Edited by Carolina Palacios
Art by Laila Borrie https://www.facebook.com/underthepeacocktree/
Each year in March I see a wave of young Latinas on social media expressing their love for Selena, as they share images of their Selena-inspired make-up, Selena outfits for the Selena club parties, and plans to watch Selena, the 1997 film that chronicles the short life of Selena Quintanilla. Why March? March 31 is the anniversary of Selena’s death, which occurred in 1995. And for any young Latina who grew up dancing to Selena’s “Como la Flor” in their living room, March is an important month to remember those days and the unhinged hope for a music idol. I grew up listening to Selena and have memories of my sister singing along to “Como la Flor” when it played in the radio. I can also recall trying to hide this fandom in a poor attempt to assimilate to the American culture I was learning in grade school. It was not until my first year of undergrad that I noticed it was suddenly okay to be Latino.
After going through grade school trying to hide my cultural practices and separating home from the rest of the world, undergrad was different. This difference surfaced whenever I opened a communal cupboard of my shared dorm suite and found a large bottle of Tapatío sauce, or when I returned from a weekend at home with a box of mole (a Mexican sauce made of chilies and spices) that my mom had packed for me, or when someone hung up an image of la Virgen de Guadalupe on their wall. These events are common in Latino households, and when they took place outside the walls of a Latino home, they were landmarks that demonstrated that being Latino was okay and even normal. When March rolled around, a group of my floor mates and I got together and watched Selena, and I wondered why it took so long for me to embrace such a large part of my Latina identity.
I first came across Selena in a classroom setting during my third year of undergrad, when I took a required writing composition course. The assignment was to pick a death and analyse its reception. One of my classmates chose to write about Selena’s death and its depiction on the Selena fan website. When she announced her topic to the class, an internal siren went up in my head. Would our professor understand the impact of Selena’s death? Years later, I found myself in one of my postgrad seminars sharing about the widely popular Selena club parties with my cohort. The assignment was to analyse a successful way of mediating the past. I was almost scared for myself – would anyone in my seminar care about Selena and the contemporary club parties? Witnessing and experiencing Selena in a classroom setting made me realise two things. One is that my fear of sharing Selena is rooted in shame: a fear that sharing Selena is too Latina for the academy, and a dangerous territory for Latinas. The second is that Selena can be studied in many ways, and that she can even break down the internalized shame that Latino students may carry upon entering their university classrooms.
Selena encompasses many things, from her music and performances that broke through the male-dominated Tejano music genre, to the public visibility of her death. Likewise, the Selena subculture in the early 1990s differs from the subculture today. The Selena mourning among the Latino community, and particularly among the Tejano community, may reveal hints of territorial ownership within the fan community. The queer memorials and performances that have evolved over the years may suggest that the young 90s Selena fans have grown up and have designed the current Selena subculture along the way. I could continue to list phenomena; all carry a lot of meaning and symbolism to be unpacked, and the ways in which Selena can be studied are nearly endless. So, where do we begin? For starters, I think giving Selena a listen is a good place. Watching Selena is a must; the film holds remarkable scenes that powerfully remind fans of Selena’s gifts. Deborah Paredez discusses the concept of what it means to be a part of the Selena subculture in her book Selenidad. In it, Paredez touches upon a range of topics, from the capitalisation of Selena’s death to her queer outreach. When MAC Cosmetics released a Selena make-up line, I recall a flood of social media buzz around the new make-up products, later to be stopped with the mass realisation that MAC Cosmetics was unethically capitalising Selena’s death. What can business analytics tell us about the mourning minority market?
As an American anthropology scholar and a current film exhibition scholar in Edinburgh, I think studying Selena’s performance and music through archive film in comparison to the performance and music that mediates her death can contribute to the education of theatre and film studies scholars, as well as history scholars. Moreover, Selena makes for a successful example of a well-established subculture that exists in many parts of the United States, and maybe even outside of Selena’s home nation. The anthropologist in me would have benefitted from research methods that are specifically designed to approach minority cultures: why is the Selena scene in Texas different from the scene in New York? Today, as I witness the Latina community on social media share their love for Selena through fan-art, performance, and even hand-made products for their Etsy shops, it is clear to me that Selena isn’t even a subculture anymore. Rather, Selena is a part of the Latino American experience, where Latino Americans have unconsciously identified her significance and impact on contemporary American society and culture.
If the study of American history and pop culture strives to discuss America from its colonial inception to its struggling socio-political climate in the 21st century, its initiatives to paint a complete portrait of American culture are still lacking. There is a massive American demographic being left out, and while Selena provides social studies scholars with a Latina lens through which they can approach their research, it covers only a sliver of that demographic. To quote the character of Selena’s father in Selena, “Being Mexican American is hard. We got to prove to the Mexicans how Mexican we are. And we got to prove to the Americans how American we are. All at the same time.” Today, Selena exemplifies the degree to which this statement is true and offers an alternative Latino American narrative to the more common migrant worker one.
DUBPublicity. “Deborah Paredez talks about Selenidad.” YouTube, lecture by Deborah Paradez, 7 December 2009, https://youtu.be/AsxqQjU3EBg.
Paredez, Deborah. Selenidad: Selena, Latinos, and the Performance of Memory. Duke University Press, 2009.
Selena. “Como la flor.” Entre a mi mundo, 1992.
Selena. Directed by Gregory Nava, Q Productions 21 Mar. 1997.
About the author:
Izzy Bravo is a screenwriter from Los Angeles. She received a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Southern California and will complete a Master of Science degree from the University of Edinburgh. Her work focuses on telling the stories of queer Latinx experiences.