Family Is The Life Of The Party In HBO Doc 'A Quinceañera Story' The documentary series profiles five girls as they celebrate their quinceañeras. Director Matt O'Neill says the project taught him that "the core of these ceremonies is familial love."

Family Is The Life Of The Party In HBO Doc 'A Quinceañera Story'

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When you hear the Spanish word quinceanera, you might think of poufy, pink dresses, big, boisterous family parties and a traditional rite of passage for 15-year-old Latina girls. A new HBO documentary series takes us inside the modern quinceanera. There are profiles of an East LA teen boxer. OK, so she does wear a pink, poufy dress, albeit with boxing gloves. There's also a rodeo duo and a transgender coming-of-age story. One of the girls whose quince was featured in the HBO series, "15: A Quinceanera Story," joins us now from Fort Myers, Fla. She's Rosi Alvarez.



FRAYER: Hi. And we also have the filmmaker and director Matthew O'Neill on the line from New York.

Welcome to you.

MATTHEW O'NEILL: Thanks for having us.

FRAYER: So Rosi, let me start with you. Planning the quince for you was a huge family project, and it involved a lot of sacrifice. Tell us about that.

ALVAREZ: Oh, I came from planning my quince since I was 11 years old, so we started early because we wanted everything to work out perfectly. But the thing is, it was always the, where are we going to have the party? Are we going to be able to have a big party? Is it going to be a little party? Because renting a ballroom or, like, a party hall is, like, really expensive, and that was, like, our main concern.

FRAYER: Speaking of planning and the economic decisions, you helped your parents work and earned money to save for this.

ALVAREZ: Yes, I - my mom has a cleaning company, and she cleans for a lawyer here locally. And once she started working there, it just turned into, like, a really big place. Like, it was not easy for her to do by herself, so...

FRAYER: You pitch in after school or on weekends or...

ALVAREZ: We took Sundays and sometimes Fridays to clean up the office, which was probably the best days for us because after church, we'd just head towards the office and clean.

FRAYER: And that all went to your quince fund.

ALVAREZ: Yeah, it did.

FRAYER: Yeah. You have a very typical American story. What is your heritage? You have parents from different places - immigrants?

ALVAREZ: Yeah, I am bicultural. And my mom is guatemalteca - she's Guatemalan. And my dad is Cuban. My mom, she was able to cross the border at a very young age and still be someone who was top of her class, had a high GPA and was able to become a citizen. And my dad was a little bit more fortunate because he won the loteria, or a visa pass in Cuba to - and he was able to travel.

FRAYER: So you celebrated your quinceanera in Cuba, your dad's home country. Your party was pretty opulent. We think of Cuba as a communist and poor country. Was the fancy party out of the ordinary there?

ALVAREZ: For a lot of people, they were kind of surprised. It was, like, eye-opening for them. They were just, like, in shock. They were like, wow, this is huge, this is crazy. Because a lot of people, what they do is they close up the streets of their barrio, or their town, and they have, like, a street party. And when they saw that it was a fancy place and that it was closed and reserved, they were like, wow, this is a whole new thing. It's really cool.

FRAYER: Yeah. I want to turn to filmmaker Matt O'Neil. One of the girls that you feature in this film, her mother is a DREAMer who came to the U.S. illegally as a child. Her father had been deported. Zoey, the transgender teen, sues her school district for discrimination. This film is really topical. Is this a lighthearted series about teenagers or is this about politics and at - this moment in America?

O'NEILL: When we set out to make these films, we set out to find the most dynamic, diverse group of young women who were celebrating their quinceaneras. And I think we found an incredible group of young women. What wound up happening over the course of our filming, and especially since the election last year, is these stories felt more and more politically relevant, not because we set out to make a political film, but because the reality of so many of these young women's lives are directly affected by this political moment.

So Ashley, the boxer in Los Angeles, yes, you know, her mother's a DREAMer, her dad's been deported, and her boxing coach is undergoing deportation procedures while he's training her for her debut match. And I think you see that that's the context of her world. That's the way this young American woman is living. And so is it political? On some level, yes. But the political is personal, and I think a lot of the things that you hear debated right now in Washington - we have to remember the real-world effects that they have on young Americans' lives.

FRAYER: Rosi, the feeling I came away with after watching your story is, one, of your gratitude to your parents. Here you are, a princess at the center of this huge party, and yet you seem just really grateful to your mom and dad. How did your quince serve to honor their story and the family effort at getting you there?

ALVAREZ: I think everything that I do and I try to do in my life is to thank them because they do so much for me on a daily. And I just want to show them how grateful I am because I truly am grateful. It's, like, a lot of sacrifices going to my quince. A lot of things had to get put on hold. And to be able to, like, have that quince and to be able to do all that - I just wanted to be as thankful as I could during the whole process. And I live for them, basically. Everything I do for them is, like, a hundred percent, kind of.

FRAYER: Matt, this topic was new to you. What did you learn about Latino culture?

O'NEILL: There's so many different facets of a quinceanera, from the baile sorpresa, the surprise dance, to the last doll, to the replacing of the heels - you know, the - giving the first gift of heels. And all those details I hadn't known about quinceaneras or this aspect of Latino culture. But I think the thing that became most clear is that at the core of these ceremonies is familial love, and that's what you see celebrated in each of the four films. And it's a universal aspect of human life. And Latino, Irish, every culture pours so much into their children, and that's what you see through these quinceaneras.

FRAYER: Rosi Alvarez is featured in the new HBO series "A Quinceanera Story" directed by filmmaker Matt O'Neil. Thanks to you both for sharing this project.

ALVAREZ: Thank you.

O'NEILL: Thanks for having us.

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