A few years ago, MTV Tres, the branch of MTV targeting Latino viewers, aired an episode of their popular reality show Quiero Mis Quinces that featured a bubbly, Lady-Gaga-loving girl named Jackeye, from East Los Angeles. Jackeye tells her mom one day while they’re shopping that she has an idea of how she can celebrate her quince, or 15th birthday, and celebrate her heritage all at once.
“We’re Mexican,” she says, “and I’m having a traditional quinceañera. And what better way to show my roots than to do a baile Azteca [for my] grand entrance?”
What made this choice surprising to so many people who watched and commented on this episode, is that it would be almost unheard of for a girl in Mexico to do an Aztec dance at her quince — the event that, historically, in most of the Spanish-speaking world marks the moment girls become women. Most girls there wear princess-like dresses and do a waltz; if they’re very traditional, they go to church first and get, as a gift, a doll, supposedly the last of their childhood. But more and more girls in the US are using their quinces as a way not just to celebrate their 15th birthdays, but also their roots — however they might imagine these roots to be.
Kimberly Valencia, of Phoenix, is one of these girls. She and her mom, Fabiola, are planning a party that Fabiola says she’s making “the most Mexican” she possibly can — a dream for Fabiola, the quince she’s always wanted to throw. (Her oldest daughter had a last-minute party, thrown together in just a couple of weeks that didn’t really have a clear theme, and her second oldest daughter threw a “low-rider” quince, in which members of the Nokturnal Car Club of Phoenix drove vintage cars around the neighborhood in a procession.)
For Kimberly’s quince, Fabiola’s planning to hang Mexican flags — everywhere — and to cook Mexican food. Kimberly also wants to give out Mexican candy in green, red and white wrappers — the colors of the Mexican flag.
Kimberly also has a specific idea of what it means to have a Mexican-themed quince.
“You can’t have a Mexican-themed party without a horse,” she says.
One reason why Kimberly thinks this has to do with her mom, who grew up and had a very happy childhood in a kind of beautiful, rural area in the Mexican state of Jalisco where people ride horses on the street. This childhood ended abruptly when Fabiola moved back in 1994, at 16 to Phoenix. She got married a year later and faced, all at once, the exhausting realities of being both an immigrant and an adult — two jobs and a mortgage and marriage and five kids.
So, she’s raised her daughters with stories of the relatively worry-free Mexico she knew as a little girl, and she’s set up their home so that her family is surrounded by this very specific idea of where they’re from. There are sombreros in the bar and mini cowboy boots on the toothbrush stand and horse shoes on the towel rack. Fabiola also used to send her daughters, especially her fourth, who was born on September 16th — Mexico’s Independence Day — to school with long braids (commemorative of the holiday) and an outfit she said was “all-out Mexican.”
And her daughter would ask her, “Why are you dressing me like this? I’m from here.”
“Because you’re Mexican!” Fabiola would say back.
To be clear, Fabiola never went to school with braids like this on September 16th. And she did not have a quince with Mexican flags and horses. So she’s more inventing these traditions for her daughters than she is passing them on — sort of like how Irish-Americans dye their drinks green or say: "Kiss me, I’m Irish" on St. Patrick’s Day, even though, at least historically, no one in Ireland has done anything like this.
This impulse to connect and sometimes even reinvent where we’re from when we’re in a new place is something Sebastian Portillo saw a lot while he directed all eight seasons of the MTV Tres’s show Quiero Mis Quinces.
“There’s something about leaving your country that makes you even more attached to those roots that you left behind,” he says. “If you’re from Argentina, you become more Argentinean. You start appreciating the things that maybe you wouldn’t be paying attention to if you were there.”
This is totally true in Kimberly’s case. She’s choosing what seems to her to be the most traditional Mexican option whenever she can. The whole party is themed charro, which means, roughly, “cowboy” in Spanish (the most noble, celebrated kind of cowboy), and true to theme, her dress is the “vestido charro” or the “cowboy dress.”
She’s going to church first for mass. She’s getting a doll (who wears a mini-version of the dress Kimberly wears). She’s also asked six of her male cousins and friends to be chambelanes, boys who will dance a choreographed routine with her. This, by the way, is a commitment — four months of practices every Friday night where her cousins come to learn how to dance zapateado to the song “Ay Mi Morena.”
“They act American, they speak American, they hardly know any Spanish,” choreographer Jhoanna Sotela says. “But I am forcing them to do a Spanish dance.”
Most quinces include a variety of dance numbers. Kimberly’s doing the zapateado number as her waltz, a slower dance to “My Little Girl” by Tim McGraw with her dad, and for her baile sorpresa, or surprise dance, in line with the charro theme, she was going to do a routine that included horse tricks — emphasis on was going to.
“It was eating my dress,” she said later, of the horse that was meant to co-star in the routine.
And not just that — the horse also wasn’t “cooperating with some of the moves” for the big surprise dance, so they’re no longer doing it.
And so, as with most dreams, of where we’re from and what this says about who we are, reality eventually interrupts — in Kimberly’s case, at her photo shoot. She’s in her cowgirl gown and sombrero posing next to a horse that’s unfortunately attracting a lot of flies. So she starts yelling: “There are flies in its eyes!” hoping that someone will come and fix the picture, make it look a little more idyllic. But instead, her sister Jaqueline says back to her: “So? You’re from the ranch now, right?”
This story was produced in association with Round Earth Media, a nonprofit organization that mentors the next generation of international journalists. Imelda Robles contributed to the reporting.