Latino businesses make quinceañeras possible in Charlotte NC
In a corner of a clothing store, Daniela Robledo twirls around, making the sequins and stones of her lilac dress sparkle.
“Oh my God! You look beautiful,” a customer tells her, watching.
The 15-year-old smiled shyly.
Daniela found her quinceañera dress for the first time six months ago. She is back this May day for her last fitting. Later that evening, her family will reunite with a dozen of Daniela’s relatives from Mexico and California. They will all sleep in his family’s two-bedroom house – on the floor, on makeshift beds and even in the bathtub.
And tomorrow, they’ll all be watching Daniela become a woman.
Turning 15 for many young Latin American women is celebrated with quinceañeras, a rite of passage symbolizing the transition from childhood to womanhood. Many, including Daniela, consider it one of the most important days of their lives.
And in Charlotte, there’s a 750-foot stretch along Central Avenue where you can get everything you need for that special occasion.
Young women can get their hair done at Yolanda’s Salon, before heading to Yolanda’s Creations — another Yolanda — to try on dresses, tiaras, jewelry and shoes. Next door is a florist who likes to help brainstorm unique floral designs for quinceañeras, and a short walk away is Manolo’s Bakery, an east Charlotte community staple for cakes and pan dulce.
Although Daniela turned 15 in January, she’s waited so long to welcome her quinceañera so she could wear a short-sleeved dress – and so her mum, whose birthday is the last week of April, could also throw a Party.
After all, a few months are nothing compared to 15 years of patience.
Daniela remembers watching YouTube videos of great quinceañeras as a little girl, dreaming of the day she could have her own.
“These girls would have their quinceañeras and it would still be so pretty…to wear a big puffy dress and feel like a princess for a day,” she said.
“When I was little, I thought it was just a big party and a big puffy dress…but (that’s) also the meaning of different things.
“It is we who enter into femininity.”
Daniela made reservations, chose decorations, and chose themes through an expensive planning process that has been going on for months.
Many young women choose to have their father give them a final gift, usually a doll or a teddy bear, during their quinceañera – a sort of “last” childhood present.
Daniela’s younger cousin, Angelina Trochez, introduces her to the teddy bear instead.
“We are like this,” Daniela said, raising her intertwined fingers to show how close they are.
Then, she rummages in her pockets to find the remotes controlling the lights in her dress. She clicks on it and clothing store owner Yolanda Sanchez turns on the lights.
Duo of sisters
Young women have been coming to Yolanda Sanchez to find their dream quinceañera dresses for over a decade.
Sanchez’s family owned a business in their home country of Mexico, and she enjoyed the experience of working without a boss enough to open a store in Charlotte.
Yolanda’s Creations has all the quinceañera essentials — jewelry, shoes, dolls, bears, dresses, tiaras — and even sells wedding dresses and first communion sets. Sanchez said there are fewer than 10 stores like his in Charlotte.
And because of the growing Latino community, the demand is relentless. Sanchez sells about 30 quinceañera dresses each month.
Daniela came to Sanchez’s store because that’s also where all her friends went.
Sanchez loves seeing the delight on customers’ faces when they find the perfect dress. She remembers the look on Daniela’s face when she found her lavender dress, instead of the rose gold she was originally looking for.
“It’s a really good time,” she said. “In the miror, [when] they say, ‘Wow, that’s my dress.’ That’s what I want.
“It makes me feel good.”
And after helping her customers choose complementary accessories, she sends them next – to her sister’s florist.
Ma Rosario Evans used to work in Sanchez’s store, making artificial flower arrangements, but opened her own store, Sweet Pea’s Floral and Gifts, about a year ago after seeing the need for a Spanish florist.
Since then, she’s taken classes and built her business “little by little,” she says.
Evans glows with pride as she flips through photos on her iPad of past arrangements – at weddings, birthdays and other events, including quinceañeras.
As for working alongside his sister, Evans couldn’t be happier.
“I’m very close to her,” she said. “I’m so happy to do this.”
Yolande’s living room
With four grown daughters, Yolanda Garcia knows a quinceañera well.
At her own quinceañera in Guatemala City decades ago, she remembers styling her own hair. Now, the “other Yolanda” in the square is making sure young women in Charlotte don’t have to do the same.
Hairstylist Raquel Romero said she sees 10 to 20 quinceañera clients each month.
For some of them, it’s the first time that they wear make-up and have their hair done. That’s why Romero takes his job so seriously.
“When they come here, they don’t have… makeup, they don’t have… hair [done],” she said. “You turn them from little girls into something amazing.”
She said some clients come in with ideas found on the internet, while others let Romero lead the way. And when she swings the chair around to face the mirror, Romero watches their faces light up.
“It’s a satisfaction for us,” she said.
Manolo Betancur feels like he’s followed his clients through every stage of life, including, in some cases, quinceañeras.
The owner of Manolo’s Bakery started working there in 2005, before buying half of it in 2011 and becoming its sole owner in 2018.
“It’s our 25th anniversary. We have seen some people in families from childhood to adulthood,” he said. “We have clients who have been with us for so long, now their children are adults and they have grandchildren.”
Stepping through the door, customers are greeted with a selection of pan dulce from the bakery – along with treats like churros, orejas and bunuelos, as well as specialties from Betancur’s home country, Colombia.
He is proud of his roots and it shows throughout the bakery. “Made in America, by immigrant hands,” reads a sticker at checkout.
“We are a party community,” Betancur said. “We always find a way to celebrate with your friends, to have fun, to smile, to laugh.”
And almost every weekend, Betancur and its employees celebrate young Latin American women at quinceañeras around town.
In April and May, the bakery receives about a dozen orders for quinceañera cakes, which are often elaborate, tiered party centerpieces that cost hundreds of dollars.
“I wish we had 10 quinceañera cakes every weekend because they pay really well,” Betancur said with a laugh.
But one quinceañera cake that Betancur is conflicted about making is his daughter’s in a few years. She is 10 years old, but she has already started planning.
“Right now I can see my daughter changing into this beautiful butterfly,” he said. “I’m going to cry that day like crazy.”
After visiting all these shops: Quinceañera
The rhinestones on Daniela’s tiara shimmered in the spotlight as she entered the room.
“I was really nervous walking in,” she said. “I actually forgot to light up my dress because of the nerves. But as soon as I walked in, I focused on memorizing the steps, forgot everything and started going with the flow.
A few hundred friends and family cheered as she took her place in the center, and the celebration began with a parade of gifts.
Finally, her little cousin approached her with the bear, dressed in matching shoes and dress, down to the cape.
Daniela thanked her and posed with the bear for the camera, while 8-year-old Trochez looked at her with wide eyes and a smile, thinking ahead.