© Jeremy Woodhouse/Getty Images

Leaving childhood behind, waking up to a total, recognized femininity...reaching out for womanhood. The transfiguration is complete after the girlhood years create a beautiful young lady who is ready to face the world with strength and independence. This is what young Latin American teenage girls and their families celebrate on their 15th birthday; a quasi-magical moment when they express gratitude for the past and hope for the future.

In almost every country in Latin America, as well as the population of Hispanic origin in the United States, the rite of transition into physical and social womanhood is held when a damsel turns 15. The celebration is full of traditions adapted to modern times, but it undoubtedly continues to be the product of a mixture of different races.

Pre-Hispanic cultures, mainly the Toltecs, Aztecs and Maya performed a rite of womanhood when girls were ready to acquire their rights and obligations as women. Fray Bernardino de Sahagun, in his General History of the Things of New Spain, describes the indigenous ritual as strictly a family event in which parents instructed their young daughter on her new responsibilities.

After the Spanish conquest, Catholic missionaries started to say Mass as part of the ritual. Soon the celebration took on the features of the debutante ball thrown by European nobility and even some traits from the Jewish rite for girls, known as the bat mitzvah. In Mexico, it is said that Maximilian and Carlota of Habsburg added to the ceremony with their own traditions by bringing the Viennese waltz into the celebration.

The outcome as we see it today is a blend of transculturation and Latin American history. It has common features throughout the region, such as the emotional introduction made by the father before the proud look of the mother, the compulsory father-daughter waltz and the young lady in her lavish debutante dress as well as the music, food and drinks. However, each country adds its own flavor to the tradition, making the event truly special and unique.