If you happen to be walking down the streets of Havana and an open top car passes horn blaring with a young Cuban senorita “dressed to kill” sitting enthroned, you would be excused if you thought the young lady was a bride and this was part of a wedding cavalcade!
Look a bit closer. The young lady looks very young and where is the groom?
The truth is that there is no groom and this young lady is not getting married but celebrating her 15th Birthday!! It’s a day she will have looked forward to all her life.
It’s a tradition which arrived in Cuba with the Spanish Conquistadores and was continued by the developing upper classes; these being the rich land owners who considered themselves the bourgeois. Daughters of these families needed to make a good match and so at the age of 15 the young ladies were considered eligible and would be presented to society in all their finery in order to attract a suitable husband. This tradition continued in Cuba into the 20th century (pre revolution) among a certain class with sufficient spare cash to lavish on their daughters.
The Communist Revolution led by Fidel Castro in 1959 banned many things and people have struggled to maintain their traditions and feel a connection with their ancestors. Today in post revolutionary Cuba, the celebrations have been continued by families of all types who like the idea and try to maintain links with their history and the history of Cuba.
Family life has changed radically since the revolution and having more than one child is not usual, for economic reasons. There is simply not enough money even with two parents working, on an average salary of $20 to $40 per month, to give more than one child a few of the “luxuries” a child needs.
When a girl child is born to a family that wants to continue this 15th Birthday tradition, a saving “account” will be started and this will be untouchable!! In Cuba they call is “guanaja hecha” which translates as something like “a turkey sitting on an egg”!! Most Cubans do not have bank accounts so this “account” will be a cash fund that will be controlled by the mother who will hide this cash in a secret place, out of reach of other members of the family. The mother is the person who maintains this fund and adds to it over the years.
When the young lady is about to reach the age of 15, the family begin planning the fiesta and all the family are involved! The extravagance of the celebrations is dependent on the cash available but the format remains the same for all. Of huge importance are the dresses, the photos, and the fiesta!! A public display in a car or carriage will only happen if the money can stretch that far! Driving around town in a fancy car of carriage is a costly business and not many can afford this extravagance!
A selection of dresses will be collected, bought, borrowed or rented and the young lady will be photographed in different outfits and in different locations. Hair, makeup and jewellery are all part of the ritual and the resulting photographs are displayed proudly in every home by mother and grandmothers. The extent of the photo taking is entirely dependent on available funds. These days a photo studio complete with dresses to rent, exotic backdrops and photographer can be a more economic option, and create some stunning results.
All the family will gather for a fiesta which normally will be at home and guests will be family members only plus one or two young friends. Drinks and snacks will be laid on and contributions brought by aunts and cousins are usual. What the young lady does in the evening is much dependant on the family and her own desires, a disco maybe or cinema. All depends on what the family feels is appropriate at the tender age of 15. Until the age of 16 she will not be legally considered an adult!
Cuban law considers 16 the age of consent and the age at which a person can drink alcohol, smoke, drive, be put in prison and marry, however, a parent can sign their consent and marry their child at an younger age.!
Want to discover Cuba for yourself? Join us for a small group tour this year!
“A Cuban Snapshot” 7 days tour
“Mi Cubita” 14 days tour