The 15th Birthday in Cuba: Dreams and Expenses

The day arrived. On January 30th, Rogelio Sarduy and Maritza López woke up very early in the morning to finish up all the details of Yailén’s – their only daughter – fifteenth birthday party.

Nervous and glad they were running all over Havana. In a little notebook, they had written down the pending to do’s. See if the man in charge of baking the cakes has them ready. Keep calling to confirm the attendance of the TV anchorman hired to be the emcee.

Everything started twelve years ago when, with endless patience, the parents started saving – in the pocket of an old coat – part of the money being sent by their relatives on the other side of the Florida Strait.

“We deprived ourselves of many things, but we always had in mind a huge party for our daughter. And it paid off. She ended up being a good student and very well mannered; she deserves all the sacrifices we have made,” said the happy parents, a few hours before their daughter reached the age of dreams.

It’s a Cuban tradition that upon reaching their fifteen birthday, teenagers are showered with enormous parties that include choreographed dances, dances with long gowns and endless sessions of photos and videos. Even the poorest people work wonders to celebrate that important birthday. That tradition is not followed with male children, though.

A juicy private business has been born surrounding these quinceañeras (the birthday girl), especially in Havana. Now, take notes. The Sarduys paid $110 convertible pesos for two photo albums, shot in two different locations. For six hours in an upscale ballroom in the capital, $150 convertible pesos. Add on $600 in food, beer, appetizers, desserts and the elegant cakes.

As if that wasn’t enough, a week prior to the party, on top of buying sets of clothes and shoes for Yailen, they spent $900 convertible pesos for a weekend in a hotel in Varadero (the famous beach 100 km East of Havana), the three of them together. The young man that created the ball’s choreography for 15 couples charged them $60.00. But the TV anchor ended up being more pricey: $100.00.

The hard currency pipeline didn’t shut down there. Renting several taxis and minibuses was almost $300. After gulping down a big shot of Havana Club Añejo 7 Años, the father smiles. He doesn’t believe the time to sit down and do the math has come. Although, off the record, he says, “Here and there, we have spent $4,000 convertible pesos, all the money we had saved for 12 years.”

Just to put it in context: the equivalent of $4,000 convertible pesos is $100,000 Cuban pesos. That is the money earned by a professional in 14 years of work, assuming he gets paid 600 Cuban pesos a month (around 24 dollars) or about 7,200 a year.

As you can imagine, not everybody in Cuba can do what the Sarduys just did. But, in the name of celebrating their daughter’s fifteenth birthday, even poor families spend what they can not afford, sinking themselves in debt.

It’s the tradition. Maybe in Europe and other parts of the world this could be seen as kitsch and senseless: spending the money they don’t have on superficial parties, where photo shoots with the girl posing as an international top model are common.

There are only a handful of Cuban families who, despite not having enough to eat and having only coffee for breakfast, do not overspend on that day. Other sell valuable items, borrow money and go into debt. Whatever it takes. Anything to celebrate the daughter’s quinceañera.

Next morning, with an empty wallet, a hangover and the happiness of having thrown the best party in the neighborhood, is when life really slaps you in the face. In those moments, the Sarduys resort to a very particular philosophy. “Tomorrow will be another day,” says Sarduy, while he watches, emotionally, the video recording of his single child. “It is worth it. It is a party that you celebrate only once in your life.”

Iván García

Note: This post, published in El Mundo/America under the title “Extravagant fifteen birthday parties in the midst of Cuba’s poverty” has more than 200 comments. While reproducing it in this blog, we enriched with two different chronics on the same topic: My 15 and Yania’s 15.

Translated by Cubanita / M.Salabarria