Marcela Guevara smiled as she swayed in a puffy red sequin dress across the dance floor of a Maryland event hall before dozens of guests cheering her on. It was the moment she had dreamed of since she was a little girl, and yet it hadn’t come like she’d expected.

The year leading up to her quinceañera party — a coming-of-age celebration of her 15th birthday to mark her transition from childhood into womanhood — had been a trying one. The pandemic meant no soccer practice or dance classes. School was entirely online. Missing her friends, she found herself struggling with depression and anxiety.

“Suddenly my entire life changed,” she said. “I could not focus on my online classes and didn’t want to do or see anyone.”

Her family weighed not having a party at all. But as vaccines became available, and life began returning somewhat to normal, they decided they could not let their daughter miss out on a cultural milestone.

“This is it! I am no longer a girl, I am a jovencita now,” Guevara said, using the Spanish word for young woman, after dancing on a recent weekend with her guests.

Ashley Servin danced to the “Butterfly Waltz” with her court during her quinceañera celebration in Hamilton, Va., on Sept. 4. (Paulina Villegas)

As social interactions were reduced to a minimum last year due to the pandemic, many teenagers missed out on experiences central to adolescence: high school graduations, prom dances and even the simple act of hanging out with friends.

But for some Latina teenagers, the coronavirus also meant losing the chance to experience one of the most significant events of their lives — becoming a young woman in the eyes of society and celebrating it with a grand party that is a hallmark tradition for Hispanic families in the United States and throughout Latin America.

Now, many families in the D.C. area are deciding the celebration must go on. The parties are smaller. Vaccines are required or encouraged. And the dresses sometimes face shipping delays. But much like weddings that have resumed, even as cases linked to the delta variant rise, some parents and teens feel the potential risks can be mitigated.

“We did it,” Jose Wilfredo Medrano said as he watched his stepdaughter dance underneath neon purple lights. “After all the struggle and uncertainty, we made it.”

Medrano and his wife, Hildaura Guevara, both originally from El Salvador, were as ecstatic as they were relieved that the highly anticipated celebration took place. For Marcela’s mother, the event was especially meaningful. Over a decade ago, she’d fled Central America to escape an abusive relationship, she said, leaving then 4-year-old Marcela in her sister’s care.

It took six years of working double shifts at restaurants to save enough money to hire a smuggler to bring her daughter to the United States in 2016. After being held for two months in an immigration detention center, she made it safely and began a new life in Maryland.

Over the past five months, Hildaura Guevara worked as a cook in two restaurants without taking a day off to raise the $20,000 needed for the party.

“It is an achievement for me to be able to demonstrate to other moms that you do not always need a man to achieve things, that you can be a woman and get things done, raise your children, work hard and give them a better life than the one you had,” she said.

She said she trusted that most of the maskless guests at the party had been vaccinated. Addressing the crowd, Medrano thanked God for keeping the “virus at bay.”

On the dance floor, Marcela’s little cousin handed her a white stuffed bear — a visual representation of the childhood she is leaving behind. Then mother and daughter danced and embraced in tears.

The coronavirus has disproportionately affected Latino communities. Hispanics have been at a higher risk of infection, hospitalization and death from the virus than most other racial and ethnic groups in the United States, according to data gathered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

At the same time, they have suffered more economic hardship than most American adults. According to a Pew Research Center study released in July, about half of the Latinos interviewed said they or someone close to them had lost a job or taken a pay cut since February of last year.

Like other big events, quinceañera celebrations more or less vanished last year. In 2021, organizers say there are still far fewer than normal, but they are slowly trickling back. Two aspects make the parties especially challenging to hold: Tradition dictates that there should be dozens if not hundreds of people attending, and families spend up to $30,000 to host them, a big hurdle for those still reeling from the pandemic’s financial losses.

Some venues are refusing to host such large gatherings, noting the risk of coronavirus spread. During her party, Marcela could not help worrying that someone would get sick, but two weeks later, the family was unaware of any cases tied to their celebration.

“I was scared,” she said. “But it was important because more than a party, it is a years-long tradition.”

As in the past, many families are relying on extended relatives and friends to split the costs.

At a recent party in Hamilton, Va., Ashley Servin danced to the “Butterfly Waltz” before about 200 guests as six escorts dressed in sand-toned suits moved to the music around her. She and her parents — both immigrants from Mexico — said about 10 venues declined to host the party. Some dance halls had capacity limits of 80 people or refused to hold large events, noting the coronavirus surge in several Virginia counties since July.

“I feel really happy, it is a really special day,” Servin said, batting thick, Minnie Mouse-like eyelashes donned for the event. “I feel like a princess.”

Azucena Verdín, an associate professor at Texas Woman’s University, said the tradition is important not only for the birthday girl but also for her immediate and extended family, and the community as a whole, as cousins, padrinos, and close friends all participate.

“It allows them to show that even through recessions and pandemics, we can call on our family, and extended family, and come together, help each other and continue to honor our culture,” she said.

And for those who will not get the chance to participate in the tradition and look back one day at this moment, “it can create an ambiguous loss and a sense of grief,” Verdín added.

At Servin’s quince, a man with a thick mustache dressed in a mariachi suit entertained the guests.

“Viva México!” he said, prompting cheers and applause.

After dinner was served, Ashley’s father, Ricardo Servin, removed the pink Vans she had worn to the party and replaced them with a pair of sand-colored stilettos — in representation that she would walk back home that night as a young woman.

For some families, the tradition is so important that they are holding quinceañeras a year late, when their daughters are turning 16.

Jessenia Contreras, originally from El Salvador, started planning and saving money for her daughter’s party back in 2018. In April of last year, everything was ready for the celebration: the venue, dress, music all chosen. But with short notice, the celebration had to be canceled as a mysterious virus ravaged the country.

Her daughter Tania Torres was devastated.

Contreras later lost an aunt and a brother to the virus. Her daughter became unfocused, apathetic and spent most of her time looking at videos on her phone.

“The whole experience deeply affected her,” the mother of five said. “Our daughters were just not prepared for something like this.”

And so Contreras prayed for things to get better and for the opportunity to throw a delayed quinceañera celebration this year. Several weeks ago, more than 200 guests gathered in Montgomery County, Md., and danced to bachata music.

For many teen Latinas, born in the United States to migrant parents who fled poverty or violence, the quinceañera is also a chance to celebrate their success in an adopted country.

As a little girl born in central Mexico, Griselda Rubio, Ashley’s mother, dreamed she would one day get to wear a Cinderella-like dress and have a big party like many of her friends did. But her parents had to raise six siblings and could not afford it, she said.

As guests danced away to salsa music last weekend, Ashley stared at her mother, who jubilantly greeted guests.

“My mom did not get to have one,” she said. “But she has it now.”