Planning the perfect quinceañera is one thing. Planning the perfect quinceañera while still sporting fresh bruises from your first boxing match is another. Add cameras and a film crew to the mix and you'll have an idea of what Ashley Lopez was dealing with.
"The most stressful part was the fight, of course," said Lopez. "Because it wasn't just a fight, it was going to be filmed by HBO. I was like, 'Wow, that's really big. If I lose, if I just get knocked out right here, the whole world's going to see.’"
Lopez, an amateur boxer from East L.A., is one of five subjects of an upcoming series of documentary films running on the cable channel about the ritual of quinceañera, the celebration of a Latina’s 15th birthday.
In the same vein as MTV's long-running "My Super Sweet 16" (but with considerably less of that series’ signature privilege and entitlement), HBO's "15: A Quinceañera Story" aims to shine a spotlight on the myriad ways young Latinas choose to celebrate the day. The 30-minute documentaries, which span celebrations taking place in L.A., Texas and Florida, run on consecutive nights, starting Tuesday.
Directed by Matthew O'Neill and executive produced by husband and wife duo Tommy Mottola and Thalía Sodi (a music executive and recording artist, respectively), the four films follow five Latina girls through the planning and staging of their drastically different, highly unique quinceañeras.
"It was originally meant to be one film, but then we found so many incredible young women that it became four short films," said O'Neill. "People too often think of the Latino community as monolithic; in these films, you see five young women who are fierce and dynamic in such different ways.
“They come from different backgrounds, different places, different passions and different personal stories. What unites them is the honoring of their community and their culture."
The quinceañera is a rite of passage that historians say came about as a result of Spanish culture mixing with customs of the indigenous peoples the Spaniards colonized. Today, quinceañeras are celebrated in Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as in Latino communities in the U.S.
Of the L.A.-based subjects, there's Lopez, along with Zoey Luna, a trans girl celebrating her quinceañera with several trans madrinas (or godmothers) who were never able to have celebrations of their own.
"They're so very supportive of me," Luna said of her madrinas. "They're basically like my fairy godmothers, honestly."
To find subjects for the documentaries, the filmmakers combined "the reach of the internet and good old-fashioned street walking," said O'Neill.
"It was a pretty rigorous process. We reached out to every community around the country that we could. We talked to quinceañera planners, community activists, community organizations and found them in all sorts of different ways. For example, we found Ashley by walking along Whittier Boulevard and striking up conversations in every quinceañera dress shop."
Luna, on the other hand, was discovered when the filmmakers happened upon an article about a court case she and her mother, Ofelia, had against her public school. After administrators at the school asked her to transfer, the ACLU wrote a letter of support to make sure her rights were protected.
"I thought it would be a really great step into having trans inclusiveness in media," Luna said of her quinceañera. "A lot of people don't know transgender girls that are even teenagers, and so I thought it would be cool like, ‘Hey, I'm a trans teenage girl. It happens, it's a normal thing.' And also that we do have quinceañeras."
Since being brought together to do press for the series, Lopez and Luna have become fast friends, cracking up between takes at The Times’ photo studio and coordinating a sleepover at Luna’s house at the end of the interview. “I feel like we’re like sisters, to be honest,” Luna said. “We just clicked right away,” Lopez agreed.
Where Lopez, who grew up with older brothers, is tough, with a tomboy’s sensibilities (and an obsession with rapper ASAP Rocky), Luna is the quintessential girly-girl who references ’90s TV series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” at least 15 times over the course of the interview. “I should’ve been born in the ’90s,” she said.
Filming lasted for about seven months and captured the struggles leading up to the parties as well as the parties themselves. Lopez had to juggle preparing for both a huge fight and a huge party scheduled just days apart while her beloved boxing coach was being threatened with deportation. Luna, on the other hand, struggled with drama among her classmates and with finding boys to participate in her chamberlain, or court.
"It's really hard," said Luna. "Because everyone wants to know, 'Have you got the surgery? Did you get your nose job? Did you get your boobs done? Why do you have cellulite?' There's a lot of ignorance and a lot of hate, because people see me so confident, but I'm myself and I know who I am."
"These young women inspire me," said O'Neill. "They celebrate, I think, many of the different strands of what it means to be a young Latina today in the United States.
"Too often, the Latino community is defined in broad brushstrokes and generalizations. Really, the thing that unites these young women is the fact that they're all celebrating their culture with a quinceañera. Otherwise, they're totally different. And different in so many self-assured and self-confident ways."
Despite having such drastically different interests, the girls are in agreement about what the ritual means to them.
"I feel like a quinceañera stops time," said Luna. "It really makes you think about what's important to you. I think it's a realization point..."
"And what's cool with that realization point is you get a celebration," chimed in Lopez.
"It's so much fun," Luna added. "Because you find out all these things about yourself and about the people who care about you, and then you get to just throw this awesome party with this amazing dress."
‘15: A Quinceañera Story’
Where: HBO and HBO Latino
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday through Friday
Rating: TV-G (suitable for all ages)