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Monday, November 29, 2021

More than 25 years after her tragic death, Selena remains an icon

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Selena’s death at just 23 shook many Mexican-American and immigrant households like mine. Her career had skyrocketed from playing small parties and carnivals to a massive, sell-out concert at the Houston Astrodome just a couple weeks before her death. That show, famously immortalized in the hit 1997 biopic starring Jennifer Lopez, sold “more tickets than popular country stars of the day, including Reba McEntire and George Strait,” Remezcla said in 2019. Reba!

That period had probably been the most successful of Selena’s life. From 1994 to 1995 she received back-to-back Grammy nominations for Best Mexican-American album, for Live and Amor Prohibido. She won for the former, becoming the first Tejano artist to snag the trophy. Amor Prohibido lost its category (to Vikki Carr, and that’s okay, we love Vikki Carr) but made up for it in massive commercial success. The title track from that album still racks up millions of monthly listeners to this dayand its popularity was to set the path for the English-language “crossover” album.

Despite singing almost exclusively in Spanish, Selena spoke only English, learning to sing her songs phonetically. She eventually learned to speak it, but as Pop Sugar noted, “she wasn’t always fluent—and that’s okay.” Like me, someone who is bilingual but leans much more heavily on English, she occasionally bungled her pronunciation. And like me, she sometimes flat out forgot the word she was looking for, like in a classic scene from Selena

In the movie, Selena is traveling to Monterrey, Mexico, for a press junket. But when the promoter finds out her Spanish isn’t about-to-talk-to-a-whole-bunch-of-Mexicans-good, he flips his lid. The man complains about her in front of her like she’s not even there. If only she could just keep on singing, he says. I mean, rude as all hell. But Selena tells him and her dad, Abraham, let me give something a try.

So one by one, Selena greets reporters like they’re old friends and thanks them for coming to the junket. And it’s working. Selena gets onto the dais and sits at the microphone, really looking like she’s got this in the bag. She starts to answer someone’s question. So far so good. But then she forgets the Spanish-language word for “excited.”

That scene really hits home, because I forget my words more often than I like to admit. I’ll be on the phone with my mom and find that I just can’t think of the Spanish word I’m looking for. So I say it in English. She almost always understands. In the movie, Selena has no choice but to go the same route, and says the word “excited.” The reporters playfully chuckle to each other, and they move on.

Selena laughs too, first looking to her left at her dad, then to her right at the promoter, then back at the reporters, her head tilting down just a little. I’ve always thought Lopez’s acting in those couple seconds was particularly special. She says nothing and everything at the same time. I did my best, and that’s all I can do

That scene was based on the band’s real-life visit to Mexico for their first-ever tour there. She was a hit. “By the time she started doing interviews, they were in the palm of her hand,” Abraham told Texas Monthly in 1995. “The next day, all the articles praised her. They said she wasn’t some prefabricated blonde. Several remarked about the color of her skin. They called her una mujer del pueblo—a woman of the people. She never forgot where she came from.”

Perhaps many of us love Selena not just because of the music and dancing and coming out in white horse-drawn carriage while dressed in a sparkly outfit like a motherfucking queen, but because we can relate to trying to live in both of these worlds. We have to do so much more than just exist in both of these worlds. We have to work at existing. But a real fear is that the work just isn’t good enough. 

“[Selena] represents a young, Hispanic girl—equal parts Mexican and American—who was successful and unabashedly living her dream, but never abandoning her identity,” Latina magazine editorial director Betty Cortina said according to a 2005 Houston Chronicle article. “There was a great amount of pride when she was on stage because she was representing who we are. She was the quintessential American success story, and to have that cut off is tragic.”

Selena’s death propelled her into the mainstream stardom she’d worked so hard for in life. While she never lived to finish the English-language crossover album, her label released the tracks she had recorded in English, coupled with some of her biggest Spanish-language hits. The posthumous album, 1995’s Dreaming of You , was the success she had always wished for, debuting at number one on the Billboard chart, selling a staggering 331,000 copies in its first week. That number was a then-record for a female artist. Dreaming of You eventually sold nearly 4 million copies.

There’s no denying the influence Selena has had on the biggest stars of our day. Jennifer Lopez’s role in Selena led to her own Grammy-nominated singing career. Ximena Larkin wrote for CNN last year that “Selena Gomez is named after her and has gone on record crediting Quintanilla-Perez for influencing her career. Cardi B. called Selena her alter ego because she’s ‘someone everyone wishes they could be.’” 

Beyoncé also credits Selena as an influence, meeting her at a mall when she was a teen. I mean, sit on that for a moment. Beyoncé and Selena met. “But I didn’t say much to Selena because I wasn’t famous back then,” she admitted. “I just saw her, greeted her and continued on my way.” Even if she felt a little shy at the time, she said Selena’s style impacted her. “Growing up in Houston, I listened to her on the radio,” she continued. “Listening to her album, although I didn’t know exactly what she was singing, helped me a lot in the studio. I think she was a legend and I admire her.”

In death, Selena has also achieved sainthood status in many Latino households. In my home, you will respect cats and Selena. A wonderful colleague gifted me a handmade Selena pin that I absolutely treasure. I think that happened at the same work retreat where another wonderful colleague, who shall remain nameless, turned on me and tried to force me to sing some Selena during karaoke. But even when I said honestly, I can’t sing, this colleague continued to insist. I was left with no choice but to sneak out of the room.

I often wonder who Selena would be today. Not who we think she would be, but who she would have decided to be. Would she have been able to make the decision? It’s common knowledge that Abraham pushed young Selena and her siblings to performing, and they initially weren’t too crazy about Tejano. Would she have continued branching out into her own? Would she have explored multiple genres of music like another Mexican-American icon, Linda Ronstadt? Or would she have given it all up and taken a break?  She had been working for so long. Would she have had children? Would she have spoken out about the issues of today? Would she be as exhausted as we are?

Nearly three decades after her tragic death, Selena still resonates with Latinas and Latinos as much as she did when she twirled on the stage of the Astrodome in that absolutely legendary purple sequined outfit. To many Latinas and Latinos—especially the generation who grew up with her and remembers those appearances on El Show de Cristina and The Johnny Canales Show—Selena remains a source of pride, iconic and unmatchable. But also representative of who they are, who they’re constantly fighting to be, and who they can become.

Perhaps Lopez, in an interview to Billboard, summed it up best. “It has always bugged me that people would try to think that there’s a ‘next Selena,’” she said. “It’s like saying there’s another James Dean or Marilyn Monroe. People like that don’t come along every day. There is never going to be another Selena.”



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