For young girls in the Hispanic community, turning 15 is a special occasion that symbolizes their passage into womanhood. To celebrate that transition, families throw a “Quinceañera,” or coming-out party.
With roots dating back to pre-Hispanic traditions, Quinceañeras typically include a religious ceremony meant to strengthen the birthday girl’s Catholic faith. It is the most important day in the girl’s life. Beautiful gowns are purchased, tuxedos are rented, a special venue is reserved and formal invitations are mailed. On the day of the event, the music is selected, the food is delivered, the bouquets arranged, and the young girl’s hair and makeup are fixed to perfection.
These are long-standing traditions, focused on preserving the girl’s faith and values, and they are still honored today.
But today’s Quinceañeras are different in at least one respect; they have become lavish parties that are often characterized by the consumption of large amounts of alcohol, even by underage youth. It’s no secret that underage drinking can have disastrous consequences. A study from the American Medical Association shows underage drinking is a factor in nearly half of all teen car crashes, the leading cause of death among teenagers. Long-term problems can also result; research shows that young people who begin drinking before age 15 are four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence than those who wait until they are 21.
The host of a Quinceañera should at the very least control the access to alcohol and make sure that it is not available to those below the legal age. But even more important, it should also be recognized that alcohol really just detracts from the true meaning of a Quinceañera. The idea behind the event is about trying to set an example for younger generations of Latinas and Latinos, to encourage them to honor their traditions and choose to live a healthy life. The best way to do that would be to leave alcohol out of the event.
This may not be as easy as it sounds. Dr. Eduardo Hernandez, who has written about alcohol use among the Hispanic community, says “Part of the problem is that drinking alcohol at social events like Quinceañeras is more than just a social norm, it’s a cultural norm”.
Research by other noted experts, including Dr. Marilyn Aguirre Molina, professor of social work at Columbia University in NYC, indicates that Hispanics are convivial drinkers, meaning that a lot of Hispanic consumption is in a social or cultural context. This is confirmed by Dr. Hernandez, Deputy Director of Coalition Relations for Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America. “We also know that in certain Hispanic populations, alcohol problems are related to these cultural events,” he said.
Another reason is that a small industry has been built around Quinceañeras. But this isn’t new. For years, Latinos in San Diego, and across the country, have seen the alcohol industry exploit the Hispanic culture and seize holidays such as Cinco de Mayo as a marketing tool to sell their products. And now it’s happening with Quinceañeras. It’s true that some cities, like the City of Chula Vista, do not allow alcohol in their community centers when youth are present. But most of the Quinceañera packages offered at hotels include alcohol and parents get a good deal with them.
With this kind of financial incentive and cultural pressure, parents may feel compelled to provide alcohol at their Quinceañera. Although they may be aware of the consequences of underage drinking, they may feel that such problems can be controlled if the drinking occurs under their supervision. This belief runs contrary to the research, which shows that gatherings where underage drinking is going on can quickly spiral out of control, even if they are hosted by well-meaning parents.
This is why cities throughout San Diego County have passed laws, known as Social Host Ordinances, against anyone hosting a party where underage drinking takes place. These laws require host of parties where alcohol is served to control the amount that is available, verify the age of those who are drinking and make sure that alcohol is not being consumed by underage youth.
Families that provide alcohol for youth at Quinceañeras are in violation of these laws, and they can be assessed fines, community service or even jail time. As an added penalty, they may also have to pay the costs incurred by law enforcement, or other city agencies that responded to the party and provided emergency services. However, many people don’t know about these laws. According to the 2014 Community Survey, only a third of the residents who responded in the South Bay have heard of Social Host Ordinances. So if you are a family member of parents that are hosting a Quinceañera, or even a guest at the event, please inform the hosts about these laws and their legal responsibilities.
Social host laws help reduce problems related to underage drinking, and they provide yet another incentive to have an alcohol-free Quinceañera. But of course the best reason is that you want to model responsible behavior for your daughter, and you want her Quinceañera to focus on the importance of strong values and making healthy choices in life. Since alcohol detracts from this purpose, it just makes more sense to leave it out of the event.
Consider the words of a mother, who recently organized an alcohol-free Quinceañeras for her daughter,
“The party was about her and her friends. No one really missed the alcohol. Having alcohol is too much of a liability and besides, that’s not the message we wanted to relay to the kids. Without alcohol the children had a blast, they danced, they ate, took pictures from the photo booth and created a lot of fun memories. It was a beautiful night that didn’t end with fighting, crying or anyone intoxicated that sometimes ruin parties.”
Parents need to think about following this example. Alcohol is the number one drug of choice for youth, causing more harm and death for young people than all illegal drugs, combined. So make a decision to go against the norms and cultural pressures that say you must have alcohol at your event. Instead make your daughter’s Quinceañera alcohol-free. It’s really the best way to honor your daughter.
Findings from the 2014 Community Survey are representative of non-random samples of San Diego County residents collected in the Winter/Spring of 2014. The data was collected by regional prevention providers contracted with the San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency and analyzed by the Center for Community Research.