Last Saturday 15-year-olds Jessica Escobar and Jessica Alcaraz had a day fit for a queen.
The two Jessicas emerged from stretch limousines in hoop-skirted ball gowns embroidered with sequins and sparkling beads. They walked nervously down the carpeted aisle of St. Francis of Assisi Church in East Palo Alto with all the pageantry of a bride at her wedding.
This day, however, was the celebration of the quinceanera -- the 15th birthday, when young women in some Hispanic cultures cross the threshold from childhood to womanhood.
"I'm excited," Jessica Escobar said, as her aunt Irma gently set a sequined crown into her dark, elaborately coiffed hair.
Four couples, ages 11 to 18, fidgeted behind her, adjusting white suit jackets and the straps of their fuschia-colored gowns. These escorts, which traditionally number 14, accompany each girl from the limousines into the church and down the aisle, much as bridesmaids and groomsmen in a wedding party.
The quinceanera is a "coming out" in society for the girl, the equivalent of a debutante ball or cotillion, according to Father Lawrence Goode, the presiding priest at Saturday's ceremony.
Although its origins are unknown, the tradition may have Aztec roots, according to some people; others say it is an outgrowth of the French cotillion, coming from when France ruled Mexico in the 1800s. Others claim the tradition was created to honor fathers, since many often died before their daughters married. The quinceanera was a way for the father to experience the pageantry of his daughter's marriage -- without a groom.
Regardless of its origins, girls spend the better part of a year preparing for the quinceanera -- engaging in study for the special Mass of Thanksgiving, learning the waltzes or bailes de vals and performing prescribed rituals.
Often the purview of wealthier Mexican families, the quinceanera in the United States comes with a hefty price tag -- often more than $10,000. Parents often go into debt for the event, according to Escobar's aunt, Maria Avilas. It also marks the financial success of immigrant parents, she added.
Escobar's mother, Rocio Aviles, said she did not have a quinceanera herself, but she wanted to give one to her daughter.
Alcaraz' mother, Maria Vallejo, -- a modest woman wearing a fuschia dress matching the colors chosen for her daughter's celebration -- said she gave the quinceanera to her daughter as a sign of her admiration.
"I wanted to give my daughter a quinceanera to show here how proud I am of her," she said.
No one smiled during the solemn ceremony, but the Mission-style church was not quiet. People filtered in through the first part of the ceremony, making their way to the dark-wood pews; toddlers crawled on the floor; and the babbling of infants echoed in the space.
Saints gazed down from colorful stained-glass windows on pews half-filled with family and friends. Father Goode spoke about the power of faith to guide the girls away from the violence of East Palo Alto life, while the two Jessicas, dressed in virginal white, knelt on reclinatorios -- kneelers decorated with white satin, lace and white flowers.
Relatives came forward to present gifts symbolic of their girls' spiritual and emotional transition: a crown to replace a flower headpiece, denoting that the girl has become a princess before God and the world; a bracelet or ring, representing the unending circle of life and unending emergence of the young woman's abilities and contributions to society; earrings, a reminder to listen to the word of God; a cross, signifying faith in God and self, and a white satin Bible and rosary, important resources for continued spiritual guidance.
The girls each knelt on quinceanera pillow embroidered with her name. Sometimes, girls also receive a scepter as symbols of their adult authority and social responsibility.
The girls, then their families, received communion. A large painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the 16th century apparition of the Virgin Mary called sacred to Mexicans and a symbol of divine motherhood, stood against a wall to the side of the altar. The newly crowned princesses approached the blue-robed Virgin, the Empress of the Americas, clasping bouquets of blood-red roses and red and white carnations, offerings they lay at her feet.
Jessica Alcaraz displayed the first hint of a smile at the end of the procession outside the church. Four male escorts dressed in black suits knelt before her, in supplication of the newly crowned princess. Whisked away in a long limousine, Alcaraz and her entourage went on to celebrate the quinceanera at a party in Mountain View.
At Jessica Escobar's party at the Fair Oaks Community Center in Redwood City, the solemnity of the church was replaced by lively music, food and dancing. Emerging from a white limousine, Escobar stood for photographers amid a drizzling rain. But she was all smiles.
Inside the cinderblock center, tables were laden with flowers. Miniature figurines of the quinceanera, resplendant in gown, crown and scepter, decorated the hall. A three-tiered cake, complete with staircases adorned with 14 figurines of male and female escorts, ascended the tiers toward a replica of the quinceanera, complete with white dress and crown. Soon, the family sat down to a traditional Mexican meal -- arroz con pollo and refried beans.
At 6:30 p.m., Escobar and her escorts filed into the room. It was time for the bailes de vals, a series of three waltzes Escobar and her escorts practiced for months in the chilly parking lot outside St. Francis of Assisi Church. The escorts wended their way around Escobar, who was at the center. Escobar danced first with her cousin Francisco Galvan and then with her godfather and other prominent male relatives.
Before the night was over, Escobar would cut into the elaborate three-tiered cake and drink champagne from a special glass.
But the ultimate symbol of her transition took place when a quince doll or ultima muneca, dressed in a white ball gown, was given to Escobar. The doll was the last she would ever receive. Just as a bride tosses a garter, Escobar tossed the doll to a group of younger girls, symbolizing her final step over the threshold to womanhood.