Anna Leah is barely 5, and like other girls her age, she still plays with dolls. But she already dreams of having her own photo album like her classmates and wants a “mini-Quince” party to celebrate her fifth birthday.
For Latin American families, the “Quince” — 15 in Spanish — is the traditional coming-of-age party for girls, a practice dating back to when young, upper-class women made their “debut” into society. But Anna Leah is part of a new trend — one that’s seen 5-year-old girls in heavy makeup, dressed as teenagers and pop stars, posing for photo shoots. If you’re thinking family pictures, think again. Some girls are even modeling lingerie and striking sexy, provocative poses.
There’s no way my little girl’s not having her own mini-Quince.
Yuni Santos, a mother
These photo shoots and the resulting “photo albums” are moving the Quince forward by a decade, sparking a lucrative new business and a raging debate across the communist island as it undergoes political change unlike any it has seen since the 1959 revolution. The growing popularity of these mini-Quinces is emerging as an unlikely outcome of Cuba’s slow but definite opening up to the outside world. Access to the latest global fashion trends is fueling new aspirations and competitive peer pressure — for both parents and children.
Critics argue that these often provocative photo shoots compromise the innocence of girls too young to understand what they are doing. But parents comfortable with the practice view it increasingly as an integral part of the socialization of their girls.
“All her friends come from very good families. There’s no way my little girl’s not having her own mini-Quince,” says Yuni Santos, Anna Leah’s mother.
For Cuban parents, the Quince alone is a costly investment. In a country where the average salary is around $30 a month, according to its National Statistics Office — known as the ONEI — some families spend nearly $1,000 for these teenage parties and photo sessions. A mini-Quince is an additional expense and can cost between $60 and $200.
To Grisell Torres, the mother of a young girl, this practice is just a shallow business strategy aimed at influencing young children and their parents. “Mini-Quinces are nothing but a trick to make us spend more money on the girls,” she says. “They are marketing their junk so as to reach consumers of all ages.”
It seems to be working. In the central Cuban municipality of Placetas, 300 kilometers west of Havana where Santos and her family live, many photography studios include mini-Quince photo sessions in their service catalogs. Typically, says photographer Yanisleidys Montejo, these sessions span two days because they can get tiring for 5-year-olds.
Anna Leah, though, underwent a four-hour session on a single day. Santos struck a bargain — 80 CUC (around $80) — for a photo book with 30 photos, two of them enlarged. “I thought she was not going to stand it, but she behaved wonderfully and let them do their thing,” says Santos.
But the length of the sessions and strain it puts on young children isn’t the only concern worrying many parents across Cuba. A recent article on the subject unleashed a heated debate on Cuban social media. “Call me old-fashioned, passé, outmoded or whatever you want; to me, this trend is horrid,” one user wrote on ZunZuneo, often dubbed the “Cuban Twitter.” “It is one thing to play house and imitate grown-ups; it is another to see parents contributing to sexualizing their daughters from such an early age.”
Another user argued that “sexualized behaviors can be confusing to children, who should enjoy their childhood freely without the pressure of merchants inventing ceremonies to make money.”
But there are others who see the practice as innocent — while betraying the underlying peer pressure that appears to be contributing to the trend. “I wanted to make my little one happy,” says Mairelys Diaz, a mother. “All her friends are having mini-Quinces, so why wouldn’t she have one too? The photos are funny; they make them look like little women.” Lisuet Diaz, the mother of a girl waiting to get her own photo album in Placetas, dismisses it as just “a game” for her daughter.
Hypersexualization of children and the practice of getting them to dress up as adults aren’t unique to Cuba. But ironically, the country’s previously closed system protected it from influences Cuban parents can no longer ignore, owing to global fashion trends. Unsurprisingly, it’s the cities — Havana, Matanzas and Cienfuegos — where the practice first emerged in Cuba. Yunaika Garcia, the owner of the El Palacio photo studio in Placetas, says she picked up the idea from counterparts in these cities, where they publicize their services in a semi-clandestine audiovisual information package distributed off-line throughout the island. Many parents bring their cellphones with pictures downloaded from the internet as examples to be used in the photo sessions.
But while some parents may blame photo studios for spreading the practice for profit, psychologist Yamilet Gonzalez suggests parents must take responsibility too. It’s natural, she says, for girls to want to imitate their mothers, but parents ought not to indulge their kids beyond a point. “Parents are responsible for drawing the line,” she says. “Values must be taught from the cradle.”
Photographer Montejo insists that it’s the parents who choose the makeup for their kids. “It’s a game in which [the girls] fantasize they’re grown-ups,” she says. “We dress them in fancy ball gowns with crinolines and use props typical of Quince photo shoots.”
The sharpening debate over the growing practice is testing Cuba, which — despite progressive child protection legislation and child development programs — does not have legal or social mechanisms for a national debate on the subject. In the meantime, the pressure on parents and girls is growing. After one girl’s photo book is passed around the kindergarten classroom, other girls want one too. “It is in fashion, and my little girl wants to have one,” says Santos. “So how can I tell [her] she can’t?”
Explore the world
This year, OZY is going Around the World, bringing you untold stories from every single country on the map, one day at a time, to introduce you to new people, new trends and new places.