Breaking the Bank: Fifteenth Birthday Parties in Cuba / Ivan Garcia
Posted on March 31, 2015
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
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.
Source: Breaking the Bank: Fifteenth Birthday Parties in Cuba / Ivan
Garcia | Translating Cuba - http://translatingcuba.com/breaking-the-bank/