I don’t remember when I started listening to her, but I will always remember the day Selena Quintanilla-Pérez died. I was nine years old and playing outside in my front yard when a truck pulled into the driveway next door. Vicky, the same age as me and my best friend, jumped out of the passenger side of the vehicle and ran over to me as I waited on the edge between our yards. Tears streamed from her eyes, and the first time she spoke to me, it was between choked sobs. She gathered her composure as best she could and repeated, “SELENA IS DEAD!” We cried together. We spent the next year she lived there crying, singing, and dancing with our Selena CDs. We made sure she lived on in our dreams and what was left of our childhoods. Selena the movie made sure that Selena’s legend lived on among audiences not familiar with our cultura.
In order to understand the Selena phenomenon, you need to understand a bit about Tejano music and what it means to those of us living between two cultures as Mexican-Americans in south Texas. Music is more than enjoyment, but it’s that too. Music is family and friends and the first time you stayed up late at night with the neighbors dancing and laughing. Music is the times your feuding tios would make up and laugh about stories of old loves and new hobbies. Music was also my depressed abuelo in the former cantina on the lowest level of my abuela’s house, all sonorous agony and yearning for home. All the way back to the origins of Tejano music, the influence and popularity of the genre has always been rooted in identity — specifically, the preservation and evolution of identity within a border culture.
In a colonized land like the United States, many Chicanos or Tejanos, meaning those of Mexican ethnicity living in the U.S. or Texas, face many forms of systemic oppression. My mother remembers being a child growing up in San Antonio and seeing restaurants with signs saying, “No Dogs, No Mexicans”. The movie gives us a glimpse of this in an early flashback to Selena’s father in 1961. His band shows up to their first audition, but they are not let into the building because of a “whites only” policy. Thirty years later, in the memorable dress boutique scene, Selena faces similar discrimination from a white worker who assumes she cannot afford to shop there. The Latinx workers recognize her immediately, and a huge crowd forms for autographs. She and her friend dismiss the boutique as beneath them, flipping the script on the discrimination they faced. Of course not all of us can do that.
Even in major cities like San Antonio, the Tejano capital of the world and where my family currently resides, there are a million microaggressions we face daily. These include whitewashing of our traditions, art, and history for profit by individuals who also tell us to go back where we came from or imply we are not citizens. There is a prevalent message that being of Mexican or non-white descent is undesirable. We are portrayed consistently in dehumanizing ways, and this is vastly accepted by the general public. The president of the United States may not have been calling us “rapists” and “animals” at the time of Selena’s popularity, but that doesn’t mean these beliefs were non-existent or even uncommon.
Selena Quintanilla is called “Queen of Tejano” or “La Reina” because she managed a feat that was seemingly impossible in her time. Selena does an excellent job depicting the uphill battle she had to fight first as a woman in Tejano, next proving she was Mexican enough, and finally proving she was American enough. Even before her tragic death at the young age of 23, she had bridged a gap between Tejano music and the world at large. Her journey ended just before she might have risen to new heights in stardom. She still managed to introduce our way of life into the mainstream and found acceptance and success. Selena showed little Tejana girls in the 90s that we could achieve what she had — it was possible. She also opened the door for Latinx star Jennifer Lopez to start her own successful music career following her breakout performance as Selena. Selena was a representative for those of us who had never seen ourselves in the world beyond the demeaning narratives created for us. Tejano music has been part of our way of identifying with the land we live on. It is our way of stating we belong here, we matter, and we will celebrate our lives and stories merging to become a dynamic music community that is anything but one-note.
Selena is not a movie for everyone. Produced by her father and with a lot of family input, Selena is a love song written from her family to her fans. It’s hard to say how different this movie would have been if Selena had lived and was able to give us a look into her thoughts and feelings across her career. Perhaps there would have been less of a dreamy haze in characterizing her path to recognition. Maybe Selena could have come across as a human with flaws and inconsistent desires instead of an angelic reverie. In fact, holding the film to the light of traditional film critique, there are just a few gleams of brilliance. Jennifer Lopez proved her dedication to a convincing portrait of the young star, and this was the most frequently mentioned positive in reviews. Even the Quintanilla family mentioned that Lopez’ performance resembled their loved one so much, they grew emotional while watching.
Selena is a movie for fans, and most of her fans were the people who could identify with her strongly. If you had asked me what I thought about the feature when I first watched it in 1997, I probably would have told you it was sad, but I loved it. If you ask me now, all I can really say is that it feels like home. Most of the filming took place in my hometown of San Antonio, and it includes places such as the Riverwalk, our library downtown, the Majestic Theatre, and many more places I visited as a child. I still remember how jealous I was of my classmates who managed to be in the audience for the Houston Astrodome concert scenes, which were filmed in the Alamodome instead.
Even beyond physical locations, Selena is authentic in many ways, which I’m sure has a lot to do with her family’s involvement. Familia is such an important aspect in a Mexican-American household, and the movie clearly represents the strong bond in the Quintanilla family as they travel together as a band. One of my favorite scenes involves Abraham, Selena’s father played by Edward James Olmos, introducing Selena to her first song in Spanish. He reminds her that she is American, but she is also tied to her Mexican heritage in deep ways, and this connection is a beautiful thing. He wants her to sing in Spanish so she can relate more authentically when she performs. The film does a masterful job illustrating just how challenging the tightrope walk can be between cultures. In yet another scene involving Abraham, he explains to his children the hardships of being Mexican-American. We are never accepted as American enough, but it’s equally hard to be accepted as Mexican enough to those in Mexico. This echoes a sentiment my mother has taught me since a young age.
I was too young to realize it at the time of my first viewing, but most actors really nail the Tejano accent and way of speaking. I understood what was hilarious about the “Anything for Selenas!” scene because it rang so true to how my family and friends would speak. I didn’t realize it was almost a cultural inside joke at the time. I also didn’t quite understand just how amazing it was to have a mainstream film centered on Mexican-American issues with Latinx actors. The film takes this rare opportunity to heart and portrays Mexican-Americans in a faithful, dignified manner. This means also diving into issues like the choices Selena’s parents made early in her childhood. Their choice to purchase a home in a white neighborhood and for the kids to not know Spanish until their later years may seem like a rejection of identity. For some of us, we do learn to hate ourselves and renounce our heritage to seek acceptance in a society of white supremacy. However, in many cases we are just doing what we can to survive. Sometimes our parents make a decision to help us avoid the things they struggled with, even if the best choice is not always an option.
The most exciting scenes in the movie were the concert performances. Selena was also known as a fashion icon, and I recall passing her boutique on Broadway all the time as a child, hoping I could shop there one day when I grew older. The boutique is no longer there, but her quintessential outfits still impress today as they did twenty years ago. Along with her fashion sense, Selena brought cumbia dance moves into the limelight. Each concert scene is a precise recreation, with Lopez mastering the choreography and making her lip syncing look as if she were really singing. We all know JLO can sing, but she only sings three words in the whole movie — “como la flor” while offstage in the Monterrey scene.
I admit I’m biased in all of this as my wedding was held in San Antonio on April 16, officially Selena Day here in Texas. It’s clear there are many ways I connect to Selena as a girl and woman. All of that said, as stilted as Selena is in piling on pure adoration for its namesake, this is likely a consequence of her family releasing the work only 2 years after her death. I contend the film is still genuine and worthy on many levels. One of the best things to be said is that it really conveys what being a legend is about. It’s not speculating what might have been if Yolanda Saldívar had never shot Selena that day in 1995. Honoring the legend of Selena is about realizing how much she accomplished and how much she gave the world in the small amount of time she had.