"Unafraid." That's the word local filmmaker Rodrigo Dorfman uses to describe the Durham-based Latinx families in ¡FIESTA! Quinceañera, his new docuseries with codirector Peter Eversoll, available on YouTube from PBS's Indie Lens Storycast.
That's a pretty spot-on description, especially for Oscar, a gay Latino. Middle-aged, with blond highlights and an infectious laugh, Oscar makes a living as a choreographer and a drag queen. In one of the six episodes, which run from seven to nine minutes each, Oscar sits with a huge smile atop Durham's iconic bull statue wearing a fuchsia quinceañera dress, flailing his arms like a rodeo cowgirl.
Yes, whatever notions you've ever had about the Mexican tradition of celebrating a girl's fifteenth birthday, this series will destroy them.
Oscar's boldness in hosting his own quince shows how much the tradition has evolved and opened up. But there are traditional elements in the series, too. Many of the teens wear elaborate poofy gowns fit for a princess. But these young women are coming of age in a world in which their lives can radically change in an instant. They're enduring economic instability, cultural divisions, and a political climate in which their families are being targeted.
Take Juana, who, on the edge of turning fifteen, lives below the poverty line with her mother, whose cancer is in remission. Or Fernanda, a Shakira-loving, pink-haired young woman who might have to contribute to her own quinceañera because these parties aren't cheap. Or Angie, a poised girl whose only wish is not for a quinceañera, but for a trip to Mexico to meet her grandparents for the first time.
In other words, these aren't entitled young ladies whose parents are looking to throw down thousands of dollars just because it's their kid's birthday. Quinceañeras mean much more than that to the Latinx community, now more than ever.
"They had just given the news about the new presidential elections, and for us, it was like, wow," says Fernanda's mother, Livia. "It was weeks of terror and fear because we didn't know what was going to happen. At the same time, that's when Fernanda tells us that she wanted a party. So we said, 'Let's go, let's have a party.' It's a way to show that nothing can stop us. That we are going to keep fighting till the end."
Eversoll and Dorfman, who has been documenting the Latinx community in the South for some time, beautifully capture this new generation of Mexican Americans bravely playing by their own rules and creating new traditions, all the while putting family first.
"We went to a dozen quinceañeras looking for characters to see how we were going to develop stories instead of being more anthropological," Eversoll says. "We didn't want to focus on the rituals of quinceañeras but the people who are involved."
Dorfman adds that this is a new kind of quinceañera, for first-generation Mexican-American teens growing up outside urban settings and the close-knit ethnic communities found there.
"The dynamics would be different if they were in Chicago, Dallas, or Los Angeles, where you have generations and generations of quinceañeras," Dorfman says. "To us, the idea of the Nuevo South is the nueva quinceañera."
For Latinx teens, who are already juggling American culture and their Mexican heritage, a quinceañera is also indicative of a new set of responsibilities. One tradition is for parents to give their daughter one last doll, which symbolizes that she will never be a child again. But the doll is also a metaphor for the harsh realities that will soon confront her.
"One of my goals is to make her independent," Juana's mother, Irma, says while fighting back tears. "First of all, I'm getting old. I'm also threatened by cancer and by life. What if they deport me? And if I die? I want her to be prepared to make decisions. To take actions, and to take her life on the right path."
Juana's quinceañera is a testament that Irma, despite being a single mom and overcoming cancer, could give her daughter what her own father could not give her.
"For me, it's an act of love," Irma says through tears. "A gift that I give her. For what I could not have. ... I've always told Juanita that she is the center of my life and my only purpose. If I survived cancer and God allowed me to continue working, above all for her, I thought I would give her a party."
Because for some of us, living in a period of critical uncertainty doesn't mean we can't have a good time. It means we must.
Correction: This piece originally misstated the length of the episodes.