By Lou Baldwin

Special to The CS&T

NORTH PHILADELPHIA – It has all of the social implications of a debutante’s coming out, often mixed with the religious significance of a confirmation or Bat Mitzvah. It’s called quinceañera, which in Spanish means “girl of fifteen.”

In Hispanic communities, it can be a very big event in a young woman’s life.

If the family is Catholic, the day will begin with a special Mass for the honoree, her family and guests. Although a quinceañera is not a sacrament itself, it is held in such importance in the Hispanic culture that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has issued a special ritual book for it. Many pastors treat it as a teaching moment, scheduling mandatory pre-quinceañera classes just as they do pre-Jordan and pre-Cana classes.

A quinceañera differs from a wedding in that it has no special season. It is generally held on a Saturday near the girl’s birthday.

Although the young lady is dressed in a white gown similar to a wedding dress, she wears a tiara instead of a veil, and during the ceremony there are various elements symbolic of coming of age, including exchanging her flat shoes for her first high heels.

“For me the quinceañera is a religious experience. It lets the girl know she has passed into young adulthood and has to take on more responsibilities,” said Carlos Ortiz, who with his wife, Marinilde, does part-time catering for weddings and quinceañeras in the area around North Philadelphia’s St. Veronica Parish.

Just as in the case of weddings, quinceañeras can be big business, and at this time is estimated to be a $400 million dollar industry in the U.S. – and growing. Catering halls and quinceañera organizers do big business. Even those families of modest means will spend thousands to see that their young lady is introduced to the world with style.

Carlos, who works in the day at Casa Del Carmen, and Marinilde, who works for St. Veronica School, do not operate a hall but cater at whatever hall or venue the family chooses, supplying the traditional Caribbean menu favored in their community.

“Usually there are 150 to 250 people, but they can be bigger,” he said.

Most of the quinceañeras he sees are relatively modest – typically $3,000 to $5,000 in total cost – but a large sum in a neighborhood that is not wealthy.

They can be much more expensive, however.

“My brother-in-law’s niece had a quinceañera that cost $12,000,” Carlos said. In a large quinceañera the young lady might have a court consisting of 15 girls in formal gowns and 15 boys in tuxedos, one for each year of her life.

Ortiz cites one quinceañera attended by a friend where all the young men were dressed as Mexican army officers, complete with crossed swords that the young lady and her escort passed under.

Marinilde had her own quinceañera in Puerto Rico 25 years ago. Carlos, who was her boyfriend, was her escort.

“My experience as a quinceañera in Puerto Rico was a very happy time in my life,” she said. “I would almost compare it with my wedding day, having all my friends with me celebrating this traditional rite of passage.”

Love blossomed and Carlos and Marinilde wed, moved to Philadelphia and raised two children; Karla Marie and Carlos Armando.

Five years ago, Karla had her quinceañera at St. Veronica Church with Father Eduardo Coll, I.V.E., officiating.

“My quinceañera party here in the United States was a traditional Puerto Rican Quinceañera party. Many friends and family who watched me grow were a crucial part of this celebration that I will never forget,” Karla said.

Neither will her parents. “It was after we did our daughter’s quinceañera that we started catering,” Carlos said.

To contact Carlos Ortiz about catering a quinceañera, call (267) 294-3149.

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.