Quinceañera is a movie that a lot of people are going to hate, each person for a different reason, while missing the entire cultural subtext altogether:
1. Mexicans would see it as glorifying two teens who’ve made the worst mistakes they could make.
2. Gays won’t like the gay characters.
3. People against illegal immigration will be questioning the immigration status
and at the same time the general public would have missed half the picture. It’s as if Titanic had told the story of how the ship sailed right past the iceberg.
First, the good: Emily Rios as Magdalena and Chalo Gonzalez as her great-uncle Tomas are excellent. Jesse Garcia as Carlos delivers an outstanding, award-worthy performance.
And now for the rest:
The movie’s in English and Spanish with English subtitles. I went to the matinee on a rainy afternoon and not one person in the sparse audience other than myself understood what was going on: they chuckled at inappropriate times. While the subtitles were accurate, the actors’ delivery gave the dialogue meaning, which those not fluent in Spanish missed.
The entire movie takes place in Echo Park, LA, an up and coming area. Like the neighborhood, the Mexican people in the movie – all bilingual – are starting to break through to middle-class status. Magdalena’s boyfriend’s taking advanced placement exams and his parents expect him to go to college. Her cousin Eileen, the first quinceañera in the movie, comes from a family that can afford a beautiful new gown designed and sewn by Emily’s elegant and talented mother, and arrives to her party in a Hummer limo. Magdalena’s great uncle Tomas, who sells chaparrado in the neighborhood, has been living in Echo Park for 28 years on a property that’s sold to a gay couple who are restoring their newly-purchased home.
Magdalena’s father is the pastor of a small community church. He also works as a security guard and her mother wears scrubs so I assume she works as a healthcare worker. The family has only two children.
What this would mean in the real world is that
a. The pastor of a small church like that, along with his family, would be under intense pressure and scrutiny to lead exemplary lives. Magdalena’s pregnancy would have been a disaster because the father would have lost all credibility as pastor. One very important reason why Evangelical churches have taken root in Latin America is that their pastors strive to live exemplary lives: they’re out to show that they are better than the Catholic church. This is not a moot issue.
b. The small family size is a rarity and means that the parents have abstained from having more children, most probably for financial reasons, i.e., so the family can get ahead.
c. Magdalena’s pregnancy would be calamitous from the religious and economic standpoint, but also as a failure of their parenting. Her parents would realize every day that it’d mean that she’s going to drop out of school, possibly never to graduate, working in low-paying jobs forever, struggling to get child support from a man who didn’t even have intercourse with her. The movie doesn’t touch on what a bitter disappointment it would represent in the long term.
There is not one word coming out from Magdalena’s family as to whether the two teens should be forced to marry.
Apparently the movie also has the title Echo Park, and Magdalena’s pregnancy echos that of thousands of single Mexican girls in similar circumstances who are sentencing themselves to lives of penury.
Clearly, while Mexican teenage girls have very high pregnancy rates, Magdalena’s not the average Mexican girl.
Neither is her cousin Carlos, who gets seduced by his great-uncle Tomas’s landlords, Gary and James, both of which wear wedding bands. After Carlos has an affair with Gary, Tomas gets served with an eviction notice. At least the movie shows the calamitous effect this has on Tomas.
Carlos, who sports the tats and clothes of a gang member, apparently dropped the gang when he dropped out of high school (or possibly the gang expelled him for being gay?). The movie shows that Carlos’s father threw him out of their home for being gay, which is exactly what would have happened in real life. While Carlos talks of getting a job in show biz, he loses his real job at the car wash by vandalizing James’s car (the police never show up so one’s led to believe that James never called them – most unlikely, for sure). Carlos’s prospects are as grim as Magdalena’s, and would have been equally dismaying to his successful parents.
To his credit, Jesse Garcia’s outstanding portrayal of Carlos manages to bring out great humanity and depth of feeling to what otherwise would have been a slacker and petty criminal.
Injecting surrealism to the scene, Magdalena doesn’t even get pregnant the usual way, giving ocassion for her religious father’s acceptance of the “miracle”, but also to her boyfriend’s suggestion that “if it’s a boy we can name him Jesus” (a joke that went lost in the audience, since Jesus was pronounced in Spanish), not that that prevented him from skipping town.
The happy ending has Magdalena wearing a new maternity gown, Carlos escorting her, as they promenade out of a Hummer to Magdalena’s quinceanero while the Triumphal March plays on. While the ending couldn’t possibly be more contrived and ironic, the NYT bought the whole multi-culti enchilada
But it believes in its characters enough to leave you feeling that they will not only survive but also flourish.
What I would like to see is Treintañera, with an exhausted, world-weary 30-yr-old Magdalena trying to come up with the resources needed to celebrate her 15-yr-old’s birthday. For now, all that Carlos and Magdalena can celebrate at this point is regaining the acceptance of their parents. Let’s hope that will help them in the future.
Only those blinded by the “dazzling, multicultural diversity of the vibrant, inclusive, robust, colorful” Echo Park neighborhood will buy into the story of how these two intelligent, appealing teens set themselves up to lifetimes of sorrows in spite of their families’ best efforts.
Update: In a lighter vein, Geoffrey Chaucer looks at Serpentes on a Shippe! (spoylerez)