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LUFKIN — Sienna Raley was 13 when her parents asked her whether she’d like to plan a quinceañera or get a horse.
It was a tough decision, but she decided on the horse.
Until Thanksgiving 2022. By then, Sienna had been to multiple parties and concluded she wanted one herself.
“It’s not about getting something – it’s about the moments, the memories you make,” said Sienna, who is now 15.
A quinceañera is an elaborate, traditional Hispanic celebration that marks a girl’s 15th birthday and passage into womanhood.
Sienna’s December quinceañera was one of several held in her hometown of Diboll, a small East Texas town about 10 miles south of Lufkin.
The town is on a mission to be named the “Quinceañera Capital of Texas,” a symbolic goal meant to embrace a growing Hispanic community. The city council has already passed a resolution and needs approval by the county and Texas Legislature within two years. State Rep. Trent Ashby, representing Diboll, intends to champion the town's designation during the 2025 regular session.
“Everybody knows how important they are, how special they are, how fun they can be,” Diboll City Manager Jason Arnold said.
Last year, families booked dozens of quinceañeras at Diboll’s civic center, taking up more than half of the available weekends. Those parties brought visitors from across the country and Mexico to the tiny East Texas town. And a small network of party planners, florists, caterers, and dressmakers is sprouting to support quinceañeras in Diboll and nearby towns.
City leadership hopes the designation will support more similar types of businesses to set up shop.
Sienna’s quinceañera was one of those that took place at Diboll's Lottie & Arthur Temple Civic Center. The family decorated the space like a fairytale tea party. Tea sets from the 15-year-old’s own collection were used. The family, including Sienna’s great-grandfather who traveled from Mexico, danced the night away.
While many girls give up sneakers for heels, Sienna donned new cowgirl boots. She also accepted the last doll she would ever receive from her father.
Growing Hispanic population
Texas’ Hispanic population grows with each passing year. As of 2020, the state had the second-largest Hispanic population in the U.S. with 11.4 million residents identifying as Hispanic, a 21% increase, according to the Texas Demographic Center.
While East Texas has historically been home to mostly white and Black Texans, the Hispanic population is growing there too. And leaders want to embrace them.
About 42% of Diboll’s 4,500 residents are Hispanic, according to DATA USA. In 2000, 38% of the town was Hispanic, according to the census.
Arnold hopes to conduct a study on the impact of the Hispanic population on Diboll’s economy in the next few years, but he can attest to the impact on the community’s culture as the population grows.
“Now, when you think of Diboll, you think of the sawmill, you think of timber,” the city manager said. “And those are super important. But you can be known for and cherish more than one aspect of your community.”
Tyler, a city of about 110,000 people about two hours north of Diboll, recently released an analysis of the Hispanic influence on its economy. Hispanics in the area earned $811.7 million, contributed $72.1 million to state and local taxes and had a spending power of $637.7 million.
“Past research has underscored the critical role the Hispanic population in Texas plays in our labor force, population growth, and economy; this new research demonstrates it is no different in East Texas,” said Chelsie Kramer, Texas state organizer for the American Immigration Council and Texans for Economic Growth, in the report.
Viri Cruz started her business, JC’s Party Rentals, with Ruth Contreras, in March to coordinate and decorate major events. It began as a hobby, planning events for friends and family, and grew into a full-fledged business. In July, the two took over management of the civic center and plan to hold a quinceañera expo on Jan. 14.
“The Hispanic community is definitely large here and it's pretty strong. I think that when the city thought about all of this it made a lot of sense,” she said.
Stepping into womanhood
Glowing with pride in a dress she designed herself, Sienna celebrated her transition to womanhood with a party that took more than a year to plan. She was nervous in the weeks leading up to the quinceañera and battled stress-induced acne.
Even if minor things went wrong, the party would still be wonderful, her mom, Maria Raley, assured her.
They hired a caterer, a DJ, Big Head performers dressed like Bad Bunny, a cake decorator and more; many of whom were within an hour’s drive of Diboll. Sienna’s parents made sure she was involved in the planning every step of the way so the quinceañera reflected who she is.
Maria Raley was happy to hear about the city’s declaration; a quinceañera is something special a girl will hold on to for the rest of her life. And for the city to embrace it, it means it is embracing the young girls who live there.
For Sienna, the quinceañera means it's time to take on more responsibilities and make adult decisions, she said. Where she used to be shy in school, she is now outgoing and vibrant.
The teenager wants to be independent and to obtain a degree.
“I want to be independent, to be able to make decisions,” Sienna said.
This may mean going into fashion design, or something to do with horses, she still has a few years to figure that out.
In the meantime, Sienna expects her dad, who Maria Raley said is wrapped around Sienna’s little finger, will still buy her a horse.
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