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Family Is The Life Of The Party In HBO Doc 'A Quinceañera Story'

Rosi Alvarez celebrated her <em>quinceañera</em> in Cuba, her father's home country.
Courtesy of HBO
Rosi Alvarez celebrated her quinceañera in Cuba, her father's home country.

When you hear the word quinceañera, the traditional rite of passage for 15-year-old Latina girls, you might think of poofy, pink dresses and big, boisterous family parties. A new HBO documentary series aims to add a little more depth to that perception.

15: A Quinceañera Story takes viewers inside the modern quinceañera. It profiles an East Los Angeles teen boxer, a transgender teen and two girls who perform in rodeo shows together.

Rosi Alvarez is also profiled in the series. She says her quinceañera "really meant that I'm growing up. I went from sitting at the little kids' table in every family event to going to the big-girl table now."

Matt O'Neill, who directed the series, says he and his team started the project with a mission: "We set out to find the most dynamic, diverse group of young women who were celebrating their quinceañeras, and I think we found an incredible group of young women."

Interview Highlights

On Alvarez's family story

Rosi Alvarez: I am bicultural, and my mom is g uatemalteca — she's Guatemalan — and my dad is Cuban. My mom, she was able to cross the border at a very young age and still be someone who was top of her class, had a high GPA and was able to become a citizen. And my dad was a little bit more fortunate, because he won the lotería, or a visa pass in Cuba, and he was able to travel.

On working for her mom's cleaning company to help pay for her quinceañera

Alvarez: I came from planning my quince since I was 11 years old, so we started early because we wanted everything to work out perfectly. But the thing is, it was always the "Where are we gonna have the party? Are we gonna be able to have a big party? Is it gonna be a little party?" Because renting a ballroom or, like, a party hall is really expensive and that was our main concern. ...

My mom has a cleaning company and she cleans for a lawyer here locally. And once she started working there, it just turned into a really big place, like it was not easy for her to do by herself. ... We took Sundays and sometimes Fridays to clean up the office, which was probably the best days for us because after church we would just head towards the office and clean.

On the gratitude Alvarez showed her parents in the series

Alvarez: I think everything that I do and I try to do in my life is to thank them because they do so much for me on a daily, and I just want to show them how grateful I am, because I truly am grateful. It's like, a lot of sacrifices [went] into my quince. A lot of things had to get put on hold. And to be able to have that quinceand to be able to do all that, I just wanted to be as thankful as I could during the whole process.

The reality of so many of these young women's lives are directly affected by this political moment.

On the political relevance of the series

Matt O'Neill: What wound up happening over the course of our filming, and especially since the election last year, is these stories felt more and more politically relevant. Not because we set out to make a political film, but because the reality of so many of these young women's lives are directly affected by this political moment.

Ashley Lopez is an amateur boxer whose father has been deported and whose boxing coach is undergoing deportation procedures.
/ Courtesy of HBO
Courtesy of HBO
Ashley Lopez is an amateur boxer whose father has been deported and whose boxing coach is undergoing deportation procedures.

So Ashley, the boxer in Los Angeles, yes, her mother's a DREAMer, her dad's been deported and her boxing coach is undergoing deportation procedures while he's training her for her debut match. And I think you see that that's the context of her world. That's the way this young, American woman is living.

And so, is it political? On some level, yes, but the political is personal and I think a lot of the things that you hear debated right now in Washington — we have to remember the real world effects that they have on young Americans' lives.

On what O'Neill learned in making the series

O'Neill: There's so many different facets of a quinceañera, from the baile sorpresa [the surprise dance], to the last doll, to the replacing of the heels, you know, giving the first gift of heels. And all those details, I hadn't known about quinceañeras or this aspect of Latino culture.

But I think the thing that became most clear is that at the core of these ceremonies is familial love, and that's what you see celebrated in each of the four films. And its a universal aspect of human life and Latino, Irish, every culture pours so much into their children, and that's what you see through these quinceañeras.

Sarah Handel and Martha Wexler produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Sydnee Monday and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.

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Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.