Transitioning at 15 – “The Quinceanera”
We’ve been back about a month from Europe, hosted the Xunutzi dance group for Tucson Meet Yourself, been to Minneapolis to line up work for next summer and to the Rio Sonora. Finally came a pause and it seemed a good time to write. The subject matter is simple, an account of something I did during a recent trip to Mexico. It’s another small piece of what has become a growing collection of tales and photos we’ve been collecting along the Rio Sonora Valley over the past couple of years.
When we started that project, some of my motivation was to tell the story of the borderlands from a different perspective. Our experiences during that first winter revealed a story that was in stark contrast to the one told by the media. As we got to know more about the area and the people, the stories unfolded almost automatically.
Today I found myself wondering, what was it in those stories that moved me, that often made their telling effortless. It was a question I had never asked, something I had taken for granted. The first thing that came to mind was realizing, how for us, being people who travel a fair amount, who interact with people from many walks of life, how little we know about people and places, that are sometimes very close. I say that about this remote area of northern Mexico, a place that we know better than most Americans. Our time in Europe this past summer reminded me of that even more.
I think what moved us more than anything else was our desire to share and communicate what we encountered, while taking tiny steps outside the rather narrow, sometimes confining. In our everyday lives. Our experiences were a vivid reminder that the methods we use in our daily lives to gather information about our world can be so very limited. Many of the older generations rely upon the newspaper – either in hand or online, from books and magazines, while those younger tend to rely upon the modern mediums of Facebook, YouTube and the like. Clearly, they all have a place, I use them all. These different mediums have enriched our lives immensely over recent years, but I also realize just how very-very limiting it is to sit confined to our home or office and dependent on those mediums for the information we use to guide our lives. They enrich us with knowledge, but a knowledge that by itself that can paint, at best, a very small picture. And in the end, it’s often little more than traveling and learning through the eyes and perceptions of others.
Upon our return from Europe, I was told by a friend in Mexico, that a family who we knew in the Rio Sonora Valley, was expecting me to photograph their daughter’s “Quinceanera,” otherwise known as a “Quince” or on Facebook, simply a “XV.” For many Latin Americans, it’s the celebration that marks the transition a girl to young womanhood on her 15th birthday. In terms of formality and expense, it is just a notch below a wedding. Nothing is spared and in the case of a family of few resources, such as the Ochoa family of this story, it was an event described best by Mexican saying of “tirando la casa por la ventana,” that of throwing the house out through the window.
My expected role was a complete surprise. As for why they thought I was going to do it, you could describe it as the “beauty of innocent expectation.” In other words, their perception was that I was a close friend, who had photographed them in past, it was only natural that I would attend their daughter’s quinceanera and of course, photograph it. They are one of the first families we got to know in the area, the Ochoas of Banamichi, Sonora, a hard working family that does everything from growing produce to making mescal Bacanora, cheese and maintaining a small amount of cattle.
From a photographic standpoint, a “Quinceanera” has much in common with a wedding. And if there is one thing I’m not, it’s a wedding photographer. It’s a skill in itself that I know little about and saddled with the responsibility of providing this young girl with a collection of images that will be with her for her lifetime, a collection that shows her beauty and specialness, made me very nervous and uncomfortable. Add to that, very complex lighting conditions, which during most of the evening, were almost non-existent and often a weird mix of incandescent, fluorescent and mercury-vapor lights. Normally, those kinds of conditions can be a whole lot of fun, but not when trying to provide a teenager with a lifetime’s worth of memories.
Given some lingering fatigue from European travel and the pressure of the expectations I perceived, I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about doing it. However, looking back, I think it was more than anything little more than a defensive posture on my part in order to mask my uneasiness about being able to deliver what was expected of me. But saying no was not an option.
At 5 pm on Saturday evening I set out for the Catholic Thanksgiving mass with which the Quinceanera begins. Along with me were my 11 year old son Kalin, who had made his own badge, “photo assistant,” and one of the local Banamichi girls from the Xunutzi dance group, Lupita Ceron was our cultural attache, to take backup photos and to keep me informed and what was happening and when to make sure I didn’t miss anything.
Sometimes I’m absolutely amazed at how quickly or how little it can take for one to change perspective, thoughts and feelings. As I approached the outside of the Banamichi church, looking at the deep blue sky of the evening sky, the street lights, the vibrant and electric green ruffled dress of Kemberling Ochoa, immediately caught my attention. The color palette that has always attracted me to Mexico was appearing before my eyes. It was irresistible, especially when coupled with the mother’s magenta pink dress. In Mexico, everything is often over the top, in this case a very fancy dress, lots of makeup, hair, nails, the complete treatment. It was too much to resist. Everything about the moment suggested the possibility of great color and composition coming together in some meaningful images.
They had decorated the interior of the church with an abundance of flowers, the setting was perfect with Padre Julio Caesar (Julius Caesar) doing the mass. He’s dynamic as a priest can be. If I was having a quinceanera, he’d be my go-to priest. The mass was pretty straight forward and simple, nice music and singing, Kemberling front and center kneeling before the altar. Often, it’s a differences between what happens there and life in the States that I love such as bringing the family dog to mass. The mass concludes with the young girl presenting an offering of a bouquet of flowers to the Lady of Guadalupe.
How the quinceanera happens varies according to where it takes place. The Rio Sonora obviously has their version, much of it was a blur in terms of my understanding the sequencing, but our trusty assistant Lupita, keep pointing me in the right direction when the time was right and a photo needed. I will mention at this point that being the (very noticeable) photographer in a context where one is standing on dance floor with the girl and dancing partner, surrounded by an audience consisting of approximately 500 people, the majority dressed like cowboys complete with hats and boots, can be somewhat intimidating.
Of course, the mass is followed by a party, complete with band and a series of formal dances that precede turning the guests loose on the dance floor until the wee hours. The location? None other “the Casino.” I spend a lot of time in Banamichi and it was the first I had ever heard mention of a “casino.” The local casino revealed itself to be a large open outdoor space, enclosed with concrete block walls and covered with a large metal roof. The combination of the street lights and a glimpse through the large metal doors once again suggested more fun with the camera. The overall ambiance was consistent with my expectaions. Once again, the vibrant green, somewhat akin to the Geen Lantern’s costume, and magenta of the dresses, repeated itself in the decorations.
The evening begins with the girl being presented in the company of her escort, parents, godparents, and a group of young boys called the “chambelanes” or chamberlains. There are several main parts to the ceremony, the first of which is the ritual of the changing of the shoes (El cambio de las zapatillas) when the teenager’s father changes her flat, low-heel shoes to high heels, symbolizing, again, the girl’s passage into maturity.
The highlight of the quinceanera is the “Primer Vals” or the first waltz. In this case, the song chosen was called “La Ultima Muneca” (the Last Doll) which began with Kemberling dancing with her father Alfredo, continuing with her escort and the rest of the court that included godparents (padrinos) and the secondary escorts (chambelanes.)
The formal part of the evening ended with the toast (El brindis) and a transition dance, something more popular and modern, done with her cousin Jesus Maria. From there, hours more of drinks, music and dance follow. At that point, my job was done.
The whole event was a reminder of the need to remind myself how often discomfort or unease is just a way of masking fear and how vital it is to not to withdraw or retreat, but to reframe the situation into one that envisions a positive outcome and one that gives something back. I never cease to be amazed of the difference or gap that can exist between what one expects or intends and that which actually happens. It is simply fascinating what we can do with our minds. I came across a quote today that I thought addressed this very well – “The best things [in life] come on the periphery of intended consequences…” — m.w. lipczynski
Another thing occurred to me about that night and it is how much of the process of photographing people involves taking, once in a while it goes back to them in the form of a photo by email, other times a print, Facebook helps a bunch, but in all honesty, my basic motivation is that of capturing a moment for some intended use I have in mind. At some point that Saturday evening, it occurred to me that this was a chance to really give something back, something that would be meaningful and special, perhaps treasured, I would hope to think so. I’m sure that thought made for better photos. It was a vivid reminder, that given the skills that I have, there is great opportunity to give back and to look for more opportunities to do so, perhaps involving others in that effort, whenever possible.
Just so happened that on this rainy afternoon, as I wrote this piece, Kalin and I watched a documentary on PBS about two men who decided to retrace Marco Polo’s Footsteps from Venice to Asia and back again on foot. It’s an amazing tale of adventure and travel that makes our little adventures pale in comparison. I’m mentioning it because I want to share one of their comments at the end of their journey.
“Travel is the enemy of bigotry, get out there and travel, there are more good people in the world than bad.” I think that is so true and it need not even be bigotry, it may be something as simple as teaching us something more about ourselves and how we see others. Here’s a link to their film – “In the Footsteps of Marco Polo.”
As we were leaving the next day, I encountered the father Alfredo on the street, wrapping out everything from the night before. He was much more at ease and relaxed. He is by no means a social creature and I’m sure it took everything he had to get through that Saturday night. I followed him home where he compensated me for my work, liters of mescal Lechugilla, prepared by him especially for the Quinceanera. The brown, blue labeled Bud Light bottles made it all the more elegant.
I always love the drive home, the landscape is gorgeous and as always one encounters sights and things you just don’t see at home.