Super sweet fifteen

quinceanera 1Where I grew up in California, Saturdays were for Quinceaneras (why won't WordPress accept the letter n with a tilde?). If you drove by the Catholic church at the right time, you'd see what looked like a wedding party pouring out. The Associated Press' Eric Gorski uses the hook of Quinceaneras to discuss how the Roman Catholic church in America is embracing its changing identity:

An elaborate coming-of-age ritual for Hispanic girls on their 15th birthday, the Quinceanera has long been divisive in the U.S. Catholic Church, where it's viewed as either an exercise in excess or a great opportunity to send a message about faith and sexual responsibility.

The latter view won an important endorsement last summer, when the Vatican approved a new set of prayers for U.S. dioceses called Bendicion al cumplir quince anos, or Order for the Blessing on the Fifteenth Birthday.

Consider it an acknowledgment of the changing face of American Catholicism. Hispanics account for nearly 40 percent of the nation's 65 million Catholics and 71 percent of new U.S. Catholics since 1960, studies show.

In Denver, Gorski reports the archdiocese views the celebrations as a way to fight teen pregnancy. Before the Quinceanera Mass, girls and their parents have to complete a four-week course on Catholicism and chastity:

In Mexico and other Latin American countries, the Quinceanera once signaled that a girl was officially on the marriage market. The downside to that legacy: The Quinceanera Mass is sometimes seen as sexual coming-of-age moment.

Although teen pregnancy rates have generally been in decline across ethnic lines over the last 15 years, 51 percent of Hispanic teens get pregnant before age 20, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.

Gorski has a talent for telling stories rich with details. He gets good quotes from girls going through the classes as well as theologians. He also explains how the quinceanera industry has gotten completely out of control. I'm sure I'm not alone in watching MTV's decadent My Super Sweet 16 show. Apparently the over-the-top coming-of-age ceremony is not limited to a few bratty teens:

A $400 million-a-year industry has sprouted up catering to Hispanic immigrants seeking to maintain cultural traditions while showing they've made it in their new countries, offering everything from Quinceanera planners and cruises to professional ballroom dancers to teach the ceremonial waltz.

At the same time, the ritual is a point of tension with the Catholic church because Catholic families want their faith to be part of the celebration yet it isn't a sacrament, like marriage.

Read the whole thing. Like many good religion stories, it's complex and intersects with sociology and economics.

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