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Unlike Other Coming-of-Age Celebrations, Quinceañeras Remain Mostly Offline

Joy Diaz/KUT News
Jennifer Santillan was born in the year 2000, meaning that this year she celebrated her Quinceañera."

A lot was going on in the year 2000: Computer experts were trying to fix Y2K, and it was the first time a Latino artist topped the charts: Ricky Martin with the song "Livin' La Vida Loca."

It was also a big year for births: Nearly 400,000 girls were born to Hispanic parents that year. This year those girls are turning 15, and they'll be celebrating their Quinceañeras.

The parties aren't cheap. Nearly one billion dollars will be spent on the girls' rite-of-passage festivities, and most of that shopping and spending won't take place online.

The girls were born under a tech glitch, or disconnect, that seems to be following them around to this day.

Earlier this month, the Quinceañera Expo 2015 took place at the Travis County Expo Center in Austin. About 500 people mingled with vendors.

The auditorium was full of elaborate cakes and party favors. Gigantic images of smiling Quinceañeras vacationing in Disneyland or in Paris adorned the booths of travel agents. Cheap dresses were displayed next to designer couture. Everything a girl could ever imagine was for sale.

Credit Joy Diaz/KUT News
Jose Medrano organizes Quinceañera expos like the one recently held in Austin.

Quinceañera Magazine puts together expos like this one in cities all over Texas, and Jose Medrano is the organizer. At his expos, parents still shop in the old fashioned way — there is very little in the way of digital advertising targeting the Quinceañera market. That's why, Medrano says, he and his team are creating the first virtual market for Quinceañeras.

"It's something that has taken us almost a year because we've had to build [everything] from...scratch. Nobody [has done] it before."

It's no secret that Quinceañeras cost big bucks. By some estimates, the most modest celebrations can cost around $7,000.

Jennifer Santillan celebrated her quince in Austin last month. Her parents blush if asked how much they spent on the party. They hired dancers, had a three-course meal open all night and hired a singer from Dallas. They also hired a production company to record a movie of Jennifer in which she and her escorts pretended to be secret agents.

The Santillans made all of their purchases at brick-and-mortar stores — nothing online.

The girls, though, want to be online. Their entire lives they've been mobile and wireless, which is why YouTube videos tagged with the word quinceañera will get hundreds of thousands of hits.

If that's the case, though, then why isn't the tech world cashing in with the Quinceañera market?

Rachel Gonzalez is a Quinceañera expert and an ethnomusicologist at the University of Texas at Austin's Department of Mexican American and Latino Studies.

Credit Joy Diaz/KUT News
Rachel Gonzalez of UT believes that part of the reason businesses aren't capitalizing more on the Quinceañera market may be because of misconceptions about the Latino community.

"There is a misunderstanding about Latino communities," says Gonzalez. She thinks that's one reason advertisers are shying away. "They [think] all Latinos are new to the United States, all Latinos are immigrants, all Latinos are undereducated, underemployed and somewhat disenfranchised, right? There's this idea that maybe they don't have the money to spend. But, they do."

While advertisers and tech gurus catch up, some banks are capitalizing on this market with special Quinceañera savings accounts where parents can start setting money aside before their child is even born — on the day they learn they are having a girl.

If the money exists, could the tech disconnect stem from something else?

Maybe it's about perceptions of Latinos that the community has yet to shake off, Gonzalez says.

"If you put Quinceañeras next to Bar and Bat Mitzvahs with the social-cultural stereotype that the Jewish community has more financial resources; [then] there isn't the same kind of devaluing of the coming-of-age experiences. It's understood that [the Jewish] community is having their sons and daughters coming out publicly. But, when Latinos do it there's this perception that these are poor people wasting their money. There isn't the same kind of social equity."

If Gonzalez is right, once perceptions flip, someone could benefit immensely from the Latino market, the group with the most births in the United States.

Next year alone, thousands more Quinceañeras will again spend close to one billion dollars. The question is whether they'll do so at a brick-and-mortar store, as they have before, or if they'll migrate to the online marketplace.

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.