I don’t remember a time in my life before Selena. I can’t pinpoint the moment I first heard one of her songs or how old I was when I first watched the Selena movie. But by the time I was ten, I knew all the words to “Como La Flor,” and I had practiced the spins and twirls I’d seen Jennifer Lopez faithfully re-create in Selena’s biopic. Later on, with the help of YouTube, I found songs of hers I’d never heard before, and clips from concerts and interviews from before I was born.
For years, I was eager to buy anything I could get my hands on with Selena’s name or face on it: T-shirts, commemorative cups, newspaper clippings, photos. I was born the year after she died, and collecting these things online or in local shops in San Antonio was as close to a “normal” fan experience as I could get. But in recent years, the release of demo tracks and a close brush with a Selena hologram have made it harder to ignore a nagging feeling that the efforts to preserve Selena’s legacy have gone from appreciative to exploitative.
It was easy to fall in love with Selena, not just because of her thousand-watt smile or the power and precision she displayed on stage, but because you could tell, within the first minute of any given video, that Selena was completely herself. During an interview with TV personality Cristina Saralegui, Selena fumbles her Spanish, forgetting the word for “fourteen.” She quickly bursts out laughing, burying herself in Saralegui’s shoulder before telling the audience, “But you understand me, right?” Years later, Saralegui revealed that Selena had told her she had stayed up the entire night before the interview just going over her Spanish. It was impossible to think less of her for the mistake; she took it in stride, making fun of herself and laughing it off with the crowd. In the same conversation, she tries to explain that there is a difference between Selena the performer and Selena the person, saying, “On stage, I can be free, I can do what I want … When I’m at home, I’m normal just like anyone else here.”
Selena is far from the first musician to die a sudden or tragic death that resulted in increased sales and a level of fame that sometimes eclipses success in life. The estates of Aaliyah, Kurt Cobain, and John Lennon have all seen significant boosts in sales after the artists’ deaths as fans eagerly purchase unreleased songs or remastered albums. And when they retell their idols’ stories, fans or even family members sometimes seek to idealize these artists, leaving out controversial or problematic parts of their pasts. With Selena, that’s meant glossing over things like her deeply held religious beliefs as a Jehovah’s Witness who was against abortion in favor of focusing on the way she embraced her sexuality on stage. Or, in the case of her 1997 biopic, nearly leaving out the story of her elopement. Though Selena’s father eventually agreed to include it, he initially worried that the scene might send the wrong message to Selena’s young fans.
Some of the context surrounding Selena’s rise to fame has also disappeared over the years. While her curves are much more in line with today’s beauty standards, in the nineties, when the extremely thin, “heroin chic” look was the norm for women on magazine covers and elsewhere in the media, Selena stood out. Especially because she was also quick to admit in interviews that she loved fast food and Tex-Mex, and hated exercise.
Rewriting Selena’s history, and focusing primarily on the sensational singing and dancing persona she presented on stage, leaves out the real, imperfect person she made a point to share with the world. And maybe that’s why, for many fans, Netflix’s Selena series and its portrayal of the Tejano superstar is leading to a larger reckoning with the way she’s been remembered.
Following the show’s premiere last Friday, many viewers were quick to voice their disappointment in the decision to make Selena a supporting character in her own story. It’s much easier to think of new merch and certain collaborations as more than just cash grabs when, as with MAC’s Selena collections, it seems like something she, with her trademark red lipstick, might’ve done herself. But when it comes to the series, it’s harder to look past nine episodes in which Selena rarely makes a decision for herself. She’s easygoing, virtuous, almost angelic. With much of her humor and magnetic personality gone, Selena is content to sit on the sidelines while her brother and her father make every major creative and professional decision for her.
There is some truth there. For years, stories have followed Abraham Quintanilla, Selena’s father and manager, that describe him as controlling, even manipulative. Both the movie and the series (Abraham himself was involved in both) dive into Abraham’s passion for music and his dreams of starting a band. Both the Netflix show and the 1997 film nudge viewers toward the logical assumption that when he first noticed Selena’s raw talent, he saw a way to make those dreams come true.
Selena was just thirteen years old when she made her first major TV appearance, and she was on the road almost constantly afterward. In his book, To Selena, With Love, her husband, Chris Perez, writes that she hadn’t been given much of a chance to make friendships outside of her siblings or band members. He also observed that Abraham was intent on making it in the music business, writing, “He put those goals before nearly everything else. He was focused on seeing Selena’s inevitable rise to stardom come to fruition.”
But unlike the Selena in the Netflix series, the real Selena wasn’t passive. Perez repeatedly calls her a risk taker, someone who snuck his motorcycle out of their garage to ride it around the neighborhood, followed through on any dare, and doubled down if someone told her she couldn’t do something. She was stubborn and wild, and though she undoubtedly loved her father, she also stood up to his orders.
When Abraham intervened in her budding relationship with Chris, for example, Selena continued to meet with him in secret. When the tension only grew between her and her father, it was Selena’s idea to elope. Even in her professional life, Selena fought back for control, repeatedly disagreeing with her father on her plans to open a boutique and start a business that was entirely hers. Still, as determined as she was, Selena’s family was always her priority.
These two sides of Selena—the fiercely confident daredevil and the loyal daughter of a conservative father—coexisted. For years, Latinas just like Selena have walked the line between carving out our independence and maintaining close ties with our families. And while fans couldn’t relate to her nonstop touring schedule or having to perform in packed stadiums, many of them knew what it was like to have a strict father who dictated where they went and when.
That’s why it’s so important to get Selena right. Because to pretend that she really was flawless, that she never raised her voice at her father or disappointed anyone, as the show does, isn’t just dishonest, it sets up other Latinas to fail. Instead of empowering us, it sends a message that in order to be loved, in order to be idolized, we have to be more than talented, we have to be perfect, and on some level we have to be tragic.
Three years after her death, in a conversation with other Chicana scholars, the author Sandra Cisneros argued against Selena as a role model. The conversation was part of documentarian Lourdes Portillo’s film Corpus: A Home Movie About Selena, and though she later apologized for some of her remarks, Cisneros isn’t the only person to point out that Selena’s murder has had an outsized influence on the way that she’s been glamorized since. Her fame was on the rise, but it wasn’t until her death that Selena graced the cover of larger English-language magazines such as Time, People, and even Texas Monthly.
Yes, Selena: The Series has performed remarkably well on Netflix, even ranking as the number one TV show in the U.S. and in much of Latin America. But instead of a referendum on the show’s quality, perhaps those high ratings tell us something about the state of Latino content. Latinos in the U.S. are so starved for representation in Hollywood that they’ll eagerly watch a Lifetime version of one of their biggest icons. What does it say about our understanding of Selena as a person?
The year Selena died, Abraham spoke to Texas Monthly about Selena’s fervent, rapidly growing fandom. At the time, he said Selena wouldn’t have wanted to be idolized. “She believed worship should go only to the Creator. Just remember her as a good person who loved people and loved life.”
It’s time for Selena to be real again. It’s time for her to be imperfect, for her fans to have to reckon with parts of her that they might not have liked or even known. It’s time for us to go back to the Selena who was more than just a singer, who had brown skin and full lips, who loved junk food, who had a voice that was just as powerful offstage as on. Latinas shouldn’t just aspire to be her, they should be able to see themselves in her, because that was Selena’s superpower. That was the key to her stardom.