The day her daughter turned 14, Celia Gonzalez started to plan for the teen-ager's next birthday party. Gonzalez wanted to give her daughter, Cecilia, a traditional coming-of-age quinceanera ceremony on her 15th birthday.
"My daughter deserves it," Gonzalez, 35, said in Spanish. "My parents were poor," Gonzalez said, and she did not have a quinceanera of her own. "But I promised that, if I had a daughter, I would give her that pleasure."
Gonzalez needed to take care of an infinite number of details to prepare for the ceremony. But the top priority on her list was finding a Catholic church that would bless Cecilia on her 15th birthday.
"They had told me that it would be hard to find a church willing to do the Mass, but I never expected so many problems," said Gonzalez, a Canoga Park resident who visited four churches before finding one that would perform a quinceanera Mass exclusively for her daughter and would allow 14 couples to accompany the teen-ager, as is customary.
Gonzalez is among a growing number of Latinos who are frustrated over a set of guidelines published by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles that they say alter the fiesta de los 15 anos, a 400-year-old Latino tradition that has been likened to the coming-out parties of debutantes, but one that emphasizes religious renewal at the same time.
The "Pastoral Guidelines for Preparation and Celebration" of the quince anos were distributed to all churches in the Los Angeles archdiocese in January.
Father Douglas G. Ferraro, who heads the office of pastoral and parish services that published the guidelines, said their purpose is to raise the awareness and the understanding of the ceremony among priests in the archdiocese.
Father Anastasio Rivera, director of the Hispanic ministry in the Los Angeles archdiocese, said the guidelines were also a response to a shortage of Spanish-speaking priests in the archdiocese.
"There are a lot of churches that have been pushed against the wall because of the desperate need for priests who can lead Masses in Spanish," said Rivera, who added that Latinos make up close to 60% of the church's following in the Los Angeles archdiocese. "Some parishes are having to choose between doing weddings and baptisms in Spanish or quinceanera ceremonies."
Rivera said the suggestions stress the solemnity of the event and play down the social aspects of it.
"Many times people forget the true purpose of the quinceanera tradition, which is to reaffirm your faith. There is alcohol served at the party after the Mass, and people spend money that they don't have," Rivera said.
A group that was formed soon after the booklet was published says the guidelines are preventing Latinos from celebrating the quinceanera Mass in a traditional fashion. The group claims that many parishes have interpreted the suggestions as hard-and-fast rules that do not allow for deviation.
Some parishes have stopped conducting quinceaneras Masses altogether, said Luis Yanez, the president of the Grupo Latino por Nuestras Tradiciones (Latino Group for Our Traditions). Yanez said 400 people have joined his group since its inception in January.
"They have no right to take away part of our culture like this," said Yanez. As owner of a bridal shop in Reseda that designs and makes dresses for quinceaneras, Yanez acknowledges that he also has a business interest in seeing the tradition continue unaltered.
Yanez said members of his group are outraged by what they call a lack of understanding the authors of the guidelines seem to have about the quince anos tradition.
The group takes issue with statements in the booklet asserting that there is no tradition that mandates 14 couples (each one representing a year in the life of the quinceanera ) to accompany the young woman during the Mass. This was one issue that was high on the list of complaints the group sent to Archbishop Roger M. Mahony.
A national authority on quinceaneras, Sister Angela Erevia, said it is true that nothing mandates the presence of 14 couples during the Mass, but a majority of parents opt for the couples.
"Nothing is written in stone about quinceanera ceremonies. They are not a sacrament like a baptism or a first communion," said Erevia in a telephone interview from Victoria, Tex. "But people have passed the ritual from mother to daughter from generation to generation."
Another guideline that may conflict with some Latinos' tradition, Erevia said, is the suggestion that churches should hold a quinceanera Mass for three or four teen-agers at a time, something Rivera said has become necessary in Los Angeles because of the shortage of Spanish-speaking priests.