher-ticket items, said Hugo Benson, a San Diego photographer who specializes in quinceañeras. While families cut back on other details, photos tend to be one item they keep in the budget.

“Many invest in photos or video but save on something else, like flowers or favors,” he said.

Finding sponsors is one way families ensure the festivities happen, said Charlie Bradley, a San Diego emcee and disc jockey who specializes in quinceañeras and weddings.

“And these daughters, let's face it, they expect it,” Bradley said. “I meet 9-year-old girls who look forward to their quinceañera. The economy might change drastically between now and 2015, but when the day comes, they are ready to go. They have been planning all along.”

For families with several daughters, they can't save enough. Before long, Nayely will be in college, Maria Casas said. Then by the time she's graduating, it will be about time to start preparing for their second daughter's quinceañera.

“She's 5,” Casas said. “We have 10 more years.” Leslie Berestein: (619) 542-4579;

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