Quinceañera Dresses Are an Art Form That’s Vanishing from Downtown Santa Ana

Quinceañera dresses on display at Shelsye's Bridal, located along 4th Street in Santa Ana. (Photo by Kevin Chang / TimesOC)

Minerva Alvarez learned to cut fabric as a middle schooler in her native Cuernavaca, Mexico. She began making simple dresses in class and soon elevated to creating elaborate quinceañera designs.

“It’s the style I enjoyed the most. It was the prettiest, with much more detail, with much more love,” said Alvarez, who runs Shelsye’s Bridal in downtown Santa Ana.

Nearby, Sandra Cerpas honed her craft as a youngster with the help of nuns in her church in Michoacán, Mexico. The church would offer free tailoring classes in exchange of small donations. “We would take fruit or honey to learn,” said Cerpas, who operates Cassandra’s Bridal.

What is a Quinceañera?

Although a quinceañera may appear at first glance to be simply a festive, lavishly adorned birthday party, it also has a deeper significance that extends to the girl’s personal self.

The quinceañera, which literally translates to “the girl who is 15,” signifies a young girl’s transition in becoming a mature woman who is capable of independence in that she can make her own decisions and symbolizes her transition and growth into womanhood. It also plays a symbolic gesture in that it reaffirms her beliefs to her church and her personal faith.

This celebration has a religious ceremony followed by a party and combines a blend of traditional customs with contemporary trends.

Source: myquincemagazine.com

Alvarez and Cerpas are business owners who run quinceañera shops in downtown Santa Ana’s Fourth Street, a commercial district that for years catered largely to Spanish-speaking Mexican immigrants. The women order their dresses in bulk from designers and companies in Mexico, Germany and New York City. They also design and make their own gowns. They sketch and stitch patterns, build paper models, cut fabric, and piece together layered dresses with elaborate ruffles. It’s a work of art that requires craft, skill and time.

As artist Saskia Jorda — who in a 2013 art installation explored quinceañera tailoring traditions through interviews with shop owners in downtown Santa Ana — phrased it, “It’s like each one had their secrets.”

This skill set and tradition has been slowly disappearing from downtown Santa Ana, which for years served as a “cottage industry” for the dresses intended for young Latina women celebrating their 15th birthdays. Quinceañera shops lined Fourth Street by the dozen. Now, they’re either moving to other parts of the city or outside of the county as trendy restaurants, bars and clothing boutiques continue to set up shop in a neighborhood that’s rapidly gentrifying.

Quinceañera dresses at Shelsye’s Bridal, located along Fourth Street in Santa Ana. (Photo by Kevin Chang / TimesOC)

Marilynn Montaño, who works as a barista in the downtown area, documents the closure of long-time businesses — including quinceañera boutiques — by posting photos of the empty shops on Instagram. In one photo, she features a young woman wearing a quinceañera dress, posing in front of an empty closed boutique. A yellow handwritten sign declares they’ve moved to Huntington Park.

“I started to document them because in a couple years, this is just going to be a memory to someone,” said Montaño, 25.

“We don’t consider these quinceañera shops, the people who make these dresses, as also artists. When we say support artists, we think of visual artists at galleries, but they’re also artists. They’re also makers,” Montaño said. “That’s a craft.”

Latino City

Downtown Santa Ana, particularly the area around Fourth Street, has in the past been likened to vibrant shopping plazas in Mexico.

As the Mexican immigrant population surged in the ’80s, Fourth Street — known as Calle Cuatro — reflected the demographic shift. Between 1960 and 1980, the city’s foreign-born population grew from 7 to 30 percent, according to the 2017 book “Latino City: Urban Planning, Politics, and the Grassroots.” Presently more than 78 percent of the city of 334,000 is Hispanic or Latino of any race.

Travel agencies specializing in airfares to Mexico and Latin America, jewelry stores, shoe and clothing shops became the norm downtown, wrote Cal State Fullerton associate professor Erualdo González, the author of “Latino City.” Bridal stores, widely recognized for selling quinceañera dresses, boomed.

As one quinceañera shop owner recalled in the book in 2014, the demand for such business was so high that “of the people that are here now that I know, almost all of them were ex-employees of bridals, and now they have their own store.”

“I counted all of them on Fourth Street one day, something like 30, 35,” she said.

But quinceañera shops have gradually become less visible in recent years.

A young woman wearing a quinceañera gown poses in front of a closed shop in downtown Santa Ana. (Photo by Marilynn Montaño)

In the ’90s, Artists Village began taking shape near 1st Street and Broadway when Cal State Fullerton’s Grand Central Art Center moved downtown. Bars and restaurants followed.

By 2011, a slew of changes contributed to downtown’s mixed identity.

The East Fourth Street area known as Fiesta Marketplace was rebranded as East End, and with that came the Frida Cinema arthouse, Native Son Alehouse, and the artisan food hall known as the 4th Street Market. Downtown developer Ryan Chase said he rebranded the area to broaden its appeal beyond its core Latino clientele.

‘We Have Been Here’

To Alvarez, the struggle to stay afloat goes beyond the gentrification narrative that often gets told in Santa Ana, where it’s new versus old. She doesn’t see herself in competition with “los Americanos” (the Americans). Alvarez said she had one of her best sales years in 2018, when she was delivering about 10 dresses a week.

She’d just like to feel her line of work was as valued as the newer bars and restaurants coming in. Residents in the past have protested the number of alcohol licenses the city has granted.

“Hopefully the city can help us because we have been here longer than those who are just arriving,” Alvarez said.

Julie Castro-Cardenas, acting assistant to the city manager, said the city is “conscious about the culture of the community.”

“We certainly have an ear to all residents,” Castro-Cardenas said. “We don’t cater to one group. We are intentional about having a balance.”

Castro-Cardenas said that about four years ago the city created a downtown liaison position between merchants and city hall, a job she claims has been plagued by high turnover. She also noted a 2017 resolution the city adopted in support of worker cooperatives — businesses owned by workers who share the profits. And in December, the city approved $100,000 each for the Santa Ana Business Council, which supports Fourth Street businesses, and Downtown Inc., which manages the downtown restaurant association.

Like Santa Ana, cities across the nation are grappling with how to address displacement and preserve their cultural districts.

In San Francisco, for example, the Board of Supervisors in May passed legislation to establish clear definitions of what cultural districts are. It also aims to provide city funding for such districts.

In early 2018, PolicyLink — a national research institute that seeks to advance racial and economic equity — created the All-In Cities Anti-Displacement Policy Network. Representatives from 10 cities — including San Jose, Portland, and Austin — research and create policies that address inclusionary zoning, worker-owned cooperatives, community benefit agreements and tenant protections.

To González, author of “Latino City,” solutions need to go beyond cultural preservation. “You have to put front and center the class element,” he said.

A princess-style quinceañera dress is popular dress at Shelsye’s Bridal, located along Fourth Street in Santa Ana. (Photo by Kevin Chang / TimesOC)

Upscale Mexican restaurants or expensive bridal boutiques would jibe in a culturally Mexican district, but González questioned whether they would serve the area’s working class. “Gentefication” — which happens when professional, college-educated Latinos return to and invest in their neighborhoods — is a class issue, he said.

“And the way the models are being divided across cities, it’s going to be favoring pockets,” González said.

More Publicity

On a recent Friday, Alvarez displayed a layered quinceañera dress she designed to reflect the popular Mexican charro style. The dress was embellished with fuschia sheer ruffles below a silk-like white fabric decorated with pink stitched flowers, stems, and horseshoes. Gold-colored buttons on the embroidered corset completed the cowboy look.

Alvarez sketched the design using inspiration from other styles.

Owner Minerva Alvarez shows off a Mexican charro styled quinceañera dress, one of the more popular dresses at Shelsye’s Bridal in Santa Ana. (Photo by Kevin Chang / TimesOC)

“We can make them in different colors,” she said.

Alvarez began working at a Fourth Street bridal store when she was about 19 years old, just two months after she left Mexico and came to the United States. She began running the shop after the owner left her the business when he moved out of state.

She’s been doing it ever since.

Alvarez said she is reinventing her business. She hopes to partner with Santa Ana high school students to help her with social media marketing. She’s also hosting a grand re-opening of her shop where young women will model custom dresses. She recently moved to a new Fourth Street location after the property owner sold the building she was in.

“What would be the most helpful would be more publicity,” Alvarez said.

Montaño, who has also been an anti-gentrification activist, challenged herself and others to think differently when it comes to the way they shop. Instead of going to Macy’s for a gown or dress, a Latina-owned quinceanera boutique would be an alternative, she said.

“I’m pretty sure you can ask them for some other type of dress for a different occasion,” she said. “Think creatively because these people, if you don’t support them, of course they’re going to go away.”

“We also need to put our money where our mouth is,” Montaño said.


Alejandra Molina is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at molina.alee@gmail.com.