A Rite of Passage, A Slice of Tradition

At Nadia Salazar's quinceañera, celebrated in Silver Spring, relatives and friends are about to surprise the 15-year-old birthday girl with a faceful of frosting.
At Nadia Salazar's quinceañera, celebrated in Silver Spring, relatives and friends are about to surprise the 15-year-old birthday girl with a faceful of frosting. (By Mark Finkenstaedt For The Washington Post)
By Walter Nicholls
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Last fall, Mary Totti started planning her daughter's elaborate 15th birthday celebration, or quinceañera (pronounced KEEN-say-ahn-YAY-ra), a cultural and religious rite of passage that is a momentous occasion for many Latin American families.

"Here you do a sweet 16," said Totti, who comes from Bolivia. "In our culture, a quinceañera is very important to us. It's a presentation to society. She is a princess that night."

With the help of friends and $7,000 she and her husband had saved, Totti, a Silver Spring resident and purchasing agent for a furniture store, targeted the big day, which was Aug. 12. She found a rental ballroom, party favors and just the right dress for her daughter, Nadia Salazar, who will be a sophomore this fall at Wheaton High School.

But then came the problem with the quinceañera cake.

To understand the importance of the cake, one must appreciate the importance of the quinceañera itself. As Totti put it, the birthday is a kind of coming out.

Traditionally, the birthday girl wears a formal gown, a jeweled tiara and her first pair of high heels. Like a bride, she is attended by a "court" of 14 friends -- seven boys and seven girls, in outfits that complement hers. The festivities include a church ceremony followed by a dinner, dancing and the cutting of a fancy cake.

In this country, it's estimated that 400,000 girls of Latin American ancestry turn 15 each year, and approximately 25 percent of them celebrate with a quinceañera, according to Will Cain, publisher of Quince Girl, a national magazine that covers fashion and party trends.

And with more than 576,000 Hispanics in the Washington area, according to the most recent Census Bureau figures, everything needed for a quinceañera is available at specialty stores in the region.

In Totti's case, she knew exactly the kind of cake she wanted for her daughter: a typical Bolivian quinceañera cake.

"I wanted a simple cake, with layers of white cake filled with dulce de leche [cooked sweetened condensed milk] and maybe chopped nuts, with a whipped-cream topping stiffened with sugar," she says. A doll dressed in a copy of the ivory-and gold-colored gown her daughter would wear would go on top.

Not any cake would do. "Most cakes in this country are really sweet and have too much frosting and filling of fruit or jam," she says.

So Totti and her daughter decided to fly in a baker friend from back home in La Paz to create the perfect cake. But in a twist of fate, three days before the party was to take place, the baker could not get a visa. The hunt for a last-minute substitute from a local bakery was on.


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