Central Avenue, the center of our global community
In a corner of a dress shop, Daniela Robledo twirls, making the sequins and stones on her lilac dress sparkle.
“Oh my gosh! You look beautiful,” an onlooking customer tells her.
The 15-year-old smiles shyly.
Daniela first found her quinceañera dress six months ago. She’s back this day in May for her final fitting. Later in the evening, her family will gather along with a dozen of Daniela’s relatives from Mexico and California. They’ll all sleep in her family’s two-bedroom house — on the floor, on makeshift beds and even in the bathtub.
And tomorrow, they’ll all watch as Daniela becomes a woman.
Turning 15 for many young Latino women is celebrated with quinceañeras, a rite of passage symbolizing the transition between girlhood and womanhood. Many, including Daniela, consider it one of the most important days of their lives.
And in Charlotte, there’s a 750-foot stretch along Central Avenue where you can get everything you need for this special occasion.
Young women can get their hair styled at Yolanda’s Salon, before going to Yolanda’s Creations — a different Yolanda — to try on dresses, tiaras, jewelry and shoes. Just next door is a florist who loves to help brainstorm unique floral creations for quinceañeras, and a short walk away is Manolo’s Bakery, a staple in the east Charlotte community for cakes and pan dulce.
Though Daniela turned 15 in January, she waited this long to host her quinceañera so she could wear a short-sleeved dress — and so her mother, whose birthday is the last week of April, could have a party, too.
After all, a few months is nothing compared to 15 years of patience.
Daniela remembers watching YouTube videos of grand quinceañeras as a little girl, dreaming of the day she could have her own.
“These girls would have their quinceañeras and it would always be so pretty … to wear a big puffy dress and feel like a princess for a day,” she said.
“When I was a little kid, I thought it was just a big party and a big poofy dress ... but (it’s) also the significance of different things.
“It’s us stepping into womanhood.”
Daniela’s been making reservations, picking decorations and deciding on themes in the expensive, months-long planning process.
Many young women choose to have their father give them a final gift, commonly a doll or teddy bear, during their quinceañera — a sort of “last” childhood present.
Daniela’s younger cousin, Angelina Trochez, is presenting her with the teddy bear instead.
“We’re like this,” Daniela says, holding up intertwined fingers to show how close they are.
Then, she digs in her pockets to find the remotes controlling the lights on her dress. She clicks them, and dress shop owner Yolanda Sanchez hits the lights.
Young women have been coming to Yolanda Sanchez to find their dream quinceañera dresses for more than a decade.
Sanchez’s family owned a business in her home country of Mexico, and she enjoyed the experience of working without a boss enough to start a store in Charlotte.
Yolanda’s Creations has all the quinceañera essentials — jewelry, shoes, dolls, bears, dresses, tiaras — and even sells wedding dresses and first communion sets. Sanchez said there are fewer than 10 stores like hers in Charlotte.
And because of the growing Latino community, the demand is nonstop. Sanchez sells about 30 quinceañera dresses every month.
Daniela came to Sanchez’s store because that’s where all her friends went, too.
Sanchez loves seeing the delight on customers’ faces when they find the perfect dress. She remembers the look on Daniela’s face when she found her lavender dress, instead of the rose gold she originally came in looking for.
“It’s a very good moment,” she said. “In the mirror, [when] they say, ‘Wow, this is my dress.’ That is what I want.
“That feels good to me.”
And after she helps her customers pick out complementary accessories, she sends them next door — to her sister’s flower shop.
Ma Rosario Evans used to work in Sanchez’s store, making artificial floral arrangements but started her own store, Sweet Pea’s Floral and Gifts, about a year ago after seeing the need for a Spanish flower shop.
Since then, she’s taken classes and built her business “little by little,” she said.
Evans shines with pride as she swipes through photos on her iPad of past arrangements — at weddings, birthdays and other events, including quinceañeras.
As for working next door to her sister, Evans couldn’t be more pleased.
“I’m super close to her,” she said. “I’m so happy to do this.”
With four grown daughters, Yolanda Garcia knows her way around a quinceañera.
At her own quinceañera in Guatemala City decades ago, she remembers styling her own hair. Now, the “other Yolanda” in the plaza makes sure young women in Charlotte don’t have to do the same.
Hairdresser Raquel Romero said she sees anywhere from 10 to 20 quinceañera clients every month.
For some of them, it’s their first time wearing makeup and having their hair done. That’s why Romero takes her job so seriously.
“When they come over here, they don’t have… makeup, they don’t have… hair [done],” she said. “You change them from little girls to something amazing.”
She said some clients come in with ideas scoured from the internet, while others let Romero guide the way. And when she swivels the chair back around to face the mirror, Romero watches their faces light up.
“It’s satisfaction for us,” she said.
Manolo Betancur feels like he’s followed his clients through all stages of life — including, in some cases, quinceañeras.
The owner of Manolo’s Bakery started working there in 2005, before buying half of the business in 2011 and becoming the sole owner in 2018.
“This is our 25th anniversary. We’ve seen some people in families from childhood to adulthood,” he said. “We have customers that have been with us so long, now their kids are grownups and they have grandkids.”
Stepping through the door, customers are greeted with bakery’s pan dulce selection— with treats like churros, orejas and bunuelos, as well as delicacies from Betancur’s home country of Colombia.
He’s proud of his roots, and it shows throughout the bakery. “Made in America, by immigrant hands,” reads a sticker at the checkout counter.
“We are a party community,” Betancur said. “We always find a way to celebrate with your friends, to have fun, to smile, to laugh.”
And nearly every weekend, Betancur and his employees celebrate young Latino women at quinceañeras around town.
In April and May, the bakery gets about a dozen orders for quinceañera cakes — which are often elaborate, multi-tiered party centerpieces that cost hundreds of dollars.
“I wish we had 10 quinceañera cakes every weekend because they’re very well-paid,” Betancur said, laughing.
But one quinceañera cake Betancur is conflicted about making is his daughter’s in a few years. She’s 10, but she’s already started planning.
“Right now, I can see my daughter changing and becoming this beautiful butterfly,” he said. “I’m gonna cry that day like crazy.”
After visiting all these shops: Quinceañera
The rhinestones on Daniela’s tiara sparkled under the spotlight as she stepped into the room.
“I was really nervous walking in,” she said. “I actually forgot to light up my dress from nerves. But as soon as I walked in, I just focused on remembering the steps, and I just forgot about everything and started going with the flow.”
A few hundred friends and family applauded as she took her seat right in the center, and the celebration began with a parade of gifts.
Finally, her little cousin approached her with the bear, clad in matching shoes and dress, right down to the cape.
Daniela thanked her and posed with the bear for the camera, while 8-year-old Trochez watched her with big eyes and a smile, thinking of the future.