Anna LeVine
The Age of Illusions:
Mexican and Mexican-American girls at fifteen


It is a Mexican tradition for girls to celebrate their coming of age with an elaborate party when they turn fifteen. In Mexico they refer to this time in girls' lives, lingering on the cusp of womanhood, as La edad de las Ilusiones, the age of illusions. The saying goes that fifteen year-old girls are old enough to fantasize about adult life but too young to have to accept its realities. I am working on a series of photographs about girls coming of age in Mexico and in Mexican-American communities in the United States. All the girls in my photographs are fifteen. I photograph some of them on the day of their parties or during the course of the following year, others who do not even have parties for economic or personal reasons. Beyond the details of the ritual itself, I am particularly interested in the effort to somehow make tangible the ephemeral transition from niña to señorita, using the quince años as a guiding metaphor, my photographs explore the notion of naming the moment when a girl becomes a woman and the complex range of individual and collective cultural "illusions? about female identity that this tradition encourages.

Mexican teenage girls are growing up at a time in social history when ideas about the role of women in their culture are in flux. Those on the US side of the border are literally living in a different country from the one their mothers grew up in, but even girls in Mexico find themselves in a world very different for women than it was a generation ago. Their mothers, the Catholic church, indigenous tradition, and (perhaps most significantly) the pervasive US media and consumer culture all show conflicting images of what it means to be female. With this project I aim to explore how girls envision themselves as adult women in the face of such mixed messages. In my pictures I deliberately acknowledge the self-conscious act of posing for the camera, because I am interested in the psychological implications of the self-image they project. I hope to incorporate each girl's ideas of what is beautiful, sexy, glamorous and feminine into their portraits.

I was born in the United States and I lived in Mexico throughout my own adolescence. As a result I grew up straddling the same disparate cultures as the girls in my pictures. The majority of images of Mexican women exhibited in the United States reduce them to an antiquated cultural stereotype: the "exotic? - indigenous woman, bare-breasted or swathed in colorful material, an icon of universal suffering devaid of sexuality or individuality. With this project I hope to paint a more three dimensional portrait of Mexican female experience. The age fifteen may be idiosyncratically Mexican, but the experience of coming of age transcends national boundaries. In this country it is more important than ever to counter anti-immigrant attitudes and racism with images that break down stereotypes, emphasize common experience and encourage cross-cultural understanding.

Anna LeVIne

Anna LeVine can be reached at:

This project has been made possible by the generous support of the Fulbright
Commission, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, The Charles Beseler Company and Ilford Limited, U.S.A.