Selena: The People’s Star

Selena: The People’s Star

It wasn’t uncommon, in fan footage and interviews, for Selena Quintanilla-Pérez to invoke the word we. “We try to experiment with our music,” she’d say, where we meant Selena y Los Dinos, her band including her brother A.B., sister Suzette and husband Chris Pérez. Other times, we were Tejanos, the Mexican-Americans living in Texas, just like Selena. There was also we meaning the Latinx community in the U.S. and beyond, such that when Selena said, “We never thought we’d get this far, but we’re here,” in 1993, the statement didn’t only refer to her award-winning success; it also echoed the triumph of every Latinx daughter who journeyed for a better life.

Yet this collective identity didn’t happen overnight. Selena spent years offering herself up to us first.

Long before her tragic death in 1995, at the age of 23, Selena became La Reina del Pueblo (Queen of the People). She shuffled through other worthy titles — the Queen of Tejano or La Reina de Tex-Mex — but it was her denomination as the people’s star that really catapulted her career.

For many Latinxs, especially women, Selena marked the first popular artist who looked or behaved anything like them in the States (let alone throughout Latin America, where telenovelas continue to favor white-passing stars). Here was a brown-skinned young woman with enviable hips that she relatably “disliked,” big hair she never hid and a gentle Southern drawl. And like many second- and third-generation Mexican-Americans, Selena’s first language was actually English — not Spanish. So she stumbled over rolling her r’s, said things like “diecicautro” instead of catorce and learned her Spanish lyrics phonetically.

By virtue of language and nation, all of this normally would’ve made her an imperfect candidate for the world’s next Latina superstar. But in a country built on the backs of immigrants and their children, Selena was primed to appeal. She shared her fans’ liminal state, their sense of ni de aqui ni de alla (not from here or there). For many Tejanos, she would even become the bridge to their ancestral home.

Half of that was thanks to her persona; the other half, her voice. A sublime soprano, Selena came of age in the ’80s, listening to pop divas like Donna Summer, Paula Abdul and Janet Jackson. It was their brand of stardom that Selena, like many American girls, dreamt of — earworm hooks, arena tours, sparkling suits, the lot. She had the pipes to get there, too: Her father, Abraham Quintanilla Jr., noted how impressive she was, even as a child. “Her timing, her pitch were perfect; I could see it from day one,” he told PEOPLE in 1995. Yet as a musician himself, Quintanilla knew that gunning for the Anglo audience — at least right away — is tricky for any artist visibly coded as Latinx. So he set her sights on a community hungry for representation: her own.

Things started small. As early as 9 years old, Selena was plugged in alongside Los Dinos for a quinceañera here, a wedding there, and these gigs ramped up after the Quintanillas went bankrupt during Reagan’s recession. With a talent like Selena’s, the family’s source of salvation was obvious, if not imposing for the preteen. The youngest Quintanilla daughter was pulled from school by the eighth grade to make money playing Tejano shows across Texas, trading the classroom for cumbia and Spanish lessons. Selena was thrust onto stages where only men performed, where crowds and bookers told her she was too young to make it. Still, she kept showing up. And she did make it — not by shrinking herself, but by leaning into her outlier status even more.

Along with her brother and chief songwriter, A.B., Selena whipped up an exclusive take on música tejana — one that launched the genre into America’s commercial consciousness altogether. With influences from northern Mexican folk to Czech polka and the German waltz, Tejano was already global music in its scope. But Selena’s version was decidedly fusion-focused. As A.B. broke out the electropop synths, Selena recalled the ache of Mexican gritos in every belted breath.

We only caught a glimpse of where all that could take her: to Mexico, where she became the biggest Tejano act in history after playing to a crowd of 70,000; to Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, where caribeños could finally encounter the Chicana starlet; to Los Angeles, to win her first Grammy; and to Houston, Texas’ own Astrodome, where she delivered her record-breaking final concert in February 1995.

At that stadium, Selena finally (lest we say obviously) proved herself to be a capital-P Pop star — not just the Queen of Tejano, as if that were a light title to begin with. Selena was poised to enthrall the world. In many ways, we already know she did.

Jenzia Burgos is a writer and critic from the South Bronx, N.Y. She’s usually writing about race, gender and class as they influence popular culture; sometimes, she’s a poet. You can find more of her work in Pitchfork, Remezcla, Paste and StyleCaster, or on her website, jenzia.com.

Illustration by Ugly Primo.

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