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Coming of Age in Echo Park

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Culture, more than biology, according to Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa, directs the perilous passage from girlhood to womanhood. Cultures have peculiar

Quinceañera

Writ. & dir. Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland; feat. Emily Rios, Jesse Garcia, Chalo Gonzalez (R)

ways of initiating their adolescents into the community of adults. Apache girls paint their bodies and participate in a sunrise ceremony of prayer, dance, and instruction. In parts of Africa, maturation is marked by clitorectomy. The American aristocracy draws fresh blue blood from the powdered pores of its debutantes. And throughout Latin America, la quinceañera subjects 15-year-olds to the ordeal of a gala in their honor.

Quinceañera begins with one such festivity. Dressed in an expensive white gown, a beaming teenager and her entourage arrive in a Hummer limo. The parents, an upwardly mobile couple, radiate joy in their lovely daughter and pride in their own ability to host a copious feast. Will the film proceed as urban ethnography, or else, like the bar-mitzvah burlesque Keeping Up with the Steins, as a send-up of an adolescent’s confirmation transformed into social ostentation? Neither, it turns out. When Carlos (Garcia), the birthday girl’s ne’er-do-well brother, shows up at the party, his father slugs him and throws him out into the street. And Magdalena (Rios), a cousin whose own quinceañera is just a few months away, turns out to be pregnant. Though Magdalena insists she is still a virgin, her father, a cop and a part-time preacher, is not convinced. A bit of Mary Magdalene as well as the Virgin Mary, Magdalena finds herself a fallen woman even before her formal induction into Latina womanhood. She takes refuge with great-great Tio Tomás (Gonzalez), a wise and gentle octogenarian. Cousin Carlos is already part of the odd ménage.

Delivering a eulogy for one of the characters in Quinceañera, the speaker can think of no higher praise than that “he loved everyone and judged no one.” No one but a saint or an artist could be summed up accurately that way. What sets this Latina coming-of-age story apart is the empathy that its two directors, Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, obviously feel for all their characters, even the screw-ups. The ritualized initiation of a 15-year-old into the community of Mexican-American adults could easily have degenerated into sentimentality or stereotype. But the filmmakers’ respect for their subject is nowhere more apparent than in the figure of Carlos, a tattooed dropout who cannot even keep his dead-end job washing cars. Groping to understand his own sexuality and his obligations to others, Carlos proves to be a scapegrace who has not exhausted the deep reserves of grace.

Echo Park, the neighborhood in Los Angeles that is the setting for the story, is being gentrified by affluent newcomers even as its working-class Latinos cling to customs such as quinceañeras. The Southern California Mexicanos switch codes freely, moving between English and Spanish between and within sentences. Immersing us in the rich particulars of a time and place, this film offers its viewers a privilege, the right of safe passage between languages, cultures, sexual orientations, childhood and adulthood, life and death.

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