OAKLAND, California — On any springtime Saturday, a steady stream of Catholic quinceañeras can be seen promenading along the blooming rose bushes and gushing fountains of Oakland’s Mormon temple.
It’s a favorite among the 15-year-olds, who travel from all parts of the Bay Area for a photo shoot among the temple’s gardens, creating a unique blending of religious cultures. It’s not clear how the tradition got its start, or why certain segments of the community choose The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Oakland over any other locale.
But Dulce Gutierrez, who owns and operates Gutierrez Limo in between pre-med classes, has a pretty good guess: “It’s beauty,” she said. “That’s the main draw here.”
Quinceañeras, which are typically celebrated in Spanish-speaking countries, originated in the late 18th or early 19th century, said Karen Mary Davalos, a professor of Chicano and Latino Studies at the University of Minnesota. Quinceañera applies to both the celebration and the celebrant. They were initially exclusive to the upper class as rites-of-passage for teenage girls to celebrate becoming a woman, similar to English debutante balls, she said.
But that all changed when immigrants started making their way to the United States. There were no aristocrats telling the workers they were acting uppity, Davalos said, and the working class could now afford the celebrations. In modern times, social media has amplified the event and offered new ways to share the festivities with family back home, which makes the photo backdrops all the more important.
“They used to make these elaborate photo albums, but they don’t do that anymore,” Davalos said, “They share their photos and videos on social media.”
With an imposing modernist design, five gold-crested spires reaching to the sun and the center point climbing 170 feet, the temple has a castle-like, even Disney-esque, appearance. Manicured lawns surround rollicking waters that burble under footbridges. A rooftop terrace rimming the temple treats visitors to sweeping views of the San Francisco Bay.
Photographers tend to recommend the location to their clients, Gutierrez said, and they pass along the tip to other photographers, too. That’s how videographer Carmen Palacios heard about the temple, she said. Her friend, who is also a photographer and videographer, recommended it, and she’s been coming nearly every Saturday ever since. That was four years ago, she said.
“It’s my favorite place to take photos,” Palacios said.
It’s not just quinceañeras, said Tawn Gorbutt, a security officer at the temple. He patrols the temple’s grounds and said he sees people of all faiths and inclinations enjoying the space, from Ethiopian Coptic weddings, an orthodox Christian faith, to Tongan celebrants, first communions to birthday parties, graduates in caps and gowns to teens getting ready for prom.
“As members of the church, we love that,” said Janelle Wyatt, a spokeswoman for the temple.
Designed by architect Harold Burton, the temple was built between 1962 and 1964. It closed for nearly two years in the late 1980s for renovation, reopening in October 1990, before closing again last year for a fresh round of upgrades. It was rededicated Sunday.
“For us, the temple is a different place of worship than our chapels,” Wyatt said. “It’s one of the most sacred places on earth, where we feel closer to heaven.”
Congregants strive to maintain the temple and grounds as more than just a warm and welcoming space for themselves and visitors, Wyatt said, but as something more aspirational: an offering to God.
The dedication and care that goes into the maintenance, with its seasonally rotating garden’s flower beds and impeccably clean grounds, makes it all the more appealing to the quinceañeras, who are all looking for a special way to celebrate their 15th birthday, Davalos said, because it’s a chance for the quinceañera to articulate her own values.
Dulce Maria Chiquete, a 15-year-old Hayward resident, spent four months planning her quinceañera, which she described as a relatively “last-minute” rush. Hailing from the Mexican state of Sinaloa, Dulce said it was important for her to sport a charro, or cowboy, a theme that represents her family’s heritage as ranch owners. Embroidered in gold on her bright red dress were images of horses and roses.
No one can tell her she can’t do it her way, said Evelyn Zambrano, 15, of Oakley. Zambrano opted out of throwing a quinceañera, electing to go on a two-week trip to Mexico to hang out with relatives. She regretted the decision, though, and said she planned to host a Sweet 16, instead. Most of all, she wishes she had gotten a quinceañera gown, which often features a bell-shaped skirt and form-fitting bodice, similar to the kind of dresses Disney princesses wear.
“You can design it however you want and have it however you like,” she said. “It’s your own dress, nobody else’s.”
“One of a kind,” she added, just like the special day.
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