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Adventures in Quinceañera Photography

I used to be a bit miffed that I never got to have a quinceañera. No ballgown, no party with 300 people, no mariachi serenade. Even the Jewish girls got bat mitzvahs (even if having to learn Hebrew kind of ups the ante). I remember somebody asked me, “What about your sweet 16?” I don’t know ANYONE who had a Sweet 16 party. As far as I can tell, it was always an east coast debutante, coming-out-to-society thing that has now been reconceptualized by MTV as an opportunity for noveeau riche über brats to organize obscene displays of wealth on their daddies’ credit cards.
In theory, the quinceañera marks a girl’s rite of passage from girlhood to womanhood. I believe that is something worth marking.

Alix XV
One of German’s photos: Presenting flowers to La Virgen

However, in the context of the United States, in which adolescence can now stretch into one’s twenties, the event sometimes seems less about taking on a mantle of adult responsibility and more about having a whopping huge party. After all, not many girls marry at 16 anymore.
I would say the age of 15 is unique in one respect- the spectrum of maturity is vast. Some of our clients did seem like they had just been playing with dolls last week as they did a dance, cradling their traditional “last doll.” Others seemed already hardened by life. I guess growing up is all relative.
Given that this tradition has persisted since Aztec times and across international borders, I’m guessing it’s not going anywhere soon.
Why my sudden fascination with the quinceanera? You have a lot of time to think about them when you attend 1-2 a month for a year. Since moving to LA, I have been assisting my boyfriend in his photo and video business. We primarily do XV años and weddings so I now have a privileged front row seat to this rite of passage, from the girl getting dressed in the morning up through the big dance.
There are many beautiful moments – as you can see showcased on our website.
Norma XV
One of German’s photos
However, today, I’m going to compile the hall of fame of some of our funniest experiences:

The worst toast of all time
For the sake of all involved, I am not going to post video of this one. Key detail: the bride and her husband had already been together for well over 20 years before tying the knot, so everyone at the party knew each other pretty well. When we got to the toast part of the evening, the sister of the groom apparently wanted to address some lingering animosities between the family members. She grabbed the microphone and called out to the bride:
“I want to tell you something. Let it go already! I don’t know what’s wrong with you because my brother has never cheated on you – never! So stop giving him a hard time! He never cheated on you!”
At that point, a couple of guys wrestled the microphone away. Needless to say, that toast DID NOT make the video.
Second runner up: This wasn’t a bad toast, just one that caught us by surprise. A relative of the bride said: “And congratulations because this baby is such a blessing.” That’s when we realized we were at a shotgun wedding. Unclear whether this was news to anyone else at the party.

#1 Vendor
Party and they will come. The light lady in the photo below has an uncanny ability to find any party we’ve ever gone to, get herself in and start selling glowing necklaces to everyone there who is under four feet tall.

LIGHTLADY

Puzzling familial relationships
Our policy regarding identifying family members is that we simply don’t ask. Sometimes the father is MIA, sometimes there are estranged siblings…we simply say, “Let’s a get a photo of the whole family!” and photograph whoever is standing there. At one party, a sibling showed up at the mass who we hadn’t met over at the house – the girl’s older “brother” who was six feet tall, wore a tight black skirt and a leather corset with 4-inch bondage-style heels and was accompanied by her boyfriend.

Best Photoshop request
One of our young ladies asked if we could do some work in Photoshop. She wasn’t looking for a little airbrushing. Rather, she handed German her brother’s booking shot, explained that he was incarcerated and would therefore not be able to attend the quinceañera and asked if we could Photoshop him in.

Most unusual location
The facility requirements for a rocking Mexican fiesta are not high. All you need is space for tables, an outlet for the DJ to plug in and neighbors who aren’t going to call the cops. We’ve been to a lot of backyard house parties, a couple of “salons” in converted warehouses, including the most elegant one we’ve seen which was in the swap meet building by the dumpsters. For this particular gig, we followed directions to a building in a decidedly industrial part of town and followed people disappearing into a gray building. We walked down a long hallway, past some classrooms and popped out into the party – in an enormous auto training shop. There were literally cars on lifts all across the side of the room, not to mention a stunning wall of tires.

The DJ
Quinceanera in auto body shop

Quinceanera in auto body shop

IMG_5274

Quinceanera in auto body shop

Best kid dancer: El Monte’s got talent!
The video speaks for itself.

Best Baile Sorpresa

This is a hard one to pick– we’ve seen some pretty good dances. I’m a bit partial to the western ones myself, but we had to give these girls a hand. They even did an impromptu encore.

Strangest Catholic wedding of all time
It is a common practice here for several girls to have their quinceañera mass at the same time as a money-saver. However, we have only attended one mass wedding. There were SEVEN couples, all of whom were clearly on the older side and several of whom already had children running around during the ceremony. The priest emphasized the timing was not as important as “eventually doing the right thing.”

Most absurd display of machismo
For one wedding, all of the payments were handled through the bride. She gave us the down payment for half and when we delivered the album and video, she spoke to German outside, slipped him the money, then told him to take the payment from her husband so he wouldn’t know how much the photo and video cost. He proceeded to slip German $20 dollars.

Worst Father of All Time
One time, I wasn’t able to assist German so his sister pitched in. When they went to the park, the father rolled up in a van with all the kids, who poured out and headed over to start taking photos. In the meanwhile, he pulled out a 40 of beer to entertain himself for the next hour. It is worth mentioning that German’s sister is a social worker whose professional assessment of the situation was, “Oh, hellll no!”

Best party music
This is my personal fave – a song guaranteed drive all Anglo neighbors up the wall. Good thing it’s LA and you don’t have any! The music video is also pretty awesome. “¿Esto ya se acabó? NOOOOOOOOO!!!”

For your listening pleasure, here my Mexican party mix to date – I’m still adding to it. It enlivens my Friday afternoons at work quite a bit.

A Memorable Visit from the Fire Marshall
This quinceañera took place in a converted warehouse in south LA where there were two other parties taking place simultaneously so there were a grip of people…and a dearth of exits. This fact was apparently not lost on the LA County Fire Marshall who paid us a little visit as chronicled by German:

Quinceañera Vocabulary 101
La Misa (mass): The most solemn part of the day is usually only attended by a handful of people with most of the crowd only coming for the party. Everyone dresses to the nines, which can range from elegant floor-length gowns to extremely short leopard print hootchie mama dresses.
Las damas (the maids) and los chambelanes: Just as a bride has bridesmaids, most girls have a full court of honor for the event – usually about five girls and five guys, including the chambelan de honor, who will be the quinceañera’s escort for the day. The commitment goes a bit beyond buying dresses and renting tuxes, however, because the court is responsible for putting on an elaborate dance later in the evening called the vals (waltz).
El vals: This is a multipart dance with quite a bit of shuffling around and elaborate walking patterns. The court often continues to dance into the brindis (the toast).
El baile sorpresa: I don’t know the background of this tradition. To me, it seems like an American add-on where the quinceañera gets to show off her style and put her imprint on the event. After the formal waltz, the court disappears for a quick costume change into more casual outfits, then returns for a more contemporary dance. I’ve seen some cute western-themed and hip hop dances and a couple so risqué that I did indeed feel that I was watching a girl grow into a woman…a skanky one.
Baile de Muñeca – They don’t always do a dance, but a traditional gift is the “last doll” and sometimes this is integrated into a dance.
Music – The party music varies, usually based on where the parents or padrino is from. Some popular choices: tamborazo (the loudest brass + drum emsemble you’ve ever heard), mariachi, banda, a DJ, cumbia…plus drunken relatives will often elect to sing a number (which might make the audience “llorar, llorar, llooooorrarrrrr…”

A tamborazo

Padrinos: Literally, Godparents. In the case of the quinceraera, there will be MANY Godparents. This mega-event is NOT paid for entirely by the father of the young lady. Some quinceañera’s have a padrino for almost every single element of the event, from the guestbook to the dress to the limo to the DJ. There is usually a point in the evening when they call out the padrinos and they can step up for a turn around the floor with the quinceañera.
This is the song – “Time for a Waltz” – a classic:

Birria – Goat stew…mmmm! It isn’t necessarily easy or cheap to feed 300 people. You can hire a taquero to serve tacos or a few of our moms actually cooked the whole thing themselves, not in multiple pots but in literally the biggest pot of all time. Tasty!

Quinceanera in auto body shop
Limo – This is high priority for the girls who usually want a Hummer (we’ve yet to see a traditional limo). We had some people get a party bus – complete with stripper pole which was a hit with the 15-year-old set. Then again, don’t go behind your father’s back to hire the limo as one of our clients learned when her father hit the roof the night before the event.

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!Arriba los Lakers!

I know you’ve been waiting for it – have no fear, the Kobe Bryan corrido is now live on Youtube. For those of you who are less familiar with the traditional folk music of Mexico, a corrido is basically a song that tells a story. They’ve been around for a long time and there are lots of corridos about heroes of the Mexican revolution (more recent corridos tend to focus on the less heroic narcos). This one relates the triumph of Kobe Bryant in the NBA finals:

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Lakers!!! YEAH!!!!!

East LA celebrates the Lakers\’ win over the Celtics

Listen now.

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East LA Film Festival: Quinceañera


Technically, we have ventured out of East LA for this film, which takes place in Echo Parque. My feeling? Makes the cut because I’m pretty sure my area has the highest concentration of backyard quinceañeras per weekend in the US. Besides, the hipsters currently gentrifying the Echo Park/Silverlake neighborhoods have attempted to call it the “Eastside.” Don’t take my word for it, Patt Morrison offers her much more thoughtful (not to mention informed!) analysis here.
Mainly, German elected to include this movie because it is FANTASTIC. His comment: “Honestly, I can’t believe this was written and directed by two white guys.”Props to the lead actress, Emily Rios (also great in Vicious Circle), Jesse Garcia (who got an Alma Award for the part, so I obviously am not the only person who thought he was great) and the actor who plays her abuelito – officially the most lovable and heartwarming character of the century. See this movie!

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East LA Film Festival Part I: Born in East LA

Cheech Marin. Born in East LA. Accidentally deported to Mexico. Fill the rest of the two hours with general hilarity. It’s a rare comedy that is funny in the first place, much less just as funny 23 years after it was released.

Enjoy the trailer!

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Look Ma, I’m on television!

Back in college, I remember reading a study on how rural communities were affected by the introduction of television. If you asked them, clearly they were delighted, but the anthropologist who wrote the study was, of course, troubled, observing that where the rural communities originally saw their town as the center of their world, when they started watching television programs taking place in New York, LA and London, their internal map shifted and they suddenly perceived themselves as living on the periphery of the action.
As someone who grew up in a small town, going on to college in Portland, OR, which is a city that is basically a small town, I’ve always merrily lived on the peripheries of the western world. It’s a nice place. A little secret I’ll let the New Yorkers in on: people have a lot of fun in places besides New York. Like Oregon and Nevada, which by the way are pronounced, Or-uh-gun and Ne-vaaaa-duh, NOT Or-uh-gone and Ne-vah-duh.
I’ll always enjoy tuning in to CSI Miami, 30 Rock and America’s Next Top model, but I’ve never minded walking out the door into a world I’ve never seen reflected on prime time television.
Since moving to Los Angeles, watching television and the movies isn’t quite the same. First of all, even if it doesn’t take place here, it’s probably filmed here. A casual drive through downtown will usually take you past some film shoot or another and my boyfriend is always pointing out popular shoot locations. Heck, I went downstairs from my office to get some Juan Pollo for lunch and the sign was covered up and there was a guy in a chicken suit parading before the cameras. The snarky hipster crew said the project was “confidential.” Brats.

Click here for an endless list of films set in Los Angeles.

The only movies that were filmed in Sonoma were a) a bit of Scream (awesome!) and b) scenes from The Animal. With Rob Schneider. They showed it during Sonoma Valley High School senior week and it brought together jocks, nerds and theater kids – we all agreed it was AWFUL.
Two days ago, I was watching CSI New York. They had found the potential killer and, gasp!, he was headed to the New York City music conservatory with toxic gas! Cut to well-heeled guests listening to chamber music…in the Biltmore Hotel in downtown LA. Busted!
It can be fun to have that flicker of recognition. 500 Days of Summer? I recognized almost EVERY scene, thanks in no small part to my several walking tours of downtown with the LA Conservancy (LA Times: Downtown L.A. architecture stars in ‘(500) Days of Summer’) The movie, 2012, was greatly enhanced for me as I think 1/3 of the film was dedicated to the detailed destruction of various neighborhoods of Los Angeles. I was a bit annoyed they left out East LA – what? No obligatory shot of a taco truck or paletero man falling into the abyss, no toppling King Taco sign? Typical westsider bias.

So, in the spirit of living in a place that has been interpreted ad nauseam in TV and the movies, my boyfriend, the USC film grad, is currently curating an East Los Angeles Film Festival, which is taking place in my living room. Maybe in a few years, we’ll make it to the rest of the Los Angeles neighborhoods, but we’ll start in my backyard. Recommendations welcome!

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Pondering the meaning of dinosaurs in the desert

Cabazon, CA is a spot which few people could point out on a map. But it’s home to a roadside attraction most of us could dig out of a fog of road trip memories – two massive concrete dinosaurs – a brontosaurus and a t-rex – rising from the desert.
Dinny the Brontosaurus

Cabazon is on the road from Los Angeles to Palm Springs, just where you’re about ready for a pit stop and maybe a bite to eat. Childhood memories don’t necessarily stand the test of time, but in this case, the dinosaurs were exactly as I remembered them. There was only one thing that I didn’t remember as a child – that the purported purpose of these creatures was to bring people to God. Apparently, my memory is correct in this regard because the peanut gallery of bloggers say that the creationist stuff was added by the current owner after the ‘90s, not  cooked up by Claude Bell, who built the dinos.

An estimated 12 million visitors a year stop to see the dinosaurs, “making this the ideal location for helping people discover there is a God who loves them and who created them,” as the new owner puts it.

Dinosaurs: The ultimate way to teach about God

As someone not well-versed in the debate about whether humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time, I wasn’t quite following all the signs taped around the gift shop in the belly of the brontosaurus (which is actually an Apatosaurus), but it did pique my curiosity.

Post-vacation, I visited the attraction’s website, which links to answersingenesis.org. Here’s the nutshell of the debate:

Scientists:

Dinosaurs evolved 235 million years ago and were wiped out, probably by some sort of cataclysmic event, about 65 million years ago – well before humans roamed the earth.

Creationists:

“Dinosaurs first existed around 6,000 years ago. God made the dinosaurs, along with the other land animals, on Day 6 of the Creation Week (Genesis 1:20–25, 31). Adam and Eve were also made on Day 6—so dinosaurs lived at the same time as people, not separated by eons of time.” (http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/nab/what-happened-to-the-dinosaurs)

The argument gets far more complex and there is a huge page of frequently asked questions (Q: Were their dinosaurs on the ark? A: Yes.), but ultimately there is no debate because one side believes in the infallibility of the Bible and one side does not. It’s more like reading two different versions of reality.

German makes a new friend

As strange as it seemed that someone would go to all the trouble of building these massive concrete dinosaurs just to spread creationism, it was even stranger to find out that wasn’t why Claude Bell built them. In theory, he constructed them to attract people to his hotel. However, 11 years of your life and $300,000 is an astronomical investment, putting this project firmly in the realm of a passion project. Maybe that’s something extraordinary to ponder as you stand out in the desert, the 10 freeway at your back, gazing up at a life-size concrete Apatosaurus – what in the world possessed him?

Dinny

Dinny is thinking on it.

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