Breaking the Bank: Fifteenth Birthday Parties in Cuba
Ivan Garcia, 28 February 2015 — Fourteen-year-old Yanisbel has one hot meal a day and the roof of her house leaks but her mother and grandparents have been saving for a decade to stage a traditional quinceañera, a celebration of her fifteenth birthday.
“All the women in my family celebrated their fifteenth birthdays,” says her mother. “My daughter should too. Maybe we won’t be able to throw a blow-out party. We don’t have relatives in government or in Miami but at least we’ll have photos taken, buy her three new outfits and throw a little party for her school friends.”
Yanisbel’s grandparents sell prepared lunches and milk caramels. They keep some of their earnings in a ceramic jar. “Fifteenth birthday parties get more expensive every day. An album of one photo session and a video is going to cost us 200 CUC. Then there are the costs for the dress, the buffet and beverages for the party. More than 600 chavitos (convertible pesos) in total,” her grandfather explains. “That’s the equivalent of five-years’ worth of pension for a retired person.”
South of the capital in the town of Casino Deportivo, Jennifer’s family will celebrate her birthday in high style. Accompanied by her parents, Jennifer visits the studio of a well-known photographer. Seated on a high bench, surrounded by strong lighting, a mirror and a white hat, she poses as if she were a model.
After a light dinner and a bath, she waits with her parents and boyfriend for a video to be shot. On the eve of the party she goes shopping with her mother and two girlfriends at a boutique in Miramar.
The climax is a four-night stay at a five-star Cayo Coco hotel in Ciego de Avila six hours by car from Havana. “The hotel and clothing expenses are being paid for by relatives who live in Miami. They’re flying to Cuba on the day of the party,” says Jennifer’s father, a mid-level bureaucrat at a state enterprise.
When asked about the costs, the father waves his hand and smiles. “What can I say? It’s a family secret. We have been putting away money since she was born. I stopped counting after about two-thousand convertible pesos.”
While Jennifer looks forward to the celebration, Octavio — an assistant bricklayer whose daughter’s fifteenth birthday is twenty days away — does not have a bank account or a wad of cash stashed under the mattress. “I will think of something. I plan on buying some new clothes and taking some pictures. Maybe I’ll pawn the TV or the fridge. I don’t know,” says Octavio as he waits in line at a bakery.
A photo session with the subject dressed like an actress and a DVD with photomontages ranges from 120 to 350 CUC. Poor girls like Ileana cannot celebrate their fifteenth birthdays by going out on the town with their friends. “But I do have a photo album and my parents gave me a pair of high-heeled shoes,” she notes.
Yamila, a sociologist, believes fifteenth birthday parties like this are a long-standing tradition in Cuba. “I cannot pinpoint exactly when this Latin American custom melded with the European tradition of ballroom dances,” she says. “In Spain, when a boy reached adolescence, they would put a goat in a sack and throw it off the top of a bell tower. I don’t know if they still do that but every July 7 on the Feast of San Fermin people in Pamplona run through the streets with bulls.”
She explains that in the United States the president even spares the life of turkey on Thanksgiving. “Every country has its customs and traditions. Purists in Cuba look upon fifteenth birthday parties as being tacky, extravagant wastes of money. But in the popular imagination they remain cherished events,” the sociologist points out.
A profitable private-sector industry has grown up on the island around these celebrations. Pablo, a professional photographer, alternates his time between working for a foreign press agency and shooting fifteenth birthday parties. “If you are a high-caliber photographer, you can make good money. Thanks to weddings and quinceañeras, I have been able to buy a 1956 Cadillac in good condition and spend a few days in Varadero every year. I find these parties cheesy but, as long as they pay well, long live the fifteenths.
Cuba’s fifteenth birthday celebrations have crossed the Florida Straits and have taken root among the hundreds of thousands of compatriots living there. Although many families have little to eat and live in poverty, the arrival of girl’s fifteenth birthday is an important event. Some people like Jennifer’s parents can afford to break the bank.