15: A Quinceañera Story, a collection of four short documentary films, follows five Latina girls all observing the traditional rite of passage of the quinceañera, a celebration of their 15th birthdays. Available for streaming on HBO.
As LGBTQ people, many of us, regardless of if we’re trying to or not, have helped pave the way for others to live proudly as who they truly are. We hope to make progress because it will make life easier for those people who come after us. At times, we live out our own hopes and dreams through them. Thalia Sodi’s HBO documentary series, 15: A Quinceañera Story has an episode that shows just that. The series follows five Latinas over the course of four half-hour episodes, as they prepare to turn 15. One of those episodes follows Zoey, a transgender teen from California. The LGBTQ people surrounding her reconcile their past with her present, and personify their own hopes and dreams through her.
While a documentary that follows a teenage girl as she prepares for an impressive birthday party might seem superfluous, make no mistake, this is no MTV My Super Sweet Sixteen. There is no drama over the car her parents bought her, tears over canceled credit cards, or arguments over who gets invited. Instead, we hear, through her mother Ofelia, of some of the struggles Zoey has faced as transgender teen. One of those was a legal battle with her school district, that wanted to expel her as a result of the bullying she was enduring. Here is where we meet the first adult who sees himself in Zoey.
James was the ACLU lawyer Ofelia enlisted to help Zoey fight expulsion. In the time since he helped Zoey as a client, he’s become a close family friend; a father figure for Zoey whose dad passed away. James tells us when he first met Zoey, who as James describes was “pre-transition," she was playing with dolls in her front yard. He shared how his mom who, at seeing him at a young age playing with dolls in a friend’s front yard, told him he could play with dolls, but only in the backyard so as not to be seen. He saw a bit of his past in Zoey, but it was an idealized version. There was hope in knowing that unlike him, Zoey wasn’t being asked to hide, or feel shame.
As Zoey prepares for her Quince, she meets with Joseph, a choreographer helping with the dance she and her friends will perform during the party. He shares with Zoey, her friends, and her mom, what it means to be able to see Zoey thriving as an out transgender teen. “I know how it is to be different. I’m Mexican and I’m gay,” he says. “To see the family that you have, and the support, is really touching to me because I didn’t have that.” Joseph, very much like James, is able to identify a similar experience to that of Zoey, despite him being gay and her being transgender. The connection he makes is to say that he, unlike her, didn’t gain the same level of acceptance from his family.
One of the more direct ways Zoey’s life is epitomized by an adult surrounding her comes from Zoey’s madrina (godmother), Maria, a transgender Latina who pays for Zoey’s Quince dress. While shopping for the dress, she reflects on what it would mean to be 14 again, specifically, how fun it would be to have Ofelia as a mother.
During Zoey’s Quince, Maria gives a speech telling Zoey, “it feels like all the years of struggle are all coming as a blessing through you.” She goes on, “to me, you symbolize the hope that many of us didn’t have.” A Quinceañera represents a young Latina leaving childhood behind and becoming a woman. It’s a rite of passage for many young Latinas. For Maria, a trans woman, seeing Zoey able to celebrate this momentous occasion allows her to reconcile her own missed experience. An experience she wasn’t able to fulfill, for probably similar reasons as James and Joseph, which don’t come up in the episode.
Perhaps that’s the very reason why it’s so easy for the LGBTQ adults in Zoey’s life to see a bit of themselves in her. Allowing themselves to live vicariously through the life of a younger generation of trans, gay, or queer, people gives them a form of absolution. It allows them to recognize their struggles as worth something; for the greater good. Their struggles and their pain allowed for an easier path, although one they themselves weren’t able to walk on.
Unlike our straight and cis counterparts, as LGBTQ people, experiences we miss out on are a result of living in the closet, of society thrusting shame upon us. While there are definitely plenty of young cis girls who longed for a Quinceañera, but were unable to have one, they’re different than the transgender women, like Maria, who never had one because they weren’t allowed to live as their authentic selves yet. That difference is key because non-LGBTQ people can also feel as if they miss out on the lived experiences of younger generations. It's just for different reasons.
Maria ends her speech to Zoey by telling her, “every time I see you, I see every dream that did not come true for me, come true for you.” For us, as LGBTQ people, seeing a younger generation live in ways we were never able to might be enough. Especially because, reminiscing on lived experiences that could have been in a more accepting time might just be too hard. It’s easier to live hopefully through the experiences of a younger generation so that they, hopefully, have less and less they wish they hadn’t missed out on.