Amid Cuba opening, Havana quinceanera biz booms
By CHRISTINE ARMARIO
HAVANA (AP) — Up a winding flight of stairs at a beachside Havana home,
Camila Lopez Rivas lies on the tile floor, smiling mischievously into a
video camera circling overhead.
Tossed around her are layers of a blue and aqua taffeta dress, the first
of nine outfits the 14-year-old will pose in, from colonial ball gowns
to a neon green bikini.
Camila lives in Miami, the daughter of a truck driver who left Cuba when
she was a baby. She doesn't remember the island, but wanted to return
for the photographs and videos that Latin American girls typically take
for their 15th birthdays.
"I left very young," Camila said between a halt in the taping. "But I'm
Such voyages back to Cuba are becoming increasingly common for girls who
find that marking the milestone on the island is both appealing and
economical. Cuban reforms permitting small-scale, private businesses and
the re-establishment of U.S.-Cuban diplomatic relations have encouraged
new photo and event planning businesses for events such as girls' 15th
The complicated networks connecting Cubans in Miami and Havana feed the
growth: Camila learned about Marbella Studio, the business she hired,
from another girl in Florida who had her photos taken there.
Marbella Studios in Guanabo, a 30-minute drive from Havana, is located
in an Art Deco-style home and employs 12 photographers, stylists and
videographers. There are more than 500 outfits to choose from in three
dressing rooms and a calendar full of appointments with clients. Owner
Sarah Medina Vigor said about 60 percent of the 500 or so girls her
studio photographs each year travel here from other countries, with July
and December being the peak months.
Celebrations known as "quinceaneras," marking a girl's 15th birthday and
recognizing her transition to womanhood, date back centuries in Latin
America. Some vestiges of the older celebrations remain, with Latin
American girls performing traditional waltzes. But in Cuba, photographs
are the main focus.
Signs for new photo businesses that document 15th birthdays line the
doorways of decrepit Havana buildings and advertisements abound on
websites such as Revolico.com, an underground Cuban Craigslist. Many
studios are run by former state sector professionals who purchased
cameras with the help of U.S. relatives and have found taking pictures
far more profitable than the average monthly government salary of $20.
Alberto Gonzalez, owner of Aladino photo studio, said he saw an equal
number of clients from Cuba and abroad over the summer. "This year, more
came than any other," he said of the visitors.
But the daughters of workers in Cuba's emerging private sector are also
helping fuel business. With the economic reforms, many families on the
island now have extra cash to spend for quniceanera celebrations.
They include 14-year-old Dachely Silva, who sat at Aladino one afternoon
before a gold-rimmed mirror as a makeup artist layered mascara onto her
eyelashes. Her mother, Mayelin Alfonso, recalled posing in just one
dress for her own 15th birthday.
Now, her husband has a business driving tourists around in a restored
classic American car. Without the business, "we would not be able to
afford this," Alfonso said.
Quinceanera packages at most studios start around $150 and include
professional hair and makeup artists, scenic Havana backdrops and
multiple wardrobe changes — a bargain compared to similar services in
the U.S. that typically start at about $1,000.
In the past, quinceanera photos typically featured girls in poufy
dresses and crowns. But at many Havana studios, there are now punk-rock
style sneakers and miniskirts among the rows of high heels and gowns.
The girls also pose in bikinis, feathered boas and little else for
photos that would raise eyebrows back in some parts of the U.S.
Some girls hold their quinceanera parties in Cuba as well. On one fall
evening, dozens of teens stood outside a new party hall in a restored
colonial building where a woman who lives in the U.S. was throwing her
sister a 15th birthday party.
A guest, 14-year-old Maria Fernandez of Havana, said it was "very
emotional" to see friends come back to the island for their 15th
birthday celebrations. "They have friends and an entire life here," she
Daniela Santos Torres, 14, left Cuba when she was 3, returning in
December for her quinceanera photos and party. She now lives in
Glendale, Arizona, where her father runs a home remodeling business. She
said returning to Cuba for her celebration was "a dream," allowing her
to include her extended family and friends on the island.
While many Cuban Americans who left the island shortly after the 1959
revolution remain reluctant to visit, those who left for primarily
economic reasons over the past decade rarely hesitate to return.
"Recent Cuban immigrants tend to support more engagement of all kinds
with Cuba, including restoring diplomatic ties, lifting the embargo,
allowing travel by all U.S. citizens, and investing in the fledgling
private sector of the island's economy," said Jorge Duany, director of
Florida International University's Cuba Research Institute.
Camila finished her eight-hour photo and video shoot with a session at
the beach. In February, she'll return for her party at the Melia Cohiba
Hotel near Havana's Malecon seaside promenade.
"Cuba is in style," said her father, Eliecer Lopez Rufin. "Everyone
wants to come do their party here."
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