Three hours north of Mexico City, in the state of Querétaro, the quaint little town of Tequisquiapan sits amidst dusty farmland and desert scrub. The thermal baths for which it was once famous dried up years ago when the water table dropped but it remains a popular weekend retreat for well-heeled Mexicans from the capital who come to play golf and waddle around in shorts and sandals. It’s a little shabby and worn but all the more charming for it. The central square is flanked by arcades of shops and adorned with manicured hedges, a bandstand and a pretty, pink sugared almond of a church. In the rambling neighbourhoods, trees and telephone wires hang with scraps of bunting from religious festivals.
I’m staying with Juli and Pete who speak Spanish with Leicestershire accents and know more about Mexico then anyone I’ve ever met. They’re impossibly kind. I’ve been here all of 5 hours and they’ve already got me an invite to a birthday party and a present to take along. It’s not just any birthday either but a 15th, a quinceaños, celebrated throughout Latin America as the point at which a girl makes the transition into womanhood, the point at which, traditionally, she might take a husband or choose to live a life in the service of God.
The afternoon begins with the religious side to the proceedings which involves an uncomfortable half hour sat in a stiflingly hot church, with the whirr of inadequate fans, feeling my shirt grow damp and watching dust hang in the yellow light of the stained glass windows. Dani, the quinceañera, kneels before the priest while he delivers his sermon about boyfriends and the virtues of a godly life. There are vows and dedications to The Virgin and then it’s out into the sunshine and off to the party at a nearby hotel for tacos and cake and dancing.
It’s a lavish affair. There’s a marquee, a free bar and French pâtisserie. There’s even a chocolate fountain and, in a delightful twist, a second of chamoy, a sickly sweet chilli sauce that Mexican children seem to eat with everything. Dani and her friends take to the stage and perform a dance routine to the backdrop of something whiney and forgettable by Jennifer Lopez. A performance is expected at a quinceaños and I’m told they’ve been practicing for weeks. Then comes the waltz, the emotional climax, in which the quinceañera dances with her father and the rest of her male relations. A stooped old man with a bewildered look is lifted to his feet by his grandsons so that he can take his turn amidst much rummaging for tissues and dabbing of tearful, mascara marked cheeks.
Behind all the glitz and the glamour, the elaborate outfits and the expense, the 40-year-old women in tight-fitting leather whose husbands strut around with their BlackBerries out, there’s something very moving about the Quinceaños and its demonstration of the centrality of family in Mexican life. In fact, it’s probably one of the nicest birthday parties I’ve ever been to — though I’ll never understand chamoy. Give me jelly and ice cream any day.
– Thomas Rees