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Dressed in an elaborate coral gown,15-year-old Lesly Luna wore a smile Saturday nearly as large as her crown.
It was her day — the day she had dreamed about for as long as she could remember. The day she celebrated her transition from child to woman.
But perhaps the best part of her special day was sharing this moment and culture with her community and friends, many of whom had never heard of quinceanera, much less attended one.
Hundreds of people gathered inside the Neligh American Legion, which resembled both a wedding and a ballroom thanks to the white table clothes, chair covers, decorations, balloons, large cake and head table.
“I’ve never seen anything like this for a birthday” was heard nearly as often as “Have you ever been to one of these?” was asked.
All the while Lesly smiled. She greeted everyone as they entered — not missing a single person who came to share in her special day.
“How do I explain a quinceanera,” Lesly said the night before her big day. “It’s a new stage in our life with friends and family. It’s hard to explain everything. I think people will understand when they see it.”
A Long History
With cultural roots in Latin American, the celebration of a female’s 15th birthday dates back centuries. While uncertainty lingers as to when or where the first quinceanera occurred, the tradition itself remains key those with Latin American heritage, especially for the Luna family, who moved to Neligh in 2008 when Lesly was just a first grader.
The daughter of Leonardo and Virginia Luna, Lesly said she remembers walking around the Neligh-Oakdale track in elementary school with classmates planning her quinceanera. But as her 15th birthday neared, Lesly had second thoughts.
“I wasn’t going to have it because I thought I’d get judged and people would think it was a little girl thing,” she admitted.
The dress, the crown, dancing with a doll. They were all reasons why Lesly nearly called it off. But after many talks with her parents, they decided to celebrate her culture and share it with her friends, who found out firsthand just how serious a quinceanera is to her culture.
“I was really surprised by the time and effort they put into this. It’s bigger than a wedding,” said Elly Herley, who was one of 11 females and seven males in Lesly’s court of honor.
Similar to a wedding party, the girls wore matching dresses and the boys tuxedos. But serving on the court also meant dedicating about six months and 100 hours each to rehearsals for the surprise dance, which was a performance during the reception.
While learning all of the dances was challenging, the biggest issue was simply making time for the months of rehearsals.
“It’s been difficult scheduling time for practices, but it was definitely worth it,” said Christian Carothers. “It’s really an incredible experience, and the dancing has been my favorite part.”
Sharing The Culture
Both Elly and Christian said they knew very little about a quinceanera until they were invited to the court.
“There have been a lot of questions,” Lesly said. “A lot of ‘Why do you do this?’ or ‘Why that?’ ”
Many of the same questions were echoed Saturday by the parents and grandparents of those in the court, along with those invited from their church and from the community. Everyone was eager to try the food and were anxious to watch the surprise dance that they had heard so much about.
At the same time, guests were welcomed with open arms by Lesly’s family as they graciously shared their culture with her friends from school and their families.
“My culture is really welcoming. I asked people at school if they were coming and some said they didn’t get invited. I didn’t know (to do that) because everyone just goes. It’s a different culture,” she said.
Lesly’s Style Of Quinceanera
Although traditions have changed over the years, there are certain aspects of a quinceanera that remain key, including the Catholic mass followed by the celebratory reception, where the father changes her shoes to heels, the mother places a crown on her head, she dancing with her last doll, she dancing with her father, then with godparents and those who played key roles in her quinceanera. Finally, a toast wishing everyone well.
Even as a little girl planning her day, Lesly included her friends, nearly all of whom she described as American and knew little of a quinceanera. Fittingly, her special day included them in nearly every aspect.
“It’s a joint party,” Lesly said with a laugh. “My family is in Texas and Oklahoma, and there are just more Mexicans down there. So I live in Neligh, and these are my friends. I feel like I’ve picked the right people, and we’ve had a great time.”
The court — which also included Lesly’s escort, classmate Hunter Charf — was made up of friends and her 16-year-old brother, Jose. Although not part of the court, her other siblings were also part of the event, including Leonard, 12; Jaquelin, 10; and Fernando, 2 months.
Lesly’s friends learned many dances during the six months, from the traditional waltz to the much-newer wobble, as they prepared for the surprise dance as well as the celebration. There was practice, planning and much more to pull of the event, and it took its toll on Lesly.
“There were times I wanted to be done and say no,” she admitted. “It’s been stressful, especially with sports and homecoming. I decided to go out for volleyball and one-act coming up made it difficult to schedule practices. It was stressful, and sometimes I just cried and didn’t want to do it anymore.”
Lesly said despite all of the struggles, her parents continued to encourage her and remained positive. And it was all worthwhile as she celebrated her quinceanera dreams came true.
While it was new to most of those attending, it won’t be the last for Antelope County. After all, Lesly has a little sister.
“Now we’re justing waiting for my sister,” Lesly said with a laugh. “Five more years, and we can do this again.”