A quinceañera, 15 years late

by Natalia Ciolko

Article originally published in the San Antonio Current, December 2009

The quinceañera, that wedding-like extravaganza marking a girl’s passage into womanhood, is more than a tradition. It’s an obsession. For one day, an average teenage girl becomes a princess. So what happens when five grown women decide to reclaim their lost quinceañeras — still childless and unmarried, but 15 years late? One might expect equal parts house party and teenage fantasy; noxious strawberry air freshener, hundreds of buoyant pink balloons, a stockpot of homemade beans, and two varieties of tamales. Toss in a few bags of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, paint the names of the honored on the walls in pink, and you’re halfway there.

For one magical night, the newly minted Chicana Collective of San Antonio threw themselves such an exhibit of female ritual and symbol, titled Our Debut, at a nondescript Westside house. The show served as a literal coming-of-age, if not for las mujeres themselves, for the fledgling collective.

“None of our families really had money to have a quinceañera, and it was never something that I wanted or missed … so this is kind of like my quinceañera,” said member Cristina Ordonez, her powder-pink manicure matching everything in sight.

The five women artists — Ordonez, Mari Hernandez, Kristin Gamez, Ruth Buentello, and Sarah Castillo — presented work in varied media. In Hernandez’s photo self-portrait, full of cash imagery, she wears a bling-bling petticoat sewn collaboratively with Castillo. Next to it stood a pew strewn with flower petals, where visitors knelt to listen to Ordonez’s soundscape of the Latin-Catholic quince religious ceremony. Opposite that installation hung a massive painting by Buentello of a very pregnant teenage girl, in a glitter tiara, looking down at her feet with a hand resting on her womb. Her form was covered in iterations of what Buentello’s boyfriend described as “gangsta paisley.” Beside the work sat 15-year-old Grace, the painting’s subject.

“I always wanted to do a piece about teen pregnancy but I couldn’t figure out how to tie it in to the quinceañera theme,” Buentello said. “Then my little brother’s girlfriend got pregnant.”

As we spoke, a friend arrived, bearing a quince gift: a vintage Chicano ’zine from Los Angeles.

I turned my attention to a surreal mixed-media painting by Castillo which depicts a young girl in a flouncy dress connected by entrails to a turtle trapped on its back. “I decided the dream I had that night would be what I worked on for the show. So, that’s what I dreamed,” Castillo said. “I figured, well, if I don’t do this, the next time I request something from my subconscious it might not respond.”

In the show’s video offering, a fictional character portrayed by Gamez attempts a late-bloom quinceañera, is rejected by the church, and decides to throw her own celebration, her way. (“If I can’t have a blessing, I’ll just have a really badass party.”)

“The styling and decoration is very Tejana, but also youthful and contemporary. It’s the concentrated essence of a quinceañera,” said Eddie Chavez, 24, a friend of the artists.

But as the artists themselves admit, their vision of the quinceañera is slightly askew. “You can kind of tell what happens when you don’t have one,” said Hernandez with a wry smile. “It’s a very jaded view.” She quickly added that the artists were not attempting to disparage their heritage. “The one qualm I had about doing this show was that I respect my culture, I respect the tradition, and I understand why people have this. But at the same time, there’s a side to it that’s hardly ever acknowledged.”

Joaquin Jesus Padilla, 31, of Austin-based artist collective Queer Soul drove to San Antonio for the opening.

“This show is what we call rasquache, or bringing whatever you’ve got to the table,” he said. “We might have limited resources, but we’re a force to be reckoned with.”

Jordan, 10, still a handful of birthdays from her own quinceañera, said she liked the show. “I’ve never really seen anything like this before,” she said reverently.

Jimmy James Canales, 24, was part of a surprisingly large male population in attendance. “I think it’s very necessary that young Chicana women can come together and make art on their own terms,” Canales said. “It’s exciting because the Chicana movement is kind of older, so this is a revitalization.”

Although the beginning of any group effort requires loads of optimism, the girls are realistic about the future of the collaboration. “I don’t have any expectations because I’ve never been a part of something like this. But so far, I have gained a lot of support, and encouragement, and confidence,” said Castillo. “We’re just oozing support!”

Other Chicana groups and artists have demonstrated interest in joining forces with the newborn collective, Hernandez said. “There’s a need out there, and that’s the reason why I wanted to start this. No one else is doing it, so why not?”

She acknowledges that with growth come necessary compromises, potential watering-down of individual ideas, and potential conflict, all possibly eased — or, conversely, necessitated — by any group hierarchy. Hernandez admits, “That is the number-one thing on our list after the show, because we hadn’t really thought about structure.”  But, she adds, “I know how important it is to be mentored or to have that community, so I want to stay away from being exclusive.”

“We all have very diverse backgrounds and very different ideas of what we want to do,” Ordonez added. “There’s no restrictions — it can go in a hundred-thousand directions.” •