Cuba’s sweet 15 endures in crisis

A gaggle of photographers, relatives and fashion advisors traipse after Yuniesky Collazo as she twirls for the camera in a rented pink ball gown in one of Havana’s picturesque plazas.

She is celebrating her quinceanera, or 15th birthday, a sacred rite of passage in Cuba and much of Latin America. “I’m so emotional, you can imagine,” she gushes as she steps into a horse-drawn carriage for the next shoot. “It’s the most important moment of my life.”

The elaborate festivities are also a drain on family finances, often costing more than a year’s salary.

Yuniesky’s parents say they opened a bank account as soon as she was born and have been saving ever since for this day. “It was a big sacrifice,” she admits. “They had to work hard to give this to me.”

In Cuba, a girl’s sweet 15 often starts with a photo and video shoot showing her transformation from teenage princess to a young adult.

If her family can afford it, she dons traditional dresses, lace gloves, parasols and tiaras – and poses in front of colonial churches or in the back of 1950s convertible cars. And then she sheds most of those clothes for more risque portraits that might make some parents squirm. Some romp in the waves in a bikini while others don thigh-high boots and black leather.

And for the better off families, the big day ends with a dress ball more elaborate than a wedding.

“Parents, especially mothers, enjoy this day,” says wardrobe assistant Daisy Gonzalez. “They make sacrifices. They want the best for their girls. One dress isn’t enough, they want three or four or more.” A running joke explains it like this: In Cuba, you’ll get married numerous times. But you only turn 15 once.

A blow-out quinceanera can set parents back $2,000, a fortune in a country where salaries average $20 a month. The global economic crisis has taken its toll on Cuba. But it hasn’t dampened enthusiasm for this beloved coming-of-age. “All girls have this dream, to celebrate their 15th,” says proud father Roman Gonzalez. “Whether they’re poor or rich, they will celebrate it.”

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Photo: Robin Thom’s photostream at

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