by Odalis Garcia Gorra | October 12, 2020
The season one finale of One Day At A Time (ODAAT), “Quinces”, starts with Penelope (Justina Machado) placing a tiara on her daughter Elena (Isabella Gomez). At first, she seems uncomfortable, unsure of the faux diamond encrusted piece of plastic tangling her hair. Ever the feminist, Elena rolls her eyes at the ostentatious display of so-called beauty. “A tiara is a backward symbol of how women are only valued for their beauty,” she righteously declares. “And now that I’m wearing one…I don’t care! I look awesome. And it’s super sparkly!”
In that single minute, as part of a punchline, Elena turns from her staunch women’s empowerment stance and falls back to a more traditional girly role. The importance of this scene is laid out in Elena not caring what others think, because this is her day and nothing else matters.
On a similar note, in The Expanding Universe of Ashley Garcia (AKA Ashley Garcia: Genius In Love — a title change I personally found a bit trite), Ashley (Paulina Chávez) finds herself frustrated after spending her birthday helping her friends, instead of celebrating. She’s disappointed that no one was there for her, especially knowing that her quinceañera — a year before this episode takes place — was spent defending her dissertation. “Today’s my birthday and I do care!”
For these two young women, a quinces isn’t a simple party. They signify a new beginning in their lives, a chance to be a part of something with a long cultural lineage and tradition. And as seen through these two shows, for both Elena and Ashley, a quinces means welcoming an era they were preparing all their life for.
As rites of passages go, quinceañeras are the most extravagant. They usually include an over the top theme, a brightly-colored sequined dress, a choreographed waltz for you and your court (las damas and chambelanes). A quintessential Latinx tradition, quinces include rituals such as changing your shoes, a dance with your father, and many start with a mass before moving to the party. For my own quinces my mom ordered 15 cakes for me to give out to all the important people in my life, my older brother sang an original song, and somewhere there was a chocolate fondue fountain, all tied together by a Phantom of the Opera theme.
Quinces are embedded in young Latinas’ social calendar. At my high school the first two and a half years were known as “Quinces Season.” The party, filled to the brim with primos, your abuelitas and all the ladies who call themselves your tias, a four to six hour homage of a young Latina leaving childhood behind. *cue Julio Iglesias singing ‘De Niña a Mujer.’* A new era of your life has arrived.
The quinceañera impact on Latinx internet culture is vast and well documented. From BuzzFeed’s videos about women trying on their old quince dresses or explaining the struggles of being a quinceañera to Remezcla’s explainer piece on “peak quinceañera moments;” if you follow any Latinx media outlet there is no escaping the quinces thinkpiece or listicle.
Their ubiquity in Latinx culture and households worldwide of course means that any sitcom featuring a Latinx family has to include at least a mention of one. In ODAAT we are made aware of the importance of this rite in the Alvarez household by the way that Penelope goes full captain-style command over the rest of the family. Elena’s goal? To be happy. Everyone else’s? To do all the work that goes into planning a gigantic event.
There’s a moment when Elena’s abuela, played by the inimitable Rita Moreno, goes off on her daughter for being so assertive. Penelope responds that she should understand her better than anyone, since she acted the same way for her own quinces. In this small instant we see the intergenerational implications that this party carries. But especially for Elena, who deals with coming out to her strict, conservative father. In choosing her quinces prep to tell her dad that she’s gay, Elena recognizes that there is a shift occurring in her life. She is no longer the same as before. This momentous event allows her to be more true to herself and with the people around her.
This truth also comes in the form of her quinces dress. Although the first gown that her abuela painstakingly spent days on is beautiful and Elena adores it, Lydia (Moreno) catches on that her granddaughter is not in love with it. Lydia tells her that she must be overcome with emotions so strong that she is left speechless. Lydia does every alteration there could be done, but it isn’t until the day of the quinces that Elena’s true self comes in full form. She reveals that instead of a white sparkly dress, she put together an all-white suit for her only granddaughter. Elena is left overwhelmed and tearing up — the correct response to Lydia’s handiwork. During the party, Penelope is the one to introduce Elena: “Elena has always been her own girl and now she’s becoming her own woman.” And though it ends with her father not being able to deal with his daughter being gay and subsequently ditches, the episode wraps up with an important scene. Elena is surrounded by her family (and her neighbor Schneider and her mom’s boss Dr. Berkowitz), who are holding her close, ready for the next chapter to come.
The episode, “Another Trip Around The Sun,” in Ashley Garcia has a lighter tone than ODAAT (seeing as there are no runaway asshole fathers). But there is still a sentimental pull when Brooke (Bella Podaras), Ashley’s best friend, asks if she even wanted a quinces. Ashley explains that it didn’t matter what she wanted. “There was no time, and I didn’t have any friends to make a court of honor.” She was too busy being a genius, and even they can’t have it all. At this point, she still hopes that she can at least celebrate by having her favorite cake (carrot) with her favorite people.
At the end of the episode we find out all the distractions from her friends were a ruse to get her to Pat’s Restaurant. There, everyone she loves was waiting with a big quinces surprise. The ugly “costume” she was wearing magically turns into a gorgeous quinceañera gown (think Rodger’s and Hammerstein’s Cinderella on Broadway), and she is beaming as she looks around the room. Her tío, Victor (Jencarlos Canela), introduces her: “Although she’s already made a name for herself in the world of adulthood, she did skip a few steps along the way.” The point being that even though Ashley is incredibly successful (and we love a young Latina genius) there was still this one important rite she had to do. And while there are still more to come (even though the show has now been canceled), she has experienced the ups and downs of teenhood that she was always searching for.
Both shows take care in telling these quinceañera stories with the thought and nuance they deserve. They demonstrate that than a rite of passage, more than just a party, a quinces is supposed to bring about a new part of your life.
It is this care in showing the cultural significance of this moment that is important to have for Latinxs across the United States. The fact is that lack of representation for quinces is emblematic of a larger issue in Hollywood. Latinxs are highly underrepresented on the screen (both big and little) — on film they made up 3 percent of lead or co-lead roles — even though they make up 19 percent of the population. A lack of quince stories does not mean that there aren’t some incredible Latinx coming-of-age films, or TV shows. From Real Women Have Curves to Raising Victor Vargas, these stories show the breadth of lived experiences as a young Latinx person in the United States. But there are few who touch upon this specific rite of passage.
The instances we do have, only make for a more fully realized image of Latinx culture that should be shown across audiences, regardless of cultural and ethnic background. It is also to have others understand how young Latinas have their own entrance into womanhood, and the only representations of “coming out” to society aren’t just through cotillions (hello, Gilmore Girls). Shows like On My Block and Wizards of Waverly Place have made quinces a part of their larger storylines. Even Starz original Vida does its own spin on the quinceañera, with a double queerceañera, a pseudo coming-of-age celebration for one of Lyn’s (Melissa Barrera) friends on his 30th birthday. The 2006 independent film Quinceañera is another reflection of what this event means to families and the dreams that it carries. Dreams that are supposed to set the tone for the rest of your life.
My mom always said that after your 15s, the years would come a lot faster. Even now, as I sit and write this article a decade after my own quinceañera, I remember it as if it were yesterday. Nevermind that due to the pandemic I am back at my mother’s house, where reminders of this event are on prominent display in our living room. Memories that I can’t escape, of the moment I wore a bright red sequined gown in front of my family, friends, and loved ones. It is satisfying to watch Elena and Ashley settle deeply into the love they deserve on their special day. A quinceañera, quinces, 15s, is a gesture of deep care and sign that you are ready for the world — whatever it brings.