Zoey Luna, a trans teen from Downey, California, never dreamed she’d get to have a traditional Latina upbringing — one complete with a quinceañera to celebrate her 15th birthday and ceremonial entry into womanhood. Now, though, she’s the star of one segment of HBO’s 15: A Quinceañera (available on HBO Go and HBO Now), a four-part series of documentary shorts that follows five extraordinary young women as they honor their families and their cultures with parties that, as the series tagline puts it, are “not just about a party.”
Zoey’s segment picks up during the planning process. And rather than focusing on the discrimination she’s faced (there’s only a brief mention of how her mother, Ofelia Barba, had to go to court when Zoey’s school tried to expel her after she transitioned), it tells the story of a loving, gregarious teen who has become a beacon of hope for a community of older trans women. These women, who never had quinceañeras of their own, come together to support Zoey’s vision and serve as her madrinas — godmothers, for the purpose of the ceremony.
(The other segments, well worth watching, follow an aspiring Mexican-American boxer whose family is paying for her quinceañera by selling tacos, a Cuban-Guatemalan whose beloved grandfather can’t get into the States for the party, and two Mexican-American best friends who are planning to dance on horseback.)
We spoke with Zoey (now 16), Ofelia (a medical biller in a pediatrician’s office), and Quinceañera’s director, Emmy winner Matthew O’Neill — who became involved because he’d directed HBO’s Latin Explosion, which he worked on with his Quinceañera co-director Thalía and producer Tommy Mottola — about how the series came to be, the challenges they faced, and how Zoey found her amazing ruffled, lilac dress.
How did you find the young women you featured?
Matthew O’Neill: It was the most exhaustive search that you could possibly imagine for quinceañera stories led by producer Xochitl Dorsey, who searched the internet for notices of quinceañeras, made postings on social media, called hundreds of quinceañera planners, community organizations, friends of friends, just trying to suss out what stories were out there. In the end, some of the stories came through good old-fashioned shoe leather — like walking into quinceañera dress shops along Whittier Boulevard in East L.A.
Were you trying to fill specific holes or demographics with each young woman you found?
O’Neill: We had ideas about the types of stories we would find, but the real goal was to find the most dynamic, passionate, strong young women who were having quiceañeras in the country. Part of our thinking around this project is that quinceañeras are becoming an American tradition, and just like so many other great traditions that have been given to our country by immigrant groups, the quinceañera is rising in popularity and becoming as American as a bar mitzvah, or St. Patrick’s Day, or apple pie.
We wanted to celebrate the young women who were honoring their culture and who will be part of the generation that defines the future of our country. And through them, tell the story of what makes this cultural tradition still relevant today, and even essential to some of these families. We were curious to see why people are still doing quinceañeras, and with all the things young people are doing today, why the quinceañera holds such an importance to them and to their families.
And why do you think it’s so important?
O’Neill: It’s an expression of your own culture that the entire family and community can participate in. There are coming-of-age ceremonies in lots of different cultures. The traditional meaning of a quinceañera was, as Zoey jokes in the film, coming to the market as a woman eligible for marriage, like a debutante ball.
But it’s about so much more in terms of celebrating tradition and responsibility, and to a certain degree, letting go by the parents. Someone said to me when I had my first child, from the moment of birth, parenting is just one long journey of letting go. And you see that in the emotion of the parents and the daughters, as they’re launching these fantastic young women into the world. That’s most front and center in Zoey’s story. The quinceañera is a public expression of believing in this young woman, and standing up with your community and recognizing her as the fierce contributor to society that she is and will continue to be.
How did you find Zoey?
O’Neill: There was an article about her case, that’s mentioned in the film, with the ACLU of Southern California when James Gilliam had helped write a letter that went to the National Department of Education when Zoey’s [local] Department of Education was trying to expel her. That letter led us to the ACLU, who put us in touch with Ofelia, and we were able to say, “So … were you thinking about having a quinceañera?” And when the answer was “Yes!” we were thrilled.
When I was a kid in high school [in the ’90s], the community didn’t rally around the very small number of people who were publicly homosexual. And I think when you see, not just Zoey, but the young people in her community who accept and celebrate her as the young woman that she is, it is extremely encouraging about our society. For me, it shows that we’ve made progress. Each of these stories, I think, celebrates progress and community and aspects of our country that, if you were just paying attention to some of the policies and rhetoric coming out of Washington, seem like they’re no longer part of mainstream culture. But, in fact, as you see in these films, these women are ascendant. And if their generation is going to define our country, I’m proud to be American, proud for the future of our country, and excited for my kids to be part of that future, too.
Zoey and Ofelia, what do you remember about getting involved?
Ofelia: When Xochitl got in touch with the transgender law center, at first I wasn’t sure, but I said yes just to hear what they were going to do. I’m actually really happy we did because …
Zoey: … It was incredible!
Ofelia: How often does a quinceañera have all these memories recorded forever?
Zoey: It was so important for me to have a quince because I never thought I was going to be able to have one in the first place. I also knew it would be an opportunity to be able to give back to other trans women who haven’t had quinceañeras. It’s more than just a party. It’s about everyone involved, because it’s such a great memory to share with a bunch of your friends and your family.
Zoey, what do you mean that you never thought you’d be able to have a quince?
Zoey: I always wanted to have one. But I didn’t know if I was going to transition. I knew my mom was supportive, but I didn’t have any idea of how supportive she actually would be. I was little and I wasn’t sure of myself. I always pictured myself transitioning at 30 and never being able to have the moments I wanted to have. And this was when I was 10, thinking I wouldn’t get to be myself until then. That’s why I was very depressed as a child, and that’s why it was so important to me to have a quinceañera, because I was able to have one, and hopefully I can inspire other parents to let their kids have one. Like, I know I look so dorky in the film — oh my god, have you seen that dance? — but I was so happy in all the processes of going through it.
You transitioned fairly young, correct?
Ofelia: Socially transitioned at 10 years old.
And you’re both of Mexican descent?
Ofelia: I was born in Mexico and I’m a resident of the United States. I’ve been here since I was a year-and-a-half old. Zoey’s dad was Mexican, and he passed.
Ofelia, in the film, you say that Zoey started telling you that she felt like she was a girl when she was 5 years old. That’s not something that has a lot of acceptance in traditional Latin or Catholic culture. How did you approach Zoey’s transition?
Ofelia: Like anything else. To me, she’s my daughter and she’s my child first, and what’s necessary to help your children get through life is what’s important. It doesn’t matter what it is. So that commitment that I made when the child was born has gone through her life — it wasn’t a difficult choice for me. I think the difficulty in the journey that I’m going through with her is the fear of other folks not understanding and trying to hurt her, or compromising her confidence in herself and questioning her ability to decide for herself who she is.
Of course, I am an older woman. I grew up in a Mexican family and was constructed a certain way to think about gender and sexuality, so that also comes into play a little. But I’ve always been a freethinker. So I pretty much decided that this is the path that we’re going — and in reality, what do I want? Do I want a child in my life or do I want to lose a child? Because suicide rates for trans kids is huge. People don’t understand that. So to me, it was important that I did everything I could and learned everything I could, and to this day, I’m still learning. I’m nowhere near being a very savvy parent. And I’ve learned from the community as well. I’ve watched, I’ve listened, and I made sure that they teach me.
Matt, you’ve said more than once how inspiring you found your time observing Ofelia to be.
O’Neill: She had to listen closely to her kid and accept something that was certainly different from what she expected, and I think there are lessons in that for anyone who is a parent. Ofelia is such a fantastic mother. And the lessons are, no matter what your kid is into or thinking about or who they are, to listen carefully and respect them and try to help them find the path. In a lot of ways, Ofelia’s role in Zoey’s upbringing is perhaps the person I’ve learned the most from in this whole process. And it wasn’t necessarily about quinceañeras. I learned about parenting and I learned about love from her.
Zoey, all of your madrinas, the appointed godmothers who take on various aspects of the party and pay for certain things, were trans. Was that always your plan?
Zoey: We knew the madrinas from a long time ago. They’d actually seen me at Transgender Day of Remembrance speaking about one of my own stories, and they just thought immediately, This girl is cool. We need to protect her. She needs to be someone in our lives. So they found us, in a way.
Ofelia: The reason that the madrinas are all trans is also that they see Zoey as the future, as the hope of other trans women of color. This quinceañera symbolizes that it’s possible for everyone else to be able to have an affirmation in their community, and that there are going to be these young women who are going to move forward in life being from a trans experience. Also, the madrinas, they love Zoey, they support her, and that helped me be a better parent to her.
I love the scene in the dress shop. The dressmaker is a trans woman, Gloria Sanchez, and she tears up when she sees you in your dress, because she never got to have a quinceañera. Can you describe that day for you?
Zoey: That day, I was very, very tired. I had been so excited since I got up because I had decided that was going to be the day I was going to go dress shopping. I knew that I wanted something very pastel pink or a neutral color — I didn’t know I was going to go with lilac. And I told my mom, “I want no layers,” and then I saw my dress, and I was like, “Screw it! It has to be that layered one; it has to be that lilac, unicornish dress!” It was so beautiful, and when I saw it I just knew. I also thought, Purple for royalty. It just fit right in.
Ofelia: They have beauty pageants for trans women, and Gloria actually does a lot of designs for those pageants. She’s really skillful.
Did she come to your quince?
Zoey: Thank god Gloria was there! She helped me with the dress; she tied it on and everything. It was very insane, because we forgot to put the microphone on [for the documentary], and my best friend, she had to crawl under my dress, and Gloria, she had to tighten it and untighten it. It was a mess, but thankfully, she was there to save the day.
Did you encounter any resistance in your community to throwing the quinceañera?
Ofelia: [The resistance] was way back before the quince. I think the Quince was very much accepted among our network of family and friends that accept and understand what’s going on and are loving to us. And I’ll be very honest, I’m not sure if people on the outside were comfortable with it or not. If they weren’t, they obviously were not there enjoying the party with us!
The best thing about this party was that the people that were there were not only Zoey’s friends, they were Zoey’s community. They were the LGBT community. They were all enjoying their company together. Nobody was questioning whose gender was what. Nobody was questioning other people’s sexuality or anything. It was just a party. It was just family and friends and community supporting Zoey and enjoying her day. Everybody was together, and that was a beautiful thing, watching the young, the old, and everybody together. It was just a great thing.
Okay, and finally, Zoey, what do you want to do next, now that you’ve gotten your quince out of the way?
Zoey: I’m open to almost anything. I definitely want to start writing scripts. I love television and film in general. I want to make horror movies, sappy movies. I’ve actually always wanted to be a filmmaker and to work with cameras. I went to film camp this year. So I do think that YouTube is something I can guarantee you’ll see more of.
Ofelia: Zoey has always loved play acting and creating little movies and writing. She has a great imagination, and she’s constantly drawing and writing. When she was little, she would actually pose her dolls and photograph each pose and make a little movie about that.
Zoey: Mom, stop!
Ofelia: I love sharing that because it’s something that’s just her …
Zoey: Mom, no!
Ofelia: So I have no doubt that she’s going to be good.
This interview has been edited and condensed from multiple conversations.