Selena Quintanilla-Pérez At 50: Preserving And Protecting A Precious Legacy
This week marks what would have been the 50th birthday of Selena Quintanilla Perez, the popular musical superstar known by her legions of fans simply as Selena. Though she’s been gone for over a quarter century, she seems more popular than ever. Why is it that 26 years after her death at age 23, Selena is experiencing such a remarkable revival? And has she ever really been that far from our thoughts or our playlists?
Twelve years ago, I wrote a book about Selena’s enduring legacy called Selenidad: Selena, Latinos, and the Performance of Memory. In the process, I discovered how Selena — and Latinos — were transformed by what I came to call Selenidad, the vibrant and dynamic afterlife of this tremendously talented and charismatic performer who was murdered in 1995. In the years since, Selena’s legacy has become even more profound than even I could have anticipated.
As someone who has spent a long time following the force of Selenidad, I’ve noticed in the last five years a surge in Selena merchandising and media attention: Andy Warhol-style printed t-shirts at Target, cropped hoodies emblazoned with the slogan, “Selena: Believe the Impossible Always,” at Forever 21, the Selena makeup line that sold out within minutes of its launching at MAC Cosmetics and the multi-episode Netflix show, Selena: The Series. But, as Selena fans taught me 25 years ago, we cannot account for the full scope and power of Selenidad by focusing only on the officially-approved stories of her life or the corporate marketing of her image.
I was the same age as Selena when she died, both of us members of Generation X even as the popular markers of that generational category often excluded the experiences or tastes of south Texas brown girls like us. When she died, I was struck by the tremendous outpouring of grief and commemoration for Selena that reached beyond those of us Gen X Tejanas who loved red lipstick and a danceable beat — from Puerto Rican drag queens to elder Salvadoran tías, from the now collectors’ item People magazine tribute issue to community vigils in cities across the world. I was in my second year of graduate school, just beginning to learn how to think and write critically about performance and music. Selena’s afterlife sharpened my analytical senses, insisting that I look beyond the proliferation of commodities that help forge an icon in capitalist culture and instead listen closely to the voices that were singing the coda to Selena’s life.
The myriad Selena fans I met in the course of my research taught me that the act of remembering Selena is as much an act of creation as citation. Latinos remember Selena not just to deify a singular figure but to forge a sense of community among ourselves across the borders of our national, linguistic and regional diversity. We remember Selena to understand better who we are as Latinos or Tejanos or Puerto Ricans or Chicanos or Dominicanos or Salvadoreños or as any combination of these and more across the broad spectrum of our identities. We remember Selena as a way of asserting Latina independence, queer Latinx pride, outcries against anti-immigrant policies or claims to civic space and the marketplace.
In an effort to understand this recent resurgence of Selenidad, I turned to one of the young people I first interviewed for my research nearly twenty years ago: Francisco Vara-Orta, a journalist who now conducts workshops as a Training Director at the nonprofit organization Investigative Reporters and Editors. Vara-Orta and I first met five years after Selena’s passing at the premiere of the short-lived touring musical, Selena Forever, in March 2000, when he was 15 years old. He recalls, “At that time, I was very much starting to come into my sexuality. Juan Gabriel wasn’t out. Walter Mercado never really acknowledged it. Ricky Martin wasn’t out. There was just no representation. So Selena’s fabulousness, I think, drew a lot of us in: her dance moves, her fashion, her beauty. … I learned from her and other pop divas how to navigate my intersectionality—growing up poor, brown, gay, feminine-proud—because there weren’t many men that I could look up to or respect.”
I asked Vara-Orta how and why he thinks Selena’s legacy endures. From his perspective as a millennial who has spent the last 17 years in newsrooms reporting on Latino-related issues in popular culture, business and education and who now regularly trains the next generation of Latinx journalists, he posits, “I think we’re craving stories not just about trauma but stories about success, and Selena’s story is at that intersection.” Selena’s story offers Latinos a way to narrate both our tragedies and our triumphs in the face of the ongoing violence and erasure we experience in larger U.S. culture.
Vara-Orta acknowledges the market forces that are key to Selena’s persistent afterlife but also observes how continued commemorations of Selena are not just about commodification but about cultural preservation. “I feel like Selena’s legacy has grown in legitimacy thanks to capitalism in the United States,” he says. “I love and hate that. I think that Selena’s family is probably pushed and pulled in guarding her legacy so that it’s not colonized and appropriated by other forces. I mean, our food’s been taken from us, our land’s been taken from us, our bodies are policed, so we’re protective of Selena.” To lay claim to Selena is to reclaim so much of what we’ve lost as a result of centuries of colonialism and cultural appropriation.
Vara-Orta’s observations encourage me to acknowledge that the rise in Selena-related products in recent years has also coincided with the rise in Latina-produced reflections on Selena’s lasting impact. In the last few years I’ve fielded an increasing number of interview requests from young Latinas who are not only interested in hearing about Selena but in sharing their own experiences of how Selena has inspired their careers as journalists or writers or documentary filmmakers or podcast hosts. Media creators like Mala Muñoz and Diosa Femme (hosts of the Locatora Radio podcast)and Maria Elena Garcia (creator of the Anything for Selena podcast) and Lindsay Graciela Perna (director of the short documentary Selena’s Music Saved Their Lives), and Cat Cardenas (journalist and contributor to the recent special issue of Texas Monthly dedicated to Selena) are just a few of the talented and influential Latinas who are keeping the lights of Selenidad burning bright.
The work created by this new generation of Latinas — many of whom were children or not yet born when Selena died — is evidence of the ways that, for so many Latinos, Selenidad is our cultural inheritance, something we pass down, a mode of making do and evidence of the creative ways we’ve endured. For communities who mostly do not possess generational wealth and who are often divided across national lines by forces of global capitalism, Selenidad is our precious community heirloom that cannot be so easily confiscated. An inheritance treasured enough to require safeguarding and capacious enough for all of us to lay claim to it.
What I’ve observed over the years is that Latinas and queer communities have been the most constant and creative guardians of Selenidad: mothers teaching daughters the lyrics to Selena songs, gay Tíos styling their nieces in Selena hair and make-up, Latina butchas adoring the brown femme beauty modelled after Selena’s style or trans Latinas mentoring others in the ways of Selena-inspired glamour. Vara-Orta concurs, “Gay Latinos have been a lot of the curators of Selena’s legacy over the last 26 years. We love Whitney and Madonna and Dolly and Cher and Barbra, but none of them are brown girls. … I think the queer community still longs for the next Selena and until we have someone else, we’re going to be one of the communities that will guard her.”
This generation of daughters and nieces and baby queers who received their inheritance have now all grown up and are, in turn, passing on the gift across a range of media platforms. So it’s no surprise to so many brown girls that when Cardi B, the Dominican hip hop diva who grew up in the Bronx and was only three years old when Selena died, announces her arrival in the third verse of Jennifer Lopez’s Latin trap song, “Dinero,” she proclaims, “I told y’all I’m trap Selena / I’ll backhand a b**** like Serena.” It’s no surprise that in the year before the pandemic, I danced to “Dinero” in my Zumba class along with a multi-generational and multi-racial group of women striving each class to follow the moves of our Puerto Rican teacher—a retired backup dancer for Mary J. and Britney and other pop divas—all of us singing along to every word. It’s no surprise that we knew exactly what kind of brown girl Cardi B was because we were all inheritors of Selena.
Despite the abundance of Latina talent found everywhere from podcast airwaves to Zumba classes, the entertainment and recording industries still insist on promoting only a few “Latin stars.” We continue to turn to Selena because there’s been no one to replace her. This absence is due not to the paucity of Latina excellence but the narrow parameters for representation established by these industries — which is exactly what Rita Moreno was getting at when she said, “We can’t just let Jennifer Lopez be the sole representative of the Hispanic community.” She means the problem isn’t JLo, but any industry that only makes room for one of us at a time. When we lift Selena, we lift up our collective voices to expand the space to hold us all. As music scholar Deborah Vargas reminds us in her book, Dissonant Divas in Chicana Music, in Selena’s voice we can also hear the voices of Chicana singers who came before her like Eva Garza, Chelo Silva, Rosita Fernandez, Laura Canales, Lydia Mendoza and many others.
Since its beginning, Selenidad has been a reliable barometer for gauging the rise in national policies and inflammatory rhetoric that have had devastating consequences on Latino lives. Selena died in the middle of the 1990s, a decade that brought with it sweeping anti-immigration legislation, the gutting of social welfare programs, deregulation of the telecommunication industries, the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the murders of thousands of young women workers along the U.S./Mexico border. It was also a time marked by the simultaneous explosion of interest in Latinos as a marketing demographic and prevailing anxieties about the burgeoning Latino population projected by the century’s end to be the next majority-minority. In other words, Selena died during a moment that was fraught with tragedy and promise for so many Latinos. Many of us turned to Selena and Selenidad to express our collective grief and joy amidst these larger political and economic forces that shaped our lives.
Selenidad is the space where we gather to mourn the losses we’ve suffered and to dare to dream of future possibilities in the midst of our tragedies. It’s no surprise to me, then, that we experienced a surge in Selenidad during the last five years, a time marked by a president who referred to Mexican immigrants as rapists and immigrant children detained in cages at the border and Puerto Ricans abandoned by the state in the wake of Hurricane María. Selenidad has long been the place where we legislate our grief when state legislation has forsaken us. One of the most inspiring examples of this is “Selena for Sanctuary,” a series of benefit concerts initiated by a young Latina named Doris Muñoz. In Selena we find sanctuary.
We turn and return to Selenidad precisely because we cannot turn to the state or to the entertainment industry for reliable representation. To turn to Selena is one of the most powerful ways we continue to turn to one another, a form of Latinx mutual aid — sometimes quite literally so, as Doris Munoz’s efforts have shown. Selena’s enduring legacy may point toward the continued commodification of our culture and the lack of imagination among Hollywood or recording executives. But it also offers evidence that Latinos are still here, struggling and surviving and sustaining one another against the forces that seek to constrain or destroy us. Evidence that we are building our safehouses in Selena’s memory.
Selena has been gone longer than she was here. But she’s still with us. She may not have lived long enough to fulfill all of her dreams but she lives on in the dreams of those who have inherited her. We return to Selenidad — to the tragedy and promise that the story of Selena’s life and death offers — as a way of moving through and making sense of our despair and our dreams. Selenidad is expansive enough to hold it all. Within it we can hear not just a singular diva’s resonant voice, but a chorus of Latino voices. Listen in. Selenidad is filled with the voices of the next Selenas, with the sounds of so many others who, as Selena once sang, “can’t stop dreaming.”
Deborah Paredez is the author of the recently published poetry volume, Year of the Dog, and the critical study, Selenidad: Selena, Latinos, and the Performance of Memory. She is co-founder of CantoMundo, a national organization for Latinx poets, and a professor of creative writing and ethnic studies at Columbia University. She’s currently at work on a book about divas.
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