By HILDY MEDINA

Staff Reporter

Janite Corrales could have had anything she wanted for her 15th birthday, even that most coveted teenage prize a car.

Instead, she asked for a quincea & #324;era.

On the eve of her party, Janite, her parents and guests poured out of limousines into Luminarias restaurant in Monterey Park, where a private catered party, complete with disc jockey and lavish flower arrangements, awaited them.

The more than 300 invitees ate and danced well into the night.

"It was like a dream," recounted Corrales. "I will never forget it."

Quincea & #324;eras are a phenomenon unique to the Latino community, a kind of cross between a Catholic confirmation ceremony and a debutante ball that happens on a girl's 15th birthday. For Luminarias and other businesses in and around Latino communities, they are also big business and one that is growing as fast as L.A.'s Latino community.

"We've always done a considerable amount of quincea & #324;eras (but) for the past couple of years it's been booming," said Angela Sandoval, catering manager at Quiet Cannon, a banquet and concert hall in Montebello.

Latino families in Los Angeles even those that can't really afford it spend lavishly on these coming-out parties. For many fathers, the ability to provide one's daughter with an expensive quincea & #324;era is a measure of pride, and a high-class quincea & #324;era is often as expensive as a wedding.

It certainly involves many of the same elements. Honorees must buy expensive, lacy dresses that sell for as much as $1,000. There are frequently female or male escorts also requiring coordinated outfits. And then there is the cost of caterers, a rental hall, entertainment, transportation, flowers, etc.

A particularly lavish party could run to $30,000 or more, while typical quincea & #324;eras run between $5,000 and $10,000.

Reflecting the boom in these parties are bridal and formalwear shops that have been expanding their operations to meet demand. Hundreds of boutiques specializing in quincea & #324;eras dot the retail districts in L.A. County's flourishing Latino neighborhoods.

In a one-block stretch of Huntington Park's Pacific Avenue are about a dozen of these specialty boutiques, which custom-make gowns for the honorees. Three such stores stand shoulder-to-shoulder along the avenue.

"What we have here is an explosion of these bridal shops," said Dante D'Eramo, executive manager of the Greater Area Huntington Park Chamber of Commerce. "But it's not excessive. Any time there's an explosion, it's always based on supply and demand."

D'Eramo points to the growth in the Latino population, and changing demographics within that community, as the reasons for the expanding quincea & #324;era business.

"What's happened in Huntington Park is, the median age has decreased dramatically," said D'Eramo. "Up until six or seven years ago, the average age was 62 years old."

With more 15-year-olds come more quincea & #324;eras.

Yolanda's Bridal Shop in Huntington Park calls itself a bridal store, but owner Darlene Escrenes said half of her annual sales are quincea & #324;era-related. She declined to reveal her annual revenues, but said business was strong in 1997.

Most of the boutiques in Huntington Park, like Yolanda's, are about three to five years old, corresponding with an influx of young Latino families in the early 1990s.

Yolanda's features mannequins dressed in lavish dresses of white satin and voluminous pink taffeta. A cabinet holds numerous dried-flower bouquets, which range from $20 to $50, and dainty missals religious guides for the honoree to take to Mass.

In another cabinet are jeweled tiaras, priced from $25 to $150. Sitting at the bottom of the glass cases are a number of satin-and-lace cushions with embroidery that reads: "Mi Quincea & #324;era." They start at $25 and run up to $75.

But the priciest and the most crucial item is the quincea & #324;era gown, which starts at $250 and can cost as much as $1,000.

"It depends on the fabric and the difficulty of making the dress," said Maria Nunez, sales clerk at Gardens Bridal in Huntington Park. "(But) we do everything here."

Nunez proudly holds up a tattered page torn out of a magazine with a picture of a formal gown. In her other hand is the finished product: A decent imitation of the magazine's olive-green satin dress with lace trim.

The roots of the quincea & #324;era, which sometimes involves a religious ceremony in which the young girl is presented to God and gives thanks for the gift of life, go deep into Latin cultural history. The party can be traced as far back as the Aztec and Mayan cultures.

These civilizations, like many others, had rites of passage to mark the point in a child's life when she makes her transition to adulthood.

Much like a wedding, the quincea & #324;era also requires a party of attendants 14 couples, to be exact. Dresses for the attendants are also custom-made at these stores, which employ a handful of seamstresses working on-site.

Bridal shops and restaurants are not the only businesses that are cashing in on the quincea & #324;era craze. Hotels are joining in as well.

The Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim pitches its banquet rooms and catering services for quincea & #324;eras in a Spanish-language ad that reads: "Una Fiesta de Quince Anos de sus Suenos" ("A 15th Birthday of your Dreams").

"We could put together anything mariachis, deejays, a Cinderella crystal coach," said Cheryl Martin, catering manager at the hotel. She says the quincea & #324;era "business is growing. The more we do, the more we seem to be getting."

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