After photographing more than 200 quinceañeras (fifteen-year-old girls), photographer Angélica Escoto realized that her work serves to record and shed light on the lives of undocumented Mexican immigrants in the US.
In 2006, Mexican photographer Angélica Escoto decided to post a classified ad on San Diego’s El Latino newspaper, offering her photography and video services for social events. She was surprised to discover that quinceañera parties -which traditionally celebrate a girl becoming a woman, and her official presentation in society- are part of a burgeoning Latino industry in southern California, where Latinos have added this foreign cultural element to the melting pot that is American society.
This is how “Ellas no bailan solas” (“They don’t dance by themselves”) came about. It’s a photo series that captures quinceañera parties in San Diego, the California city that has an intimate yet impenetrable relationship with Tijuana, its Mexican sister, on the busiest border in the world.
The subjects are the quinceañeras themselves, the daughters of Mexican immigrants who left their country looking for better opportunities in the 1980s and 1990s. Most of them come from Michoacán, Guerrero, and Oaxaca, the three states that drove out the most immigrants as a result of economic policies in Mexico, a decline in agriculture, and most importantly the NAFTA’s (North American Free Trade Agreement) coming into force in 1994.
Unlike quinceañera parties in Mexico, which vary according to the family’s taste and budget, the parties on the other side of the border are usually incredibly lavish celebrations where no detail goes unplanned, almost like a wedding. The music usually involves a band and a DJ, and the birthday girl almost always makes her entrance on a limousine or carriage.
The menu is a bit more flexible, but more often than not the main entrée is birria (a traditional spicy meat stew). Mole and carnitas come in second place in terms of popularity. The alcohol is tequila and beer. The family and guests usually drive to the party, bringing enough Pacífico and Carta Blanca beer to share with everyone. However, except for very rare occasions, the party is usually over by midnight.
When the family can’t afford to hire a venue for the party, the biggest backyard in the neighborhood will do; add balloons, a tent, chairs, and a floor, and you’re good to go. In these cases, the party can’t go beyond 8:30 pm: the neighbors have zero tolerance for parties like this, and it’s best to avoid getting the cops called for loud music. A special permit from the local authorities can let you extend the party for a couple of hours more, but that’s it. The most expensive option is to rent a venue, where the party can go on until midnight. However, renting one of these spaces can run you anything from 10 to 18 thousand dollars, a price that not too many undocumented families can afford.
Escoto is certain that the party’s culmination, the climax, is when the quinceañera along with her court of maids and chamberlains, and that the most popular song for the dance is Chayanne’s “Tiempo de vals:” “when you’re filming a quinceañera party, the dance is the ultimate performance, it’s the moment when the scopic tension becomes the party’s climax (...) when the wish to see and be seen makes everyone forget reality.”
Above all else, the photographer sees these parties as an act of love that requires enormous amounts of sacrifice and money, which is oftentimes scarce in the lives of immigrants. It is also an act of vindication and desire because it lets quinceañeras and their family forget -at least for a few hours- the mass deportations, the discrimination, and the hardship of being undocumented in the most powerful country in the world. And most importantly, it’s a ritual that connects them to their roots, the same ones their parents left behind so many years before and that they sometimes feel very far from, or even ashamed of.
Beyond the critiques that reveal the machismo in these celebrations that introduce women into society at the age of 15, the work of Angélica Escoto show a hidden side of the lives of Mexican immigrants in the United States:
“Ellas no bailan solas” documents the quinceañera parties of the daughters of Mexican immigrants who live in San Diego, California. Their messages transmit values, feelings, desires, and fantasies that have to do with the body, gender, and prestige. The ritual of the party outside of Mexico resists the tragedy of the everyday, the deportations, and the dysfunctional families.”
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