Selena & the Birth of the Bicultural Latinx

Selena & the Birth of the Bicultural Latinx

A promotional flyer for a July 2018 Selena for Sanctuary concert in New York City features an illustration of the late Tejana icon Selena Quintanilla-Pérez. She’s clad in the now-iconic, midriff-baring, figure-hugging, sparkly purple jumpsuit with the crisscrossed halter top, the stagewear she donned during her final performance at the Houston Astrodome in February 1995. She holds a microphone in one hand and a single red rose in the other, her hands nearly clasped together, as if in prayer. A green mantle emblazoned with eight-point stars drapes over her brown hair and flows all the way down to the ground, while a luminescent halo encircles her head. A sleeping angel lies at her feet, his wings and arms surrounded by lush red roses.

It’s a striking image, one that marries the iconography associated with La Virgen de Guadalupe to a visual representation of the folklore surrounding Selena. The fusion of images and references not only underlines the near-religious reverence held for Selena but also signals the similarities between Our Lady of Guadalupe and Selena within a sociocultural context. Beyond her spiritual significance, Our Lady of Guadalupe has long been held as a symbol of a unified Mexico, binding all the ethnic and linguistic groups of a region and giving them a shared identity, all the while recognizing and celebrating these communities’ distinctness.

Selena, meanwhile, provided a blueprint for those within the Latinx community to embrace the nuances and dualities of their bicultural identities. Rather than choosing between her Mexican heritage and the American culture in which she was reared, she immersed herself in both and celebrated them in equal measure via her music and personal style. For members of the Latinx community, Selena became proof that biculturalism is to be celebrated and not hidden, and, as such, she too became a unifying figure.

Doris Muñoz cofounded the Selena for Sanctuary concert series to bring the Latinx community together in support of immigrant rights. Since the first performance at L.A.’s the Satellite in May 2017, Selena for Sanctuary has grown into a multi-installment series of free Selena-themed concerts featuring silent auctions to benefit non-profit organizations like the Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project, Make the Road New York and Voto Latino.

“After that first concert, I thought, ‘If everyone feels united by Selena, if everyone can find common ground and enjoy her music and her legacy, this will bring in the masses and we can then pivot everyone’s attention to what’s important right now, which is the Latinx community,’” Muñoz says. She was right: With headliners like Mon Laferte, Kali Uchis, Cuco and Omar Apollo, Selena for Sanctuary concerts have drawn crowds of over 5,000 people — all eager to listen to different renditions of Selena classics like “Como La Flor,” “Amor Prohibido” and “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom.”

So what is it about Selena that has resonated so strongly with the Latinx community — both during her lifetime and after her death in 1995? “A lot of us related to her story,” Muñoz says. “She was the first person who showed us that a crossover from the Latin space to the general market space could actually be successful, and she was a form of representation for a lot of us who felt like our stories were very similar to her story: We’re not Mexican enough for the Mexicans; we’re not American enough for the Americans. We’re stuck in this middle area of, like, ‘No soy de aquí, ni soy de allá’ kind of space. Selena was the first person to show that we could express the duality of our identities and succeed.”

According to Deborah Paredez, author of Selenidad: Selena, Latinos, and the Performance of Memory, part of Selena’s relatability for U.S.-bred Latinxs stemmed from the Corpus Christi-born star’s struggles to better familiarize herself with her parents’ native tongue. “Because she was born and raised in the United States, Selena had quite a complicated relationship — as many of us did — to the Spanish language,” Paredez says. “Those in our parents’ generation were often punished for speaking Spanish — people could get fired or kicked out of school for it — and, as a result, oftentimes there wasn’t a lot of Spanish spoken in our homes.”

Though Selena sang in Spanish, she wasn’t initially fluent in the language; instead, she learned the lyrics phonetically, with her dad coaching her on her pronunciation. Her fans watched her stumble with Spanish during press conferences. One such moment is perfectly captured in the classic “Me siento muy excited” scene in the 1997 biopic Selena.

“In that moment she code switched,” Paredez says. “Seeing her be accepted south of the border, where U.S.-born Latinos are often not accepted or seen as being too assimilated, it helped a lot of us who have grown up in the U.S. and maybe had feelings of shame around language acquisition. Selena was publicly saying, ‘Yeah, this is a struggle, and I’m trying my best,’ and that was a huge point of identification for people in the Latinx community.” Her use of Spanglish, then, spoke to the cultural hybridity that accompanies Latinx identity.

Selena also reflected the Latinx experience through her music. Dr. Nathian Shae Rodriguez, a professor at San Diego State University’s School of Journalism and Media Studies, says that Tejano music, in and of itself, can serve as a lifeline to one’s country of origin for recent immigrants and, in turn, as an invisible thread anchoring Mexican-Americans to their ancestors south of the border. “Tejano music itself was a tool to help individuals in Texas form and shape their identity, coming from Mexico as migrants but settling in the United States and feeling in-between lands,” Dr. Rodriguez explains. “The role of Tejano music is to reflect the time and space in Texas, and that’s what Selena was doing.”

To that end, then, as Selena’s career evolved, she was able to incorporate more sounds that reflected her own experiences living in the U.S. — among them her appreciation for Donna Summer’s disco and Janet Jackson’s pop hits — all while still using that Tejano framework to reify her Mexican identity. In doing so, Selena challenged one-dimensional understandings, celebrating the pluralities of biculturalism effortlessly and authentically.

The patchwork of influences that informed Selena’s bicultural identity was also evident in her penchant for red lipstick, winged black eyeliner, big hoop earrings, bedazzled bustiers, fringed jackets and newsboy caps. “She really affirmed a very brown, working-class sense of glamour and body shape,” Paredez argues. “She had a curvaceous figure, and she would wear formfitting outfits in a way that was like, ‘Yeah, this is my body and I’m not ashamed.’ There was an aura of uncompromising realness to her that was very refreshing.”

While she was glamorous, she was never a capricious diva. Audiences knew she was unafraid of digging herself up by her bootstraps (as she’d already done) even if it might mean breaking some of her perfectly manicured nails — literally. “If you watch Selena’s last concert [at the Houston Astrodome], she’s holding the microphone and she has a Band-Aid on one of her fingers,” Paredez points out. “One of her acrylic nails had fallen off backstage, and she was like, ‘Well, I don’t have time to fix that so I’ll just put a Band-Aid on!’ That contributed to a sense of authenticity, and it spoke to her work ethic and how it didn’t compromise her glamour.” Selena’s humility, her sweet and approachable demeanor, made audiences think of her as the girl next door — even as she reached supernova status and became the first Latinx crossover artist.

Twenty-five years after her death, Selena’s legacy has only continued to grow. As of Spring 2020, Dr. Rodriguez is teaching a course at SDSU called “Selena and Latinx Media Representation,” during which students can extrapolate concepts pertaining to identity formation, biculturalism, immigration, media representation and more by using Selena’s story as a jumping-off point. MAC Cosmetics is releasing a sequel to its sold-out Selena-themed makeup collection in April 2020. Christian Serratos will be playing the Queen of Tejano in an upcoming Netflix series.

In a time when virulent, xenophobic, anti-immigration, anti-Latino rhetoric has become all too commonplace, Latinx generations are turning to Selena for solace and hope.  “Even though her music didn’t speak specifically toward immigration or the perils the Latinx community was facing, it was something people could use to reinforce who they were and how they felt,” Dr. Rodriguez says. “She was an individual who was able to cross borders and still be accepted on both sides, and I think that’s the hope we still have today.”

Selena taught us that there’s no single way to be Latinx. She embraced the various facets of her hybrid identity — an act that, in and of itself, was a form of resistance. And she paved the way for future generations of Latinxs to reaffirm their identity on their own terms — be it in English, Spanish or Spanglish.

Based in Austin, Texas, Celia San Miguel is a veteran journalist whose work has appeared in Complex, Latina, Glamour, VIBE, the New York Post, Parents Latina and more. She has interviewed everyone from Ricky Martin and Daddy Yankee to Alicia Keys, Pitbull, 50 Cent, Robin Thicke, Mary J. Blige and Sean Paul.

Illustration by Ugly Primo.

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