Carlos (Jesse Garcia) first appears in Quninceañera as a number. The camera follows his tattoo — 213 — as he prowls the street, moving forward with what seems a dark determination. Within seconds, you see that his objective is a party, specifically, his younger sister Eileen’s (Alicia Sixtos) quinceañera, marking her transition, at age 15, into adulthood. Carlos isn’t quite dressed in the fancy dress of other celebrants, but he’s earnest, arriving with a rose in hand.
But as soon as his father Walter (Johnny Chavez) sees Carlos’ face, the effort is over. “I told you not to be around this family anymore.” Within seconds, Carlos is literally kicked to the curb, escorted by a bouncer and humiliated before his family. Months earlier, Walter caught his son looking at gay porn sites on the internet, at which point Carlos went to live with his great-great-uncle Tomas (Chalo Gonzalez). Though he’s working at a carwash, Carlos imagines another life, in part suggested by Tomas’ backyard on Waterloo Street, adorned with colored glass, baskets, and metals, shrines to saints and family members.
At Tomas’, past and present overlap: when Carlos asks why Tomas has never married, the old man smiles: “Back in Mexico, I had a couple of close calls.” His decision to care for his ailing mother instead suggests Tomas’ inclinations — to look after others, especially family members, before himself. Providing a model for saintly generosity, Tomas soon opens his home to another relative kicked out of her home, Carlos’ cousin Magdalena (Emily Rios).
At first Carlos and Magdalena argue: the space is tight, he seems disrespectful, and she’s struggling with her father, Pastor Ernesto’s (Jesus Castanos-Chima) disapproval over her pregnancy. Just weeks before Magdalena’s own quinceañera (for which her aunt has offered to adjust Eileen’s pretty white dress), she learns that she’s pregnant by her college-bound boyfriend Herman (J.R. Cruz), even though they both insist they’ve never had intercourse. While their parents don’t believe them, the kids are more focused on immediate consequences, the loss of their future beyond the neighborhood. Just days before Magdalena “I wanna see the world,” says Herman, “I’m sick of Echo Park”; Magdalena nods, “I’m sick of it too.”
Echo Park serves as multi-faceted background for this multi-generational saga. As the pastor at the neighborhood’s Evangelical Church of God, Magdalena’s father feels compelled to reject his daughter, whose “fornication and wickedness” are now on display “for all the world to see,” while Tomas is a more congenial local fixture, selling the Mexican beverage champurrado from his sidewalk cart; at the same time, the neighborhood is in process of gentrification, represented in Tomas’ newest landlords, Gary (David W. Ross) and James (Jason L. Wood). Their interest in Carlos as a sexual third is premised on their classed and raced distance from their tenants (and the characters lapse into stereotypical behaviors, especially during party scenes), which only underlines the problem of property in the Park.
This problem has to do with familial as well as legal and political relations. Carlos first accommodates his short-time lovers, then takes a bit of revenge when they not only dump him but also evict Tomas (he teaches one Echo Park gang signs, then keys the other’s car at work). But Quinceañera doesn’t press very hard at the racism of the gay boys’ dalliance (one of them develops a crush on Carlos, suggesting he sees past their “differences,” or at least feels bored by his older boyfriend), and it doesn’t resolve or even articulate some compelling problems (it’s already developed a reputation as a “sweet” film, and won the Audience and Grand Jury prizes at Sundance). Still, it makes a kind of socioeconomic analysis in its representations of limitations and aspirations, most cogently in its sexual politics.
Both cast off as “liars,” Magdalena and Carlos assume one another’s truths; he helps her to research her virginal pregnancy on the net, while she, unlike everyone else in the family but Tomas, never judges Carlos (though she does wonder about the activity with his “special friends”: “Are you the peanut butter in the sandwich?”). Suddenly, her once-desperate desire for a Hummer limo on the night of her quinceañera seems childish. Herman’s mother sends him away to live with relatives so he might continue his promising academic career (this leads to a concise, affecting scene of Magdalena alone, erasing his pictures from her cell phone), and Magdalena turns to Carlos, who feels similarly cast off, for emotional support. And he takes his cue from Tomas. “Somebody’s got to be a father to that child,” he asserts. “I’m going to get a real job, that’s not a total fucking dead end.”
His conception of such mobility takes Carlos a step beyond the school kids and street punks who populate the neighborhood. While Magdalena’s friends fashion their identities from the consumer products available to them, so do Gary and James decorate their apartment to reflect their current self-images. Carlos sees himself differently, as part of a family. When Magdalena’s clothes no longer fit her, he offers her one of his oversized plaid shirts to wear, a gesture that unites them but also marks them as a next generation, less rigid in their expectations.