On the way to the Texas Theatre or Mesa, I would pass those quinceañera dresses, propped in the windows along Jefferson Boulevard like fine-spun candy. All fuchsia ruffles and teal pouf.
One day I counted: no fewer than 17 such stores line a roughly 1-mile stretch in Oak Cliff, and, as I would soon learn, Hispanic families travel from as far away as Chicago and Florida to shop there. The Quinceañera Capital, they call it. One sunny Sunday afternoon, I dropped into one. I figured I would charm the employees with my funny gringa ways, and spend the afternoon twirling in front of a mirror in a dozen shades of sparkle power. But instead it was like the scene in the movie where the needle skips off the record as you walk inside. What is the white lady doing here? I chatted up the owner, thinking my plucky girl-reporter routine would win her over, but our language barrier made for rough sledding, and the more questions I lobbed at her, the more desperate she seemed for me to leave. “I don’t know why you’re asking these things,” she finally said, and I left feeling guilty and conspicuous, my dreams of fancy ball gowns in a heap pile on the floor.
Dallas is a segregated town, and, man, I felt it that day. We can tout Dallas’ diversity, our rich cultural stew, but the painful truth is that we often walk on our own sides of the street. My Dallas—a city of upscale coffee shops and yoga studios and other yuppie-liberal conveniences—looks vastly different from the Dallas of a recent immigrant, or of a rich CEO in the suburbs. There are worlds within worlds here. For the next two weeks, I got to know one of them.
A quinceañera is a Latin tradition in which a girl celebrates her coming of age on her 15th birthday (her quince años). As the Hispanic population exploded in America, so did the quince, and a sacred ritual transformed into a major production. Dresses typically cost between $500 and $900, but the whole affair can run between $15,000 and $18,000, according to Cindy Benavides, producer of the annual Quince Girl Expo at Fair Park. (Yes, I attended, and, yes, it was awesome.)
Like bar mitzvahs and weddings, it can all get a little over the top. In her 2007 nonfiction book Once Upon a Quinceañera, Julia Alvarez nicely summarizes her own conflict: “The incredible expense; a girl encouraged in the dubious fantasy of being a princess as if news of feminism had never reached her mami; the marketing of a young lady as attractive, marriageable goods. Why not save money for education?”
And yet it is also the embodiment of every immigrant’s dream: to give your child a better life than the one you were given. “There is a saying in Latin culture,” Jose Alfredo Cerda says. “A wedding can wait, but not a quinceañera.”
Cerda is the owner of LA Glitter. He grew up in Northern Mexico and learned to sew from watching his mother. A computer engineer by training, he saw an economic opportunity in quince gowns and opened what might be the finest store on Jefferson Boulevard. (LA Glitter also has a location on Harry Hines and in Fort Worth and Houston, with plans to open in Arlington and Mesquite.)
His dresses are exquisite. They have the same attention to craft that separates a Valentino from an H&M knockoff. So many quince gowns are mass-marketed by catalogs and made in China, but Cerda’s designs are original and “made here, by Mexican hands.” In fact, photos are now forbidden in the store because customers were taking pictures to other stores and asking them to make cheaper versions.
I tried on a red dress at LA Glitter with approximately a million ruffles. Forget princesses. I felt like I was going to the Oscars. I sent a picture of myself in that gown to way too many people, and I would gently suggest that Cerda has a major business opportunity in marketing to 38-year-old women with delusions of their own music video. Behold: the coming-of-middle-age party.
Actually, Cerda’s market has already expanded. He’s selling the dresses to white and black teens who see the gowns at their friends’ quinceañeras and end up wanting their own. Dallas may be segregated, but a younger generation has a way of blending those edges. Dallas ISD is 68 percent Hispanic, and I suspect the Dallas of the future will look a lot more like Jefferson Boulevard than the West Village. It will look like Cerda’s daughter, Jennifer, who graduated from Plano Senior High and now studies fashion merchandising at UNT. She helps run the store, sliding easily between Spanish and English. She’s smart and beautiful and easy to talk to. I asked about her quinceañera and was surprised to learn that she didn’t have one.
She blushed and said, “Actually, I wanted a car.”