Quinceañera Exhibit at the Dixon: A Sweet Celebration

Passing through two of the Dixon Gallery & Gardens’ Sweet 16 exhibits – an ambitious and successful bid to fill all 16 of the museum’s galleries with Dixon-curated exhibits – and turning left at the porcelain monkey orchestra, I heard the sounds of Quinceañera before I entered the Interactive Gallery in the Liz and Tommy Farnsworth Education Building. 

A doll in an elaborate dress and a large photo wall printed with roses welcomed me into the Quinceañera exhibit. Quinceañeras are celebrations of 15-year-old girls’ transitions from girlhood to adulthood, featuring traditions that connect generations of women. These initiation rites are an important moment in the lives of young Latinas. Accordingly, this exhibit is a celebration, both of a cultural tradition and of past, present, and future quinceañeras.

Unsurprisingly, given the gallery in which it is located, Quinceañera has many interactive components that invite visitors to participate in modified versions of unique Quinceañera traditions. You can practice a waltz, decorate a felt cake, take a photo on a stationary swing, try on accessories, and write your memories or dreams of your own Sweet Sixteen or Quinceañera. 

However, the most unique aspect of the exhibit is that it was co-created with a group of collaborating curators. From a museum’s perspective, co-creating exhibits is a process undertaken with the understanding that community members are uniquely qualified to tell their own stories in their own voices. For this exhibit, Angela (16), Fátima (15), and Rebecca (11) Hernandez; Leslie (17), Belinda (16), and Melanie (11) Morales; Patricia Jimenez (40); Maria Sebastián (38); and the Dixon’s Margarita Sandino (46) decided which traditions to focus on, made suggestions for interactives, wrote exhibit text, and loaned materials for the exhibit. All of these curators have participated in Quinceañeras in various capacities.  

L to R: Sophia Junco, Fatima Hernandez, Evie Landaverde, Angela Hernandez, Rebecca Hernandez. Image by Caroline Carrico.

One place their voices literally are heard is in the recorded interviews the teenaged curators conducted that plays on a loop near the gallery entrance. They wrote the questions and recruited other women to be interviewed. The interviews and accompanying photographs show how Quinceañeras have evolved over time while maintaining several core traditions.

The collaborating curators also wrote the exhibit panels explaining traditions from their perspectives. For recent quinceañeras Angela, Fátima, and their friend Sophia Junco, their favorite tradition was the ceremony when family members changed their tennis shoes to high heels, gave them their last doll, put on their tiaras and bracelets, and then had their father daughter dances.

The two dresses on display are the ones Leslie and Belinda Morales wore at their Quinceañeras. The bears on the wall, in dresses mirroring the ones they wore, are their symbolic last dolls, which they were given at their party. 

Two quinceañera dresses on display at the Dixon
Image by Caroline Carrico.

This exhibit is a community undertaking in other ways as well. Photographer Angel Ortez provided many of the images, personally securing permission from families to include them in the exhibit. Designer and entrepreneur Mirna Lili Fernandez created the dress made of metal, gift paper, wallpaper, artificial flowers, and diamond jewelry that visitors are invited to – carefully – try on. Ortez’s and Fernandez’s participation underscores the economic importance of these events in the city’s economy. They represent two of several industries that serve Memphis’s quickly growing Latino community.

Mirna Lili Fernandez stands next to the dress made of metal, gift paper, wallpaper, artificial flowers, and jewelry for the Quinceañera exhibit at the Dixon
Mirna Lili Fernandez with the dress she created. Image by Caroline Carrico.

The teenaged curators said that the exhibit process gave them a new understanding of how museum exhibits are created, especially the importance of thinking in terms of safety, for both the visitors and the objects. They also learned “the amount of work that goes into just one exhibit.” When asked if they would consider curating again, they were quick to brainstorm ideas for future exhibits, including Hispanic culture and folk tales.

Quinceañera is a fun exhibit that shows the power of individuals to adapt cultural traditions to new locales. It also demonstrates the unique and valuable perspective that community curators can bring to museum exhibits. The collaborating curators’ distinct voices and interpretations are explicit in the gallery. And that is another reason to celebrate. 

Quinceañera – and all of the other Sweet 16 exhibitions – are on display through July 10, 2022. Admission to the museum is free through the end of 2024.

Caroline Mitchell Carrico is a native Memphian and, as a historian by training, she enjoys researching the city’s past and pulling it into the present. When she isn’t reading and writing, she can often be found cheering on her kids’ soccer teams.

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