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Amid Cuba opening, Havana quinceañera biz booms

Published:Wednesday | December 30, 2015 | 12:00 AM
In this December 13, 2015 photo, Barbara Concepcion takes pictures of her daughter Amanda Teresa Betancur, who lives in Cuba, before her quinceanera party in Havana, Cuba.

HAVANA, Cuba (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 from here."

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 US-Cuban diplomatic relations have encouraged new photo and event-planning businesses for occasions such as girls' 15th birthdays.

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 per cent of the 500 or so girls her studio photographs each year travel here from other countries, with July and December being the peak months.

 

Transition to womanhood

 

Celebrations known as 'quinceañeras', marking a girl's 15th birthday and recognising 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 US relatives and have found taking pictures far more profitable than the average monthly government salary of US$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.

 

Extra cash to spend

 

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 quinceañera celebrations.

They include 14-year-old Dachely Silva, who sat at Aladino one afternoon before a gold-rimmed mirror as a make-up artist layered mascara on to 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.

Quinceañera packages at most studios start around US$150 and include professional hair and make-up artists, scenic Havana backdrops and multiple wardrobe changes a bargain compared to similar services in the US that typically start at about US$1,000.

In the past, quinceañera photos typically featured girls in pouf 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 US.