All across the American continent Indigenous people practice “coming of age” ceremonies.
There is a brief discussion of the quinceañera in Girlhood in America: An Encyclopedia, Volume 2 (ed. Miriam Forman-Brunell). It highlights pre-colonial roots of the ceremony and quotes Angela Erevia, who dates similar customs back to Mayan and Toltec festivities, in which both male and female fifteen-year-olds were presented to their tribal communities. According to her, this rite honored the young women’s childbearing capacity and thus marked the moment when the young women recognized her womanhood, and more generally the power to procreate. I can’t really comment on the Mayan and Toltec backgrounds, but see parallels between Aztec customs and the quinceañera as well. According to the Encyclopedia:
…the Aztec celebration of a girl’s puberty signified a social shift in her status in society. At the age of twelve or thirteen, the girl could attend two types of preparatory schools, the Calmecac or the Telpucucali. Young women who entered the Calmecac school were prepared to commit their lives primarily to religious service, whereas those attending the school of Telpucucali were primed for marriage. The selected daughters of nobles went to the Calmacac school, where they were taught by priestesses. As part of their rite of passage, the young girls participated in several nightly offerings of incense to the gods, practiced celibacy, and embroidered fine clothing. The daughters of commoners went to the less formal Telpucucali were women known as ichpochtlatoque, „mistresses of the girls“, prepared them for marriage. By fifteen the Aztec girl was ready to leave her parents and teachers and enter the life of adulthood either as a wife or priestess…
A festival honored the young women’s coming of age, and included other women of the community instructing the young adult in her responsibilities and traditions, and presenting gifts. I should add that young men also went to both of these schools, but that male students were rather educated as warriors in the Telpucucali (or Telpochcalli) and as priests/wise-men or noble leaders in the Calmecac. The education in the Calmecac was not necessarily restricted to noble children, although they were far more numerous (see León-Portilla, Aztec Thought and Culture). In contrast to this text I also read about education in these schools beginning for young (at least male) adults of 15 years, which would make sense as well seeing how the quinceañera honors the 15th birthday.
These precursors were in turn strongly influenced by European traditions to form the quinceañera, mixing indigenous with Spanish religious customs, as in art, architecture and other areas. This was connected to the more rigidly defined roles for young women in colonial society.
The quinceañera goes back to Native American traditions, but was transformed in colonial Mexico. Precursors include Mayan rites honoring both male and female powers of procreation, and the end of Aztec female education that led to marriage or priesthood. The Catholic Church in colonial Mexico allowed the quinceañera as a religious ritual, which was connected to the changing role of women in colonial society. Later modifications included a medal of the Virgin of Guadalupe, as well as the influence of French courtly ritual in independent Mexico.
Again from the Encyclopedia: “Now the native young women had a choice of dedicating their lives to the church (most likely the modest life of a nun) or to motherhood”.
The Catholic Church allowed the festivity within the church ritual of the mass itself, using the occasion for socializing the young women in proper behavior as well as preparing them for their roles in society. One religious aspect is a medal given to the young women by close relatives and depicting the Virgin de Guadalupe (according to the Encyclopedia of Latino Culture: From Calaveras to Quinceaneras, ed. by Charles M. Tatum). The Virgin of Guadalupe is a strong symbol for a hybrid Catholicism integrating native symbolism, as the sign of the virgin had according to legend appeared before an indigenous person in 1531. Later on it played an important role in Mexican creole patriotism. Looking further ahead, in the mid-19th c. French influence and the court atmosphere of the Austrian emperor and empress Maximilian I and Carlota were introduced to the quinceañera. Maximilian’s rule was short-lived, but still many of the French customs were kept and elaborated in this period, possibly in connection with the importance of French rituals and language at courts at the time.
Various regions in Mexico added their own local traditions to the festivities over time, which subsequently influenced other Latin American regions and Chicano communities.
These ceremonies are treated as “rites of passage.” For most Indigenous cultures boys and girls both participate in these ceremonies. It is supposed to represent the transition from childhood to adulthood. The girl’s ceremony is usually more elaborate, because it was easier to determine when a girl was “becoming a woman” (menses). The quinceañera can be thought of as a rite of passage for girls who are becoming women. The celebration includes a religious services, a big feast, and sponsors(madrinas/padrinos) of the event. There is a lot of preparation, more than you might expect, to make the celebration come to life.
Much of the planning that goes into the quinceañera is focused on preparing the young girl to enter womanhood, a equal amount if dedicated to the celebration’s festivities. Today a big market has spring up offering solutions for every aspect. Parent’s might feel overwhelmed when they see all of the pieces that can be included. Everything from limousine rides to custom crafted decorations. Sites like quinceanera-invitations.com offer ways to easily create invitations featuring the honree as a movie star or celebrity on the cover of a magazine.
All of these move away from the real meaning of the quinceañera.
Where as they once had a strong cultural, personal, and religious meaning that once aligned with the ceremonies that are practiced by Indigenous people. It is unlikely that the Indigenous people of Mexico had a similar ceremony focused on consumerism. Instead these customs and values went through syncretism with the introduction of a foreign religion and resulted in the quinceañera. I’d definitely recommend the book “Empowerment of North American Indian Girls: Ritual Expressions at Puberty” by Author – Carol A. Markstrom as it gives many examples of the ceremonies that different Indigenous cultures practiced. Although this book is centered on the Apache girls’ rites, it also mentions quinceañeras. I would say that the practice of a puberty ceremony/rite of passage is a pre-colonial practice, and the quinceañera is a result post-colonial syncretism.
Somewhat less popular cincuentañera (which is a bit closer to the 20 years-rule) celebrated for someone’s 50th birthday — I’ll just add that this festivity was initiated by Chicanas as a more traditional celebration only in the 1980s and early ’90s, and followed by male cincuentañero festivals shortly afterwards. It welcomes the honoree to elder status – entering la tercera edad, the third age. Both celebrations mark a change in status and a transition into another stage of life.