Q&A on Quinceañera Style with Rachel Valentina González

Quinceañera celebrations, which recognize a girl’s transition to young womanhood at age fifteen, are practiced in Latinx communities throughout the Americas. But in the consumer-driven United States, the ritual has evolved from a largely religious ceremony to an elaborate party where social status takes center stage. Examining the many facets of this contemporary debut experience, Quinceañera Style: Social Belonging and Latinx Consumer Identities by Rachel Valentina González reports on ethnographic fieldwork in California, Texas, the Midwest, and Mexico City to reveal a complex, compelling story. Along the way, we meet a self-identified transwoman who uses the quinceañera as an intellectual space in her activist performance art. We explore the economic empowerment of women who own barrio boutiques specializing in the quinceañera’s many accessories and made-in-China gowns. And, of course, we meet teens themselves, including a vlogger whose quince-planning tips have made her an online sensation.

Disrupting assumptions, such as the belief that Latino communities in the United States can’t desire upward mobility without abandoning ethnoracial cultural legacies, Quinceañera Style also underscores the performative nature of class and the process of constructing a self in the public, digital sphere.

Give us the elevator pitch for your research and the resulting book.

Quinceañera Style explores the cultural practices of quinceañera celebrations as unexpected spectacles of luxury in Latinx communities.

How did you get interested in the subject of your book?

I never had a quinceañera, but in graduate school I was asked to present to a group of undergraduates on the significance of dress in the tradition and I realized how little research had been done. I decided I wanted to fill in those gaps.

What kind of expectations are placed on young Latinas for their quinceañeras?

It depends on who asks. Families expect young women to put a good face forward—as young women and as respectable young adults. The church wants them to manifest obedience. I think American society, however, wants Latinas to remember their place; they want to see humility and deference to assumed cultural narratives of poverty, undereducation, and social trauma. Instead, girls defy these expectations and demand to be seen.

Can you establish what you’re looking at when you say quinceañera consumer practice?
Quinceañeras are a cultural practice, but dependent on consumer practices like shopping for goods and services. I am invested in how Latina/os spend their money, and how it reflects what’s valuable in their lives.

Did the regions and communities you studied differ in surprising ways?

Not really. What I found most interesting is how consumer practices, especially those circulating through deterritorial forms like internet ads and online shopping, create communities through a shared practice of consumption. While each region has its own identity, overall the styles of dresses vary because individual designers are eager to set themselves apart in a national and international versus regional fashion scene.

Briefly position your research and book in the context of other studies on quinceañeras.

My book examines US Latinx contexts of cultural production and is also interested in the church as a major framing discourse. This is not a religious history of the sacramental or even a study of ethno-racial identities, but instead is examining secular quinceañera practice through a lens of consumer citizenship.

How does your background as a folklorist make your book unique?

Being a folklorist means my primary goal is to look at the creative acts of everyday people. And in working with Latinx communities, that means that my perspective is one of examining art as a form of social resistance and place making for people who have been historically, socially, and economically marginalized in the narratives of ideal Americanness. But it also means that the primary interlocutor in this study is the practice itself—and being open to following the practice and its variations into a variety of different ideological and physical places.

Rachel Valentina González is an assistant professor of Mexican American and Latina/o studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She was a Woodrow Wilson Early Career Fellow and is the coeditor of Race and Cultural Practice in Popular Culture.