It’s a humid day in late July at the Port Everglades cruise terminal in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. A rolling rack of white, custom-designed dresses is carefully ushered through a set of metal detectors by a family of four before being abandoned when the group is presented with the opportunity to take green-screen pictures. After a fleeting photo session, the father and son return to watch over the plastic-covered garments, while the mother and 15-year-old daughter continue to pose in front of a digital image of a cruise ship.
This family is among the 600-plus people carrying similar garment bags, overflowing with white dresses, tiara boxes, and tagged formal wear, and waiting with more than 6,000 other passengers to board the Royal Caribbean’s Harmony of the Seas. At 1,188 feet in length, the vessel is one of the largest cruise ships in the world—with a zip line, ice rink, climbing wall, surf simulator, aqua theater, and an indoor replica of New York City’s Central Park—and it may be one of the coolest places to have your birthday, if you like celebrating aboard a ship with your family and turning 15 alongside 40 other girls.
We are now entering the world of the quinceañera cruise: a mixed bag of ancestral customs and modern re-creations that have a cultured significance unlike any other Latin tradition. This cruise in particular is organized by the Miami-based agency Happy Holidays Travel, a family business that has offered these specialized voyages since 1996. Just one of at least four companies in the area offering quinceañera cruise experiences, the concept itself was first created in 1989 by Miami’s Cordoba Travel, which still operates these popular trips each summer. The families on hand have come from Florida, Puerto Rico and Cuba to take an eight-day trip through the Caribbean and Mexico, pooling their coming-of-age celebrations into a single blowout event: the quinceañera ball.
The quinceañera—the name refers to the young woman taking part but is more understood in the United States as referring to the celebration itself—is a female rite of passage celebrated across Latin America, the Caribbean, parts of Europe, and the United States. Originating in Mesoamerica, the tradition historically celebrated girls’ reaching the age of 15, at which they were deemed ready for marriage. Following Spanish colonization in the 16th century, the ceremony began to incorporate more Roman Catholic elements, including a Mass, followed by a reception of food, drinks, and dancing.
In the most traditional celebrations, quinceañeras must wear a modest, simple, white dress (similar to a wedding gown without the veil) which symbolize their purity and commitment to Catholic ideals. The tradition also includes a court of seven young men (chambelanes) and seven women (damas), who accompany the quinceañera through the ceremony, which often includes a changing of shoes, from flats to heels, and parental presentation of a doll, marking the end of childhood. But these customs can differ from the experiences of many quinceañeras today, whose tastes are rapidly modernizing.
As the quinceañera has withstood countless transformations through its assimilation to the United States, today’s quinceañeras can renew their faith to the church while in a red dress if they so desire, and may give no thought to a husband or boyfriend. Costly celebrations that once took place at hometown banquet halls—where average parties can cost upwards of $10,000—are giving way to more lasting, streamlined events. Costing around $1,000 a person, quinceañera cruises are an increasingly popular alternative to the larger hometown celebrations, and they provide girls an opportunity to celebrate big and in bulk.
After all the quinceañeras make their debuts, a white cake topped with a rose in a bell jar appears, rising from beneath center stage like a pop star.
The Bohigas family, whose total party includes an impressive 59 people, radiate a natural energy of preparedness for their daughter Melanie’s quinceañera. Choosing to celebrate aboard the Harmony of the Seas, they explain, is nothing compared to the 300-plus guests they would have invited had the celebration taken place in their hometown of Miami. This is Melanie’s third quinceañera cruise with Happy Holidays Travel, but her first time attending as a quinceañera herself. “It’s a lot more work,” she says, having prepared for this day for months with her family, rehearsing with fellow quinceañeras, searching for a dress, and deciding on small details.
Most quinceañeras lack knowledge of the tradition’s exact history, so historical components—foggily remembered—often take a back seat. “I think the tradition came from Latin families,” says Nathaly Reyes, a quinceañera from Havana, Cuba. In search of a simple way to describe this tradition to someone who has no idea what it is, Zahayra Florido, a quinceañera from Viera, Florida, shared her best understanding: “Basically it’s a big birthday party—in Spanish.”
Growing up in a small, Mexican American, very quince-less family, I have long been enveloped in the history of the tradition and the multiplicity of ways our community continues to redefine it. The matching shirts given to us by Happy Holidays Travel staff display the interface of an iPhone settings menu that reads “Quinceañera Cruise Mode: ON.” This provides me with the first sign that I am now part of a new family, one that is substantially bigger than I ever had at home—and that I am definitely about to embark on a cruise.
After several hours still at anchor, I entered the club Dazzles, a two-story music and dancing lounge that would serve as the venue for the Happy Holidays private welcome party. Beyond the mirrored doors were smooth velvet chairs and oversize booths filled with tías and babies, half-finished plates of food and unattended swim totes. The quinceañeras made a grand entrance by running down the staircase in sneakers and their corresponding T-shirts, ending in a center-stage formation that overflowed with laughter and dancing. All night the DJ’s speakers rotated through songs by artists such as Ozuna, Nicky Jam, and CNCO.
Though most of the families had never met before, these young women already had history. In the weeks leading up to the sail date, the majority of quinceañeras had traveled to Miami for three mandatory two-hour rehearsals, practicing dances, entrances, and exits. The point of such group activities, explains Maurice Mompoint, the onboard event coordinator for Happy Holidays Travel, is to help create genuine, dependable bonds between fellow quinceañeras who will be sharing the spotlight for the week.
They divide their quinceañeras into two groups—those seeking to wear a traditional white dress and those interested in a dress of any other color. From the girls’ point of view, the choice can send a message about what kind of quinceañera she wants to be—more traditional or more modern.
Mompoint, 38, who has been working in the quinceañera industry since he was 16 years old, explains that the Happy Holidays offers multiple cruise options, one of which includes both traditional and nontraditional styles on the same cruise. Some girls select their cruise based solely on the dress color available that week. In the past, Happy Holidays offered only one cruise with colored dresses per season, but due to popular demand, the company has since changed the majority of its itineraries to welcome the riot of color. On this cruise alone, there are 23 girls in colored dresses, 14 in white.
After a late dinner and our first night on the sea, I arise to the faint sound of high heels on marble tile, accompanied by an orchestra of metal serving utensils from the all-you-can-eat café. It seems as though the whole cruise is awake preparing for the girls’ big moment. Around 11:30 a.m., the quinceañeras in white dresses line up for portraits from the official cruise photographer in the “Central Park” atrium of the ship, followed by the quinceañeras of contrasting apparel. After about two hours of photographs, they are whisked off to the ball.
The ceremony itself is structured around a Beauty and the Beast theme—the 2017 live-action Disney film version—with the girls processing across the stage of the Royal Theater to the song “Belle,” some of them lip-synching along to the lyrics. The quinceañeras are then presented to the audience one by one in Spanish, with an announcement of their favorite color (gold), hobbies and interests (watching Netflix), favorite number (15, of course), and future plans (doctor, teacher). Each receives a rose from her mother, enjoys more solo portraits, and then invites her father for a final dance together. After all the quinceañeras make their debuts, a white cake topped with a rose in a bell jar appears, rising from beneath center stage like a pop star.
The quinceañeras hit their final group position and pause, waiting for Happy Holidays’ three videographers to complete their signature 360-degree shot of the girls, who will each receive a personalized digital video. The 20-some quinceañera dresses on stage work to create a powerful visual, both inescapable and complex. The scene here has also been utilized outside the ballroom, at recent protests against American immigration policies; in June 2017, a group of 15 teenagers gathered outside the Texas capitol building in Austin to protest curtailments of “sanctuary cities” while wearing red and green quinceañera dresses, crowns, and sashes that said “FAMILY UNITY” and “NO RACISM.” In June 2018 a teenager in San Francisco, wearing a bright-pink dress, had her quinceañera at the detention center where her father was being held, dancing with a cousin to protest the absence of her father. Physically and symbolically, the quinceañera dress remains a taproot of confidence, independence, and freedom of expression for Latinx youth.
Following the performance, the groups make their way in a single-file line out of the Royal Theater, through the public atrium and toward the ship’s sumptuous, three-story Main Dining Room. (At one point, more than 300 guests, members of two separate Happy Holidays groups, stretch across almost the entire length of Deck Eight, which spans the length of more than three football fields.) The girls are self-disciplined as they walked in their two respective groups amid the cruise patrons. “Congratulations on the wedding, ladies!” remarks an older couple admiring the row of white dresses. Before any of the quinceañeras can correct her, a middle-aged woman comes to the girls’ defense. “Oh please, it’s their Sweet 16,” she says.
Is holding a quinceañera really that different from having a Sweet 16? Most girls I ask shake their heads no. Although a simple Google search will reveal a world of virtual thought that houses both traditions on the same cultural shelf, Nicole Diaz, of Havana, seems to think otherwise. “I feel like a quinceañera is something that we as Hispanics or Latinos all have in common, which in a way makes us united and proud,” she explains. With reality shows like MTV’s My Super Sweet 16 instilling roles of self-absorption for young women, the quinceañera tradition manages to stay true to its familial roots. “My only wish is for me and my family’s happiness and well-being,” Nicole continues. I take her response to heart, curious whether the confusion between these two traditions might be the result of North America’s failure to create sufficient cultural and spiritual space for Latinx youth to claim.
Costing around $1,000 a person, quinceañera cruises are an increasingly popular alternative to the larger, expensive hometown celebrations, and they provide girls an opportunity to celebrate big, and in bulk.
The final leg of the cruise includes a stopover at Cozumel, Mexico, where the quinceañeras sign up to ride the banana boat at Playa Mia. The visit to Mexico proves to be one of the only organically Latin events that takes place over the course of the trip, with a surprise greeting of mariachis and an endless buffet of local fruit, fresh cemitas, and arroz con leche on offer as we settle in on the beach. At this point, six days into the cruise and four days after the ceremony, many quinceañeras have gotten a tan in Labadee, Haiti; had their hair done in Falmouth, Jamaica; and are now looking for a final token of remembrance from Cozumel. They’ve been photographed to within an inch of their lives but remain warmly interested in the camera that I carry, which they have come to known from our time together. I embrace my new role as the photographer prima of our temporary quinceañera cruise family, and watch the girls run in, then out of frame. I wonder how they will remember their 15th year, or if they will. Debora Castri, a quinceañera from Hialeah, Florida, assures me it will be impossible for anyone here to forget. “It’s not every day a girl turns a new chapter in her life and discovers herself.”