Selena: Her Living Legacy & What It Still Represents Today
Selena gave us visibility and embodied the truth that a Latinx identity is not defined solely by Spanish language acquisition…
This week the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce Walk of Fame Selection Committee announced that the late, great Tejano songstress, Selena Quintanilla-Perez, will posthumously receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2017. The Quintanilla family announced the news on Selena's Facebook fan page on Tuesday, and thousands of die-hard fans are out-of-their-minds excited.
Quintanilla is not the only Latinx artist that will receive a spot on the Walk of Fame in 2017: actress Eva Longoria, Venezuelan Conductor Gustavo Dudamel, and zombie apocalypse horror film director George Romero will also be recognized with their own stars for their accomplishments in arts and entertainment. While congratulations are in order for everyone who will be receiving a star next year, the response to the news about Selena Quintanilla’s award has been overwhelming and brimming with love. Over 20 years after her death, Selena Quintanilla continues to make headlines, with publications like the Huffington Post and the Los Angeles Times celebrating the news that Selena’s legacy will be immortalized forever in Hollywood.
This year has been especially busy for the Selena legacy and her fans, whose love for the Chicanx superstar has not slowed down in the 21 years since her murder in March of 1995. Many of Selena’s millennial admirers were very young when she was killed (I was three-years old), but our parents, primxs, and communities raised us on her. She was taken from us far too soon; she was only 23 when she passed, and our communities were not ready to let her go.
We grew up watching the biopic about her life, Selena, which gave J. Lo her first major leading role and set the stage for the Boricua’s future superstardom. In fact, it was a young Chicanx Selena fan, Tonantzin Esparza, who encouraged her movie-making father, Moctezuma Esparza, to produce the film about Quintanilla’s life. We were brought up listening to "Como la flor" and perfecting our washing machine. We wanted to dress like her, dance like her, and we were captivated by her smile and adorable sense of humor. Selena has had an incredible impact on hundreds of thousands of people, Latinx or not, and the reasons are numerous.
Selena was a triple threat. She could sing, dance, and design her own costumes. She served LOOKS. Every costume she designed and wore was a memorable signature and her eye for fashion was timeless—just ask Beyoncé. The designs that she created with boots, high waisted form-fitting pants, skirts, and jeweled bustiers combined her Texas roots, Latin cultural markers, and Disco flavor. The silhouettes she rocked on stage continue to influence artists today and you can see major nods to Selena’s steez in the wardrobes of Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and many more. Her fashion, her music, and her flare also made her an icon in LGBTQ communities of color, a phenomenon that Dr. Deborah R. Vargas wrote about in her 2007 paper, “Selena: Sounding a Queer Transnational Latino/a Queer Imaginary". The girl had the range and she could knock out a pop tune or a love ballad with ease, passion, and intense emotion. Selena’s incredible vocal ability and tenacity made her a stand out. But it was her personality, her smile, and the way she embraced her identity and community that had us fall madly in love with her.
A video posted by Selena Quintanilla (@queenquintanilla) on
Selena was a pocha, a term that is generally used to describe a Mexican who was born in the United States and speaks Spanglish or very little Spanish. Historically used as a derogatory term, younger Latinxs have taken to reclaiming the word and recognizing it as a term of endearment and symbol of Latinx identity in a U.S. context. Selena's Spanish was far from perfect, but she owned her lexicon and her Mexicanidad with pride. A third generation pocha myself, I saw myself in Selena once I was old enough to appreciate who she was. She wasn’t a disappointment, white washed, or “less Mexican” because of her choppy Spanish. How could she be? She was the Tejano Queen! She sang in Spanish and in English. Selena was one of us, a Mexican-American, a pocha, and her rise to international, Grammy Award-winning fame marked our space in American history.
The Tejana’s experiences reflected the realities of many Chicanxs whose parents and grandparents came to the Southwestern United States prior to the 1970s, during times of intense de jure racial segregation. My father, a second generation Mexican-American and former farm worker from Bakersfield, was not raised speaking Spanish in his home because his mother and grandparents knew that a child who spoke Spanish in school or spoke English with an accent was a target for corporal punishment from teachers, or at risk of being placed in lower level educational tracks by racist school administrators.
My father grew up in California in the 1960s where he frequently saw signs in store windows that read, “No dogs or Mexicans allowed." The racism, xenophobia, and linguistic oppression that many of our parents and grandparents faced gave way to generations of Chicanxs who did not grow up speaking Spanish as a tool for survival in a cutthroat capitalist and white supremacist environment. This history of forced language loss and acculturation in immigrant communities has been generally understood and studied in academic circles, but our communities do not always have access to this information and often place much shame on pochxs without understanding our socio-historical context.
Selena gave us visibility and embodied the truth that a Latinx identity is not defined solely by Spanish language acquisition, but is the totality of one’s history, heart, and being. Although Selena and her family came up in Texas, in a racially oppressive society, she was able to hold on to her identity and her cultura in spite of generations of systemic racism. She wasn’t “less Mexican," fragmented, or broken because of her U.S. context. She was whole in spite of it. The culture lived in her, her music, and notably, her aesthetic. She sang cumbias, Disco, Tejano, and she sang in Spanish. She wore bright red lipstick, extensive acrylic nails, gold hoops, and sported long raven hair. She was an iconic femme Chicanx, and she proved that not only was there a place for women in Tejano music, but that a woman could in fact revolutionize the genre on an international level. She was a woman of color whose brilliance made her a force to be reckoned with in a machista musical genre and white supremacist, patriarchal world.
Decades after her death, Selena’s impact continues to have major reach. Her image, life, music, and brilliant personality have inspired young Latinxs and many other people of color to pursue their dreams in the arts. There are even scholars with PhDs who have studied and written about Selena’s cultural impact in peer reviewed journals. MAC recently announced that they will be releasing a line of Selena inspired makeup, including her signature red lipstick, this October. Venues in L.A. and other major U.S. cities boast regular Selena tribute nights, Selena Techno Cumbia parties, and even Selena pizza parties. Drag Queens nationwide have perfected Selena’s look and can emulate her "Bidi Bidi Bom Bom" like no other.
While I love the dedications to Selena and the way that our communities continue to celebrate her music, I am also weary of corporate exploitation of her name in death. We want the chance to remember her, celebrate her, mourn her passing, and honor her music. We want to share her art with our young primxs and future children. Selena’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame will serve as a physical memorial to her in Los Angeles and knowing her fan base, I anticipate that her star will be unique. Latinxs have a way of celebrating our dead that is full of love, color, and joy. I imagine that Selena fans will pay tribute to her by visiting her star, leaving her recuerdos, velas y flores.