Do you remember 1995? Were you even born? This was a powerful year for singer, song writer, fashion designers, entrepreneur, and one of the most beloved artists from the Latino community, specifically the Mexican American community, because Selena had made it big! Unfortunately, this would be the year she would be taken from us and she performed her last televised concert in her state of Texas. And on this day, she made history for the third time!
In the opening of the smash-hit movie, Selena (1997), you see Selena walk drive into the biggest and most famous location, the multipurposed stadium, the Houston Astrodome. The stadium was built in 1965 and closed in 2008. Like in real life, Selena, portrayed by a young Jennifer Lopez (who received a lot of backlash from Selena fans for not being Mexican), was pulled out in a horse and carriage (Tejana culture) to the stage surrounded by over 66,000 concertgoers. The concert was critically acclaimed during its time for outperforming ticket sales by country music singers such as Vince Gill, Reba Mcentire, and George Strait. Why is that important? Well, because country is the most listened to music in the United States and any artist coming out of any other genre had not been embraced by this country as much as country singers. Yet, here was Selena selling out the Houston Astrodome for the third time in a row! She had beat the record of concert attendees the two years prior! And only broke her record the following year for, unfortunately, her last televised concert. The success of Selena was unmeasurable! It was only skyrocketing when her life was taken by her assistant that same year.
So who was Selena?
Selena was a Texan born Mexican American. Her father’s story as a musician in his younger days influenced his children’s musical trajectory and became well-known after the release of the movie in 1997. He was a do-wop singer, similar to Ritchie Valens, but he and his group were not embraced by their own community or the white community. In the movie, the Latino/Mexican community in the nightclubs are represented as only wanting to hear Spanish music that they could dance to. And in white clubs, their race didn’t even allow them to step foot inside! His experience with the music industry and his own community did affect her dad. In the film, Selena’s father teaches his children how to play music and pushes Selena to learn Spanish songs. Obviously, he felt they needed to know Spanish songs in order to entertain their own Spanish speaking Latino/Mexican community in Texas, but he also felt the need to open his own venue up for them, the family-owned Mexican Restaurant. Abraham Quintanilla did everything he could to make sure his children had the opportunity to become the musicians they imagined themselves to be without hitting the racial limitations that exist in the US. As we all know now, Selena and her siblings did amazing and won a Grammy for it!
Selena grew up influenced by American culture and the music of her time highly influenced the music she was releasing in the years prior to her death. She was making the transition from Spanish songs to actually English songs with an oldies vibe which you get from songs like “Dreaming of You” and “I Could Fall in Love.” Another influence on Selena from her generation was the obvious reggae sound in quite of few of her Spanish songs, including one of her classics “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom.” (Watch music video here). Lastly, at the concert itself, Selena arrives in a disco-fashioned outfit with the most recognizable disco outfit, the bell bottoms! And she danced the night away to various disco medleys that you could tell she grew up listening to and vibing to!
Her performance and entire energy was and continues to be contagious!!!
There is no better remix than Selena’s rendition of Donna’s Summer’s “On the Radio.” The choice never hit deaf ears. Donna Summer was a powerhouse in the disco scene and she was a very openly sexual artists. She was unapologetic and she definitely paved the way for women of color in the music industry who want to break away from the mainstream mold which is pop music and “PG-13” artists. Another artist I can think of like this is Lil Kim. These women knew their bodies were being policed and that only empowered them even more to control how they presented their bodies to the public. In the film, Selena fights with her dad to justify her embroidered bra that were made popular by artist like Madonna and Paula Abdul… her dad was not happy about it and there were parents who shamed Selena.
It is nice to keep Selena in a cute little box of innocence where her father seems to like to keep her, but Selena was a trailblazer and her story remains more complex than the family likes to admit. Recently, Chris Perez, her widow, finally sat down and attempted to watch the Selena movie and, even though he could not finish it, he did mention how pieces to the story were not correct. This made it even more obvious that Moctezuma Esparza (the director) was focused on the father’s narrative. In her fourth chapter entitled “Becoming Selena, Becoming Latina,” Deborah Paredez explores this a bit more.
Why is it important to shatter the static “good girl” box Selena lives in?
First of all, I think she deserves to be seen for being herself and embracing her fashion choices without making excuses to anyone. As a matter of fact, she opened her own boutique where she sold her own designs! These were some of the reasons why I looked up to her so much as a kid. I would perform her songs with my primas. We would choreograph to music videos and recorded concerts of not just Selena, but also Alejandra Guzman and Gloria Trevi. These women were not seen as “goody-goodies.” As a matter of fact, these women were seen as bad role models for young girls like me. We didn’t care and we lived out our best lives to their music!
And as I grew up, I would revisit her music and become a huge romantic. I would listen to these songs and daydream about someone. It was one of those songs you could live out your romantical dreams (LOL!) Selena is timeless for us Latinas for so many reasons. You don’t have to love her music to see the impact she had on our community and on young brown girls who saw herself on TV when she saw Selena and other women like her.
Recently, Netflix released a docu-series on Selena. It has received quite a bit of mixed reviews. One major critique you kept hearing was how thin the actress was compared to the more curvacious body Selena had. But, even going beyond body-type, let’s not forget that J-Lo fought hard to justify their choice to cast a non-Mexican actress. I don’t think mattered. J-Lo did a great job making non-Selena fans fall in love with Selena… and, in the end, it is about keeping her legacy alive. I do believe that body representation and racial representation is important… but let’s be nice. I think we forget how mean people can really be and body shaming or ethnic shaming brown actresses who worked their a** off to be in the roles they were in… let’s give them some credit. I doubt Selena would have been about this kind of divide and conquer strategy between Latinas. We are rare in the industry and the roles available are so limited… why don’t you ask J-Lo? She has portrayed a maid who falls in love with a rich and politically powerful white man… I will let you google it!
Thanks to Selena, so many of us have had the opportunity to dream and dream BIG! Powerful women like Beyonce, Mariah Carey, and Cardi B have paid tribute to the Texan queen!! I can also attribute my passion to create and imagine the unimaginable in both my person life and in my career, I never imagined I would be getting a PhD. today, but dreaming big and being unapologetic about who I am has allowed me to get to where I am today. You don’t have to fit the mold to be successful and Selena is a great example!
Que Viva Selena!
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