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Raul Sanchez, left, his daughter, Ashley Sanchez, and her stepfather, Army Maj. Neftali Santiago, are presented to the “quinceanera,” a traditional Latino 15th birthday party for girls.
Raul Sanchez, left, his daughter, Ashley Sanchez, and her stepfather, Army Maj. Neftali Santiago, are presented to the “quinceanera,” a traditional Latino 15th birthday party for girls. (Charlie Reed / S&S)
Raul Sanchez, left, his daughter, Ashley Sanchez, and her stepfather, Army Maj. Neftali Santiago, are presented to the “quinceanera,” a traditional Latino 15th birthday party for girls.
Raul Sanchez, left, his daughter, Ashley Sanchez, and her stepfather, Army Maj. Neftali Santiago, are presented to the “quinceanera,” a traditional Latino 15th birthday party for girls. (Charlie Reed / S&S)
Raul Sanchez, left, and Army Maj. Neftali Santiago, right, help their daughter, Ashley Sanchez, put on her high heels, which symbolically marks her transition from a girl to a young lady at her "quinceañera," a traditional Latino 15th birthday party for girls.
Raul Sanchez, left, and Army Maj. Neftali Santiago, right, help their daughter, Ashley Sanchez, put on her high heels, which symbolically marks her transition from a girl to a young lady at her "quinceañera," a traditional Latino 15th birthday party for girls. (Charlie Reed / S&S)

KATTERBACH, Germany — Donning a tiara and a rose-colored gown imported from the U.S., Ashley Sanchez won’t soon forget her 15th birthday party.

The elaborate Saturday night celebration, known in the Latino community as a quinceanera, drew 200 guests. There were costume changes, choreographed dances, a mariachi band, extravagant gifts and even a “court” of her friends with whom she danced the night away.

But it would not have meant as much if her stepdad, Army Maj. Neftali Santiago, had not been there, too. Luckily, Santiago, who is deployed with the 12th Combat Aviation Brigade Logistics Support Team out of Katterbach, made it back from Iraq for the party.

“We didn’t know if it was going to be possible,” Santiago said. “But I was able to get my R&R (rest and recuperation), so it all worked out. I’m so happy I’m able to be here. We couldn’t have all our family here to celebrate in Germany, but this is like our second family.”

Though Ashley’s birthday was in August, the family organized the party around Santiago’s expected leave. For Ashley, it was worth the wait.

“It wouldn’t have been the same without him,” said Ashley, whom Santiago has helped raise since she was 5. Ashley’s dad, Raul Sanchez, who is a civilian engineer at Ramstein Air Base, was also there to mark the special occasion.

“I’m so lucky to have both of them here,” said Ashley, who went from nervous to elated as the party got under way.

The Mexican-American family blended seamlessly Saturday night, both men sharing duties such as the father-daughter dance and presentation of la ultima muneca, or last doll. Ashley is their only daughter, though both men have two sons.

“Ashley’s stepdad is a nice person,” Sanchez said. “It’s great for her that we’re able to get along like this.”

Similar to a Jewish bat mitzvah held to mark a girl’s “coming of age” and an American “sweet 16” party, a quinceanera celebrates the symbolic transition of a girl to a young lady.

For Aracely Santiago, who has been dreaming of throwing a quinceanera for her daughter since Ashley was 11, the event surpassed her expectations.

“I’m just so happy and proud of my daughter,” she said. “It’s so great that she can share these moments with both of (her dads.)”

And celebrating Latino traditions in Europe made the event that much more memorable, she said.

“It just shows you that you can celebrate your culture no matter where you are in the world,” she said. “The most special moment is the presence of all these people.”

For partygoers such as Randy Dolph, whose son Matthias was part of Ashley’s court, the quinceanera was more than a birthday party.

“You’ve got great culture here, great food,” he said. “The mariachi band was a nice touch.”

For German-born Andrea Rodriguez, whose husband is Mexican-American, the quinceanera highlighted the Sanchez-Santiago family bond.

“It’s typical to have an emphasis on family among Mexicans,” she said. “They’re so family-oriented.”

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