Quinceañera. Directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland. New York: Sony Pictures Classics, 2006.

La Quinceañera. Directed by Adam Taub. Seattle, WA: Customflix, 2007.

Reviewed by Sarah E. Ryan

In the decade following Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, “an avalanche of analyses focusing on female youth… appeared.”1 The new crop of texts treated more complex constellations of identity than its predecessors.2 Yet, as Julie Bettie’s conversations about class with Mexican-American girls revealed, girlhood was evolving while girls’ studies was developing. Both Quinceañera and La Quinceañera provide gripping portrayals of the coming-of-age rite celebrated by fifteen-year-old girls of Latina heritages. The captivating stars of the feature film Quinceañera and the documentary La Quinceañera purchase their passage into womanhood through saint-like miracles and intractable self-sufficiency.

In Quinceañera, Magdalena’s quince is destined to disappoint, paling in comparison to her wealthy cousin Eileen’s. But as Glatzer and Westmoreland’s masterful novela unfolds, Magdalena’s world crumbles. Pregnant but still a virgin, Magdalena is abandoned by her storefront pastor father as well as the baby’s father. Pregnant at fourteen, she builds a new life with her delinquent gay cousin Carlos and sagacious great-great uncle Tomas in the rapidly gentrifying Echo Park, Los Angles. In the end, Magdalena’s milagro is revealed, redeeming her family and salvaging her quinceañera. Along the way, Magdalena learns a powerful lesson: there’s no use “holding out for princes.”3 Modern girls make their own way in the world. Similarly, Ana Maria anchors her crumbling family in a real-life drama, La Quinceañera.

Shot in a sleepy town outside Tijuana, Mexico, La Quinceañera documents the fifth and final quince celebrated by a struggling family. Plagued by their father’s rampant infidelity and ultimate abandonment, the six children and their mother recount the story of their broken lives and of Ana Maria, the healer. Lili, Ana Maria’s long-suffering mother, skillfully weaves the tale of the day she feigned sleep as her littlest daughter pressed a saint necklace to her hand and prayed for her health. Ana Maria is the embodiment of the divine child, innocent and redemptive. But her story reveals the evolution of this archetype: Ana Maria is as much steel magnolia as blushing babe. In contemporary girlhood, innocence is no longer naïve.

The films evoke two powerful aspects of modern girlhood. First, girlhood is infused with sexuality. While sometimes relegated to the margins of girls’ studies texts, these dos Quinceañeras openly address the characteristic comingling of sexuality and coming-of-age. A cheating father and a turncoat boyfriend wreak havoc on Ana Maria’s and Magdalena’s lives, providing an impetus for the girls to discover their inner strength. In a surprising twist, Quinceañera departs from the traditional storyline that burdens only females with the aftermath of sexual indiscretion. In a central plotline, Carlos’s indiscretion results in his uncle’s eviction. Still, Magdalena is the one to pick up the pieces. Uncomfortably pregnant, she roams Los Angeles apartment-hunting, ultimately negotiating a suitable place for the family to live. As these richly dramatic films illustrate, overcoming the ravages of illegitimate sex is an indispensable part of growing up.

Modern girlhood is laden with class considerations as well. Latina girls are inculcated with reminders of their class position as they prepare for their quinceaneras. Lower- and middle-class girls actively fund-raise for their lavish fifteenth birthday parties. The practice of padrino, or sponsorship, is a poignant theme in La Quinceañera. As Ana Marie flips through the invitations to her quince she proudly announces her padrinos. One learns from the film Web site that director Adam Taub was a padrino for Ana Maria and for her twin sisters, enabling the impoverished girls to don flowing gowns befitting modern quinces.4 Similarly, Magdalena searches for sponsors. In fact, her dress reveals Magdalena’s pregnancy when the alterations fail to account for her burgeoning girth. While the practice of padrino solidifies community bonds, it also serves an important reminder of class and station for fifteen-year-old girls. These filmsremind us that if we are to study these girls, our work must be equally class conscious. We must also be ready to acknowledge that, just as we begin to systematically study it, girlhood as we knew it is ending.

The curtain separating girlhood from womanhood is opaque. In many Latino communities, the fifteenth birthday is the line of demarcation. Yet, as both films suggest, girls are shouldering an ever greater share of the familial burdens at early ages. Modern parents are seemingly incapable of holding together their families without their children’s assistance. Confronted with the extremes of their fathers’ relentless self-righteousness and hedonistic self-indulgence, Magdalena and Ana Maria show remarkable self-sufficiency, assuming purportedly adult responsibilities. Given the realities of modern girlhood, their stories are not difficult to believe. Disappearing girlhood is displayed expertly in these deliciously rich, engaging films.

1 Mary Celeste Kearney, “Growing up Girls (review essay),” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 29, no. 4 (2004): 1149.

2 See Kearney; Julie Bettie, “Women without Class: Chicas, Cholas, Trash, and the Presence/Absence of Class Identity,” Signs 25, no. 4 (2000): 1-35.

3 Bettie, 2.

4 See La Quinceañera, December 2007.

Sarah E. Ryan is Interim Director of Women's Studies at Baruch College, The City University of New York. She teaches Communication in Baruch's Master's in Public Affairs program and holds a Ph.D. in Rhetorical Criticism and a Women's Studies Certificate from Ohio University (Athens, Ohio).