Turning 15 can mean big money.
For thousands of Latino girls in metro Atlanta, their 15th birthday marks the passage from childhood into young womanhood and by tradition, a serious party is in order. Their families can spend an average of $10,000 for celebrations, called quinceañeras, that their daughters will never forget.
Despite the recent slumping economy and the state’s tougher immigration laws, these celebrations and the businesses that profit from them have thrived in the metro area, especially in Cobb, Gwinnett and DeKalb counties. They generate millions of dollars into the local economy, according to local officials and business owners.
“We believed we wouldn’t being doing any business at all (during the recession),” said Gustavo Gonzalez, a partner at La Mansion, a lounge in Chamblee where many quinceañeras are celebrated. “But our halls keep being rented, the photographers were being hired and the parties continued to be made. Perhaps with a little less luxuries, but the quinceañera parties continued.”
It is difficult to track how much money is generated by the celebrations each year because all of the businesses needed to throw a successful quinceañera — caterers, jewelers, banquet halls, livery services, party planners and dressmakers.
However, Georgia’s Hispanic population continues to grow and last year had a purchasing power of $16 billion, according to the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia.
On the national level, non-Latino businesses have begun courting quinceañera dollars. Disney World and large travel agencies now offer special packages for families to host their daughters’ party. Some Sheraton hotels specialize in quinceañera planning and catering.
Frank Robletto, a business development director for Carnival Cruise Lines in Miami, said the company doesn’t directly offer packages for quinceañeras. But he works with travel agencies that book the celebrations on Carnival cruises.
Robletto said the number of agencies booking such cruises is growing. He believes the down economy has led more families to opt for quinceañera cruises, where guests pay their own way and host families pay less than for an elaborate gala closer to home.
“The interest is out there,” Robletto said. “The business is still growing.”
Lisa Anders, executive director of the Gwinnett Convention and Visitors Bureau, said that while it’s difficult to quantify economic impact of quinceañeras, there are several new event halls in Duluth, Lilburn and Norcross that cater to that market.
“I would say that the influence of our Hispanic community is being increasingly felt throughout all aspects of our industry — conventions, events, concerts, arts, culture and dining,” Anders said.
While immigrants have imported quinceañeras to Georgia, the rite of passage helps retain ties to their old country. Georgia is home to 853,689 Hispanic immigrants, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, 63 percent of them from Mexico.
“Many families practice this tradition here because they are afraid of losing their children into the dominant culture and they often see women as the ones who transmit culture to their children,” said Maylei Blackwell, associate professor in the Department of Chicano Studies at UCLA. “The quinceañera parties are one of the last opportunities to transmit culture to the children.”
Business leaders say the recent series of immigration reform laws enacted by the state and federal governments did slow the quinceañera business for a few months, but the industry quickly recovered.
Hosting a quinceañera is costly, averaging about $10,000-$15,000, although some are much more. One family is spending tens of thousands of dollars to hold their daughter’s quinceañera at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre in September.
Although hers was not as lavish, Jessica Molina, 15, had been dreaming about her quiñceanera since she was 7.
Held last month, her party cost around $10,000, her parents said. She and her mother, Jessica Perez, a nail technician, planned for six months and cut costs by searching around for the best deals, she said.
Her dress cost $537 and she had about 15 padrinos, or godfathers, who helped with expenses, she said. These family members and friends each put in about $2,000. Padrinos are crucial for most families to be able to host a party.
But for Jessica, a student at Lovejoy High School in Clayton County, it’s all about the party.
“It’s a dream I’ve wanted since I was small,” she said. “It’s important to me because you only turn 15 once.”