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Through this series, we examine the disproportionate financial toll of COVID-19 on Black and Latino communities, including how it has affected individuals, families and businesses.

Quinceañeras In Quarantine: Businesses And Dreams Threatened By COVID-19

Maria Ramirez Uribe
At Yolanda's Creations, shelves are filled with decorations for traditionally Latino events. But during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, a majority of these events came to a halt.

Está historia está disponible en español en La Noticia

They had it all planned out. For her quinceañera, Marlena Modica would wear the white gown her grandmother had gifted her oldest sister — one of many family traditions. The day would start with a religious ceremony followed by a large party with friends and family. Modica’s parents would proudly show off their little girl becoming a young lady.

For Modica, who lives in Cornelius, celebrating her quinceañera was about keeping up with a family and cultural tradition. She would step into her two older sisters' shoes and celebrate as they had, with a slideshow showing off her accomplishments in a large banquet hall, and a special father-daughter dance.

Turning 15 and having a quinceañera party is a rite of passage for many Latina girls. This coming-of-age celebration is famous for its extravagant dresses, choreographed dances and traditional cultural customs.

Some girls perform dances with their “chambelanes,” young men who escort the quinceañera. Others are presented with “la última muñeca,” a doll dressed in the same gown as the birthday girl, representing the last doll she will receive as she is no longer a kid.

Families spend years dreaming of and planning the perfect quinceañera. But with the spread of COVID-19 this year, many had to cancel, postpone or reimagine their day.

With her 15th birthday falling on May 14 of this year, Modica was among this unlucky group. As the day approached, she could see that her quinceañera might not happen.

“It was pretty disappointing because all my other sisters had it,” Modica said. ”And I guess I wanted to be included in that, but I wasn't.”

Courtesy of Myra Modica
Myra Modica
Marlena Modica had to cancel her quinceañera party due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, she celebrated with a parade of cars and a photoshoot wearing the white dress her older sisters wore on their special days.

The shutdown not only affected teenage girls and their families but also the industry that’s grown around Latina girls coming of age.

“The initial reaction from everyone, including our team, was panic. You know, what are we going to do?” said Kim Gamez, CEO and founder of Mi Padrino, a mobile and online app for planning traditionally Hispanic events.

Quinceañera celebrations are often compared to weddings. With elaborate dresses, large venues, catering, choreography, music and more, Gamez says these parties rack up an average price tag of $20,000.

As a result, vendors whose businesses revolve around making these teenagers' dreams a reality found themselves in particularly tough situations this year.

“Our poor vendor community. A lot of these businesses are small mom-and-pop shops that aren't necessarily saving for the rainy day,” Gamez said. “When all of their income just kind of left, and then having to, if they were giving back deposits or what have you, I mean, it put a lot of these businesses out of business.”

With hundreds of these quinceañeras happening in North Carolina every year, vendors like Yolanda Plascencia Sánchez have felt the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic firsthand.

Tulle gowns line the aisles of Plascencia Sánchez’s store, Yolanda’s Creations, in Charlotte, and centerpieces and decorations fill the shelves. The store is stocked with everything a quinceañera needs.

However, after the pandemic hit, Plascencia Sánchez had to close her doors for a few months, forcing her into a trying economic situation.

“We depend solely on parties, and we have no other source of income, just the events. If there’s no parties, there’s no sales,” Plascencia Sánchez said. “It was devastating.”

Maria Ramirez Uribe
Yolanda Plascencia Sánchez, owner of Yolanda's Creations, a store dedicated to selling dresses and decorations for traditionally Latino events, poses next to one of the many quinceañera dresses in her store.

Much like Plascencia Sánchez, Mary Romero Baez also felt the devastating effects of widespread quinceañera cancellations.

Romero Baez owns a choreography business in Apex, Sueños de Primavera, where she teaches quinceañeras across the state traditional dances.

“I work really hard and unfortunately that was affected this year, but we’re still here, giving it our all,” Romero Baez said.

According to Romero Baez, the majority of quinceañeras she was planning on working with this year have either canceled or postponed their events. However, a few months ago, she started rehearsals back up in hopes her first quinceañera client will be able to celebrate in December.

Yolanda’s Creations was also able to open its doors back up in May. Plascencia Sánchez says had it not been for government loans through the Paycheck Protection Program, she would have had to close for good. However, despite reopening, she says business is still not back to normal.

Maria Ramirez Uribe
Yolanda Plascencia Sánchez, owner of Yolanda's Creations, says had it not been for financial loans from the government during the coronavirus pandemic, she would have gone out of business.

Plascencia Sánchez said the first couple of months after Yolanda’s Creations reopened, she sold next to nothing. She said one client recently went into the store for her daughter to try on a dress. After Plascencia Sánchez wrapped it up for her, the client said she wouldn’t be able to buy it because she had no money.

On average, Plascencia Sánchez says quinceañeras at her store spend between $700 and $1,500 on their dresses. However, since the pandemic hit, she says, clients aren’t willing to spend more than $600.

“People don’t want to pay all that money,” she said. “They aren’t able to pay all that money.”

Thankfully, Modica already had her dress picked out: The dress her grandmother had bought for the family to pass down was hanging in her closet.

Her mom, Myra Modica, knew she wanted to make her daughter’s 15th birthday in May special and memorable despite the celebration not being as expected. Myra Modica came up with a way to celebrate her daughter’s quinceañera that blended family tradition with social distancing.

Courtesy of Myra Modica
Myra Modica
Marlena Modica cries as she hugs her grandmother for the first time in months on the day of her quinceañera celebration, May 13, 2020.

“The day of my quinceañera, at home, it was a roller coaster of emotions, because there were some surprises that I did not expect,” Modica said. “That day was really special to me.”

She had her hair and makeup professionally done, she put on the white gown and went to her front yard for what she thought was a photo shoot. While outside, a parade of cars with her friends and family drove down the street cheering her on.

“I cried so hard on that because I was not expecting it at all. It made me feel like my whole family was there,” Modica said.

One of the people in the line of cars was her grandmother. She hadn’t seen her for months because of the pandemic. Her grandmother was only planning to drive by and see Modica from the car, but she couldn’t resist.

So, risking her health, she got out to hug and kiss her granddaughter.

“It was just honestly one of the best days ever,” Modica said.

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Maria Ramirez Uribe is a Report for America corps member covering issues involving race, equity and immigration for WFAE and La Noticia, an independent Spanish-language news organization based in Charlotte.