The lines were drawn, and the sides were dug in deep, the yawning gulf between their positions near unbridgeable. Gisela Quiroz imagined her daughter Karen Rodriguez in Canada, visiting waterfalls, walking city streets, chattering in newly fluent English. Karen pictured herself in a dress of blue tulle and rhinestones, presiding over 250 guests as a band played in an elegant event hall in their hometown of Veracruz.Touring the vast, glitter-encrusted hallways of the 15Fest exposition in Mexico City not long ago, the family had a conflict to resolve. Would Karen commemorate her quinceanera, her 15th birthday, with a party or an educational trip abroad? Karen herself observed with a desultory shrug that her parents hold the veto – "they're paying."
But as she raked her eyes over the commercial exhibit of all things quinceanera – a welter of tiered cakes and shimmying dance troupes and flocks of live models wearing voluminous sparkling gowns – there was a certain set to Karen's slender jaw that suggested this battle would not be so easily resolved.
The quinceanera is among Mexico's more cherished cultural traditions, but like much else in this country, it is changing quickly. More and more girls are opting to take a trip, for example, instead of marking the milestone with a party, for which a middle-class family typically pays the equivalent of about $15,000. A whole section of the recent exhibition at the World Trade Centre was devoted to tour companies.
Salgado, the director of Ola Tours, who spent some time trying to persuade Ms. Quiroz about the merits of a European excursion (while Karen drummed her fingers on her knees), said that when the company first opened nearly 50 years ago, it was just a handful of wealthy girls who chose Europe. Then the practice spread slowly to the middle class – but today it's low-income families who are most keen to forgo the "presentation to society" and instead make sure their girls see the world, he said.
"In Mexico today, the poor are not so poor and the traditions are not so traditional," Mr. Salgado drawled, keeping one practised eye on the crowd as he looked for mothers or fathers who might be susceptible to his pitch.
It runs like this: first, that a party is for just a day – just a few hours, really – whereas the effects of an educational excursion will be felt for a lifetime. Second: "A trip is for your daughter, a party is for the all the people who are invited." He means, not to put too fine a point on it, gossip: everyone who's invited (and plenty of people who aren't) will talk about what kind of food, decorations and entertainment you have at your party, and how they stack up against all the others; the only person who knows how her trip went is your daughter.
Third, money: His 27-day trip to Europe costs €8,000 (about $12,400). "For a party, you will spend €10,000 or more. For a trip, you know what you're spending once you sign the contract. For the party, you will spend more and more and you don't stop spending until the lights are turned off in the ballroom."
15Fest offered parents a breathtaking array of opportunities to spend money. There were the standards, of course – food and music and
gilt-spackled invitations – and also the new necessities. "You have options with photography – you can get a drone to film the whole party," explained Margarita Leon, who was in charge of sales for 15Fest, "and you can rent a venue that comes with a social-media influencer." Yes: For a price, an event hall will include a YouTube star or an Instagram sensation who will live-hashtag the party.
But the centrepiece of the event, of course, is the dress (or dresses – some birthday girls will change into as many as five over the evening.) The dress sales stands were the biggest in the hall (they run the designers as much as $35,000 for the weekend exhibit). One had a dozen live models; when a parent signed a contract for a dress, and put down the 30-per-cent deposit, all of the models gathered around the daughter and one placed a tiara on her head as they chanted in a chorus, " Princesas si existen!" – princesses do exist! Diana Ramoneda, 16, was modelling a royal-blue dress studded with rhinestones. She didn't have a quinceanera last year, opting instead to take a short trip with her dad on her actual birthday, and bank the promise of a longer one to the Caribbean this year. She has no regrets – "a party is only for one day and a trip you remember forever," said Ms. Ramoneda, who hopes to go to medical school and become a surgeon. But that meant she never got the dress, and so she was delighted when a photographer friend hooked her up with the modelling gig. "It's really not that uncomfortable," she said, expertly shoving her giant skirt out of the way of a passerby. "Actually, the truth is that I love it."
Ms. Ramoneda was modelling for Amaraby, one of the highest-end design houses in Mexico. Designer Amaraby Munguia presided over a huge silvery stand, wearing a harried air and dark suit decorated with a rhinestone Napoleonic broach on its breast pocket.
Amaraby (he uses just the one name), 34, saved up to do a course at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, with ambitions of life as an evening-wear designer. Whipping out his phone, he showed off pictures of the clothes he makes that are closest to his heart – angular, stark evening dresses in greys and gilts and whites – the complete opposite, in short, of his quinceanera dresses. "This is the passion of girls in Mexico," he said resignedly, "so I do what I can to make them look as good as I can."
He draws customers of Mexican origin from the United States; that Saturday, he had one from New York – a girl who had decided her dress must be embroidered with crystals. It will cost US$2,700. "She had an even higher budget, but I refused to go higher – I thought it was a barbarity," he said.
Amaraby does his best to steer his young customers into dresses that will be flattering. "I give them advice – and they listen – they trust me, because I make them look good," he said. "But, look, if a girl has a dream, she will follow it and you have to make it look as good as possible. You do what you can."
Outside the bank of fitting-rooms at his stand, Samantha Gaytan, 14, was frowning at her reflection in the mirror, tugging at the corseted bodice of a peach dress with a vast tulle skirt. She took a few pictures with her phone, then wrestled her way back into the cubicle to take it off.
"I liked it, but I didn't love it," she said, when she emerged from the cubicle. Too pink? Too puffy? No. Too minimalist. "I want more ," she said. Her mother, Ana Valdez, nodded with understanding. An Amaraby salesperson assured her that they could make that dress for her – same colour ("it's coral," Samantha said firmly) but bigger skirt.
Samantha is expecting 200 people at her party, and she and her parents are in agreement about the event. "It's also about the process behind the party," said Ms. Valdez, who is a secretary at the American Express headquarters in the capital – about outings like their visit to the expo. "You visit lots of event venues, you see lots of dances and performances – you do a procession in convertible cars, in your dress, on La Reforma [a central boulevard in the city] and it really cements your friendships." She's been saving money for the party for the past six months, and her brother will help pay, Ms. Valdez said.
Now, Samantha has 10 months to plan. "You have your dreams and expectations and then you have to make it happen," she said, the businesslike tone creeping back into her voice.
At the next stand over, Brenda Meza, 13, was gazing wistfully at a dress made of rainbow tulle. At US$1,250, it will gobble up a chunk of the budget set by her mother, Elizabeta, a bank clerk. But her aunt Guadalupe Meza was egging them on. "She's only going to turn 15 once in her life!" she said. "Our daughter is becoming a woman!"
Brenda will wear the rainbow dress only one night, but her aunt pointed out that she still has her own, from 28 years ago, in her closet, and it makes her happy every time she looks at it.
In the Meza family, the conflict was not around whether to have the party, but what kind it should be. "A lot of my friends don't want quinceaneras – because they don't want their family and their friends in the same place," said Brenda, who has blue braces and lanky limbs. She wants a Harry Potter theme, and there is a debate about music: Brenda wants English pop, her aunt said with an eye roll of her own – Justin Bieber and the like.
Brenda, protesting, attempted to explain: Parties these days aren't about the community and society, they're about being with your friends. Her aunt
tsked. Elizabeta interrupted. "What matters is that she's happy and has fun."
The Quiroz-Rodriguez family, meanwhile, was touring the booths. Karen, in a jaunty headband with a bow, was developing a negotiating position – party and trip. A small, affordable party. She had spotted "a reasonable blue dress with a reasonably sized skirt."
Her mother, however, was unpersuaded. "Three weeks in Canada would be cheaper than a party – there is no cheap party."