This Photographer Is Building An Archive of Quinceañera History

Samantha Cabrera Friend didn’t grow up idolizing quinceañeras. Instead, she found them to be archaic, a tradition she did not quite understand or want to adopt in her life. “I joined the club of people that placed quinceañeras on the same cultural shelf as a Sweet 16,” Cabrera tells Emperifollá. “I don’t think I was attracted by it.”

It wasn’t until she read Julia Álvarez’s Once Upon A Quinceañera that she thought of the tradition as valuable. Today, quinceañeras are the focus in her work as a photographer and the main subject of her Instagram profile Quinceañera Archives. 

“I wanted a place for the tradition to breathe outside of the commercial side, especially on Instagram, outside of societal and cultural expectations,” she says. “My goal is to have reflections and retelling of these memories and feature artists from around the world who are touching on this tradition.”

When Cabrera read Álvarez’s work, she had a similar reaction. She recalls the author arguing how unfortunate it was that modern feminism had shed away the cultural significance of the tradition and that perhaps rethinking the ritual could reveal its intrinsic feminist nature. “If there are aspects of this tradition that we do not like, why not change it?,” Cabrera says. “It needs to work for us. It doesn’t need to work for anyone else.”

Beyond the frilly dresses and bedazzled tiaras, quinceañeras have had a place in Latin American cultures for centuries, marking the moment in a girl’s life when she transforms into an adult woman – at 15. The tradition has also widely spread across the United States, where it’s become a staple of cultural heritage for many US-born Latinx.

The tradition has also been widely criticized as a patriarchal practice, even making it into mainstream TV with shows like One Day At A Time. In the Netflix hit series, Elena, who’s about to turn 15, clashes with her mom and abuela about having her quinces, ultimately deciding to do it to keep connected to her roots and to show off her mom’s hard work in raising her. “I’ll show them what independent mothers can do,” she says. 

The Instagram account has collected nearly 40 images of quinceañeras, and Cabrera says she’s collaborating with artists and photographers who are capturing this tradition around the world. The project is part of her own study of quinceañeras, which includes analyzing the available history of this ceremony. Until now, Cabrera has found there is close to none. She says she understands the value of academic work to keep a record of Latinx cultural heritage and feels unsatisfied with the “lack of books and scholarly material” available about quinceañeras. 

“I went a lot to Chicano Studies Research Center and there was so much more about Cinco de Mayo, which is celebrated once a year, than quinceañeras, that are celebrated hundreds of times a day around the world,” she says. 

In her research, Cabrera photographs and interviews quinceañeras around the country, as well as shop owners, dressmakers, and relatives. She always asks them about the future of this tradition and what they would change about it. “Some people say the dress, like if there’s a way I could do this without the dress I would love to do it.” But others wish they could find a cheaper way to celebrate. 

Cabrera finds her comfort as an archivist in this contradiction: young women who still want to carry on the family ritual but wish they could do it their way. She’s documenting its past to make sense of what a quinceañera could be like in the future. 

Frances Solá-Santiago

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