Though Selena has been gone for nearly three decades, her music is as alive as ever. She has spurred dead-ringer impersonators and tribute bands, such as Austin’s Bidi Bidi Banda. Even acts that stand well outside of the world of tejano are eager to spread her magic: the pop star Camila Cabello performed a faithful cover of “Dreaming of You” at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo two years ago; the Houston rapper Fat Tony has nodded to Selena in his lyrics; and until it broke up in 2018, the great San Antonio punk band Girl in a Coma often played a blistering rendition of “Si Una Vez.”
To illuminate how deeply Selena has influenced contemporary Texas music, senior editor Paula Mejía sat down with four songwriters—Jenn Alva and Phanie Diaz, of the San Antonio punk band Fea (both were formerly members of Girl in a Coma); Bidi Bidi Banda front woman Stephanie Bergara; and tejano and conjunto artist and music archivist Veronique Medrano—for a Zoom roundtable.
Paula Mejía: How did Selena’s life and music influence your trajectory as an artist?
Veronique Medrano: I had already been in the industry for four or five years when I was given the opportunity to enter some of my memorabilia into the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University. The Wittliff had photos from Selena’s tours that no one had ever seen, thanks to Ramón Hernández, a tejano historian from San Antonio who had followed her career for years. I always felt like when you see Selena, you see the image of la santa (“the saint”). But when you see the photos from behind the scenes? She’s sleeping on the floor of a bus (laughs). She’s just like every one of us who struggles and fights to be heard, who puts in the work.
A lot of us women go through these things quietly. We put on the smile, we put on the lipstick, we put on the face. But quietly, in the back, we’re dealing with the struggles. We are dealing with misogyny.
So seeing those photos endeared her to me in a totally different sense. That’s what showed me, as an archivist, how important it is to show the reality of being a musician, of living this life. It’s what inspired me to go into archival work full-time at the university level and get that [degree] that says, “I’m not just Mexicana; I’m educated on this. And you will listen to me.” Because there aren’t a lot of brown archivists. There aren’t enough of us preserving our history.
Phanie Diaz: I think the reason we relate to Selena so much, and why Girl in a Coma covered “Si Una Vez,” is her upbringing. She was very humble; she worked really hard. And she always remained true. And that’s something that we always strove to do: to represent our hometown, to be proud of where we’re from.
Jenn Alva: When you see Selena sing “Si Una Vez” live, she’s got this pure attitude in her face.
Diaz: Punk rock!
Alva: It was a no-brainer when we chose that song. We love dynamics in a song. It’s like a telenovela: it’s dramatic all of a sudden, and it was slow just a second ago.
Stephanie Bergara: Selena inspired me to make my own way. A year into doing Bidi Bidi Banda—this is pre-baby, smaller, cuter, younger me—I was hand-sewing rhinestones onto these costumes, making exact replicas of Selena costumes. And it was killing me. I dreaded doing it. And a year into it I was like, “I hope that if Selena were still around, she would want me to make my own way.”
So one afternoon we were playing a show in August, in Texas. It was 113 degrees outside, and I was like, “I’m not gonna do it.” My hair was bleached blond; I would put it up in a bun and hair-spray it black so I would look as much like her as I possibly could. That day I decided not to, and it really changed the dynamic of our band and what we do. It changed our branding; it changed the way people saw us and wanted to consume the music. And the music, not our imitation of Selena and her band, ended up becoming the primary function of what we do. It was the best decision I made in terms of the band: to make my own way.
Mejía: As a Mexican American in Texas, Selena grew up writing songs in English and not speaking Spanish—she eventually learned to sing it phonetically. She showed that you could be proud of dual, and often dueling, identities. Which is meaningful, given that many of us have complicated relationships to the Spanish language.
Diaz: Absolutely. We’re taught by our parents that it’s wrong, that if you speak Spanish you might not get further.
Alva: When I was growing up, my parents spoke Spanish right in front of me but they didn’t include me. They didn’t teach me. It’s almost like they feel that speaking Spanish—and anything related to being Mexican American—is gonna hold you back.
Medrano: I was very intimidated by songwriting when I started. The rule for songwriting—for tejano, conjunto, norteño—was that you had to write in Spanish. And a lot of these rules are made by men in the industry. There’s a very small pool of women writers in the tejano music industry. The industry is very difficult; it is not for the faint of heart. It’s for las chingonas (“badasses”). If you’re not one, go find another genre. Because there is no pity for anyone in this genre.
My brain thinks in English, but goes between both. I eventually got to a place where I felt confident about writing in English, and writing songs my way. There were songs where I wrote one verse in English, and the whole chorus and melody line and prechorus were in Spanish—like “La Pulga,” “Loteria,” and “Hola y Adiós.” Seventy-five percent of the songs I’ve written were written in English. And then I translated them.
When Selena was starting out, singing in English, it wasn’t acceptable. It was still like, “Well, if you’re tejano, you sing in Spanish. We don’t need the English aspect of it.” Yet she’s American. One thing that’s ingrained in my spirit is Edward James Olmos [who played Selena’s father in the biopic Selena] saying, “We have to be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans, both at the same time! It’s exhausting.”
Bergara: I have little tears welling up in my eyes, because you’re one hundred percent correct. Just like Selena, I don’t speak Spanish; I had to learn her songs phonetically. When my mom and I would listen to songs in the car on the way to the grocery, she had to translate them for me. I didn’t know what these songs meant until someone was explaining them.
Medrano: When I was between labels, I covered Freddy Fender’s [1975 bilingual version of] “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights.” And I was advised vehemently, “Do not put this out. Nobody wants to hear a bilingual song.” And I’m gonna tell you right now, it’s one of my top streamed songs. I had to believe in myself, I had to believe in that vision. But we have to acknowledge the start of it. And that was Selena.
Alva: To go back to what Veronique was saying about that quote in the movie, where you have to be Mexican over here, American over here: In that cartoon show Big Mouth, there’s an episode where there’s a Black character, and he’s got a dial [on his arm]. He dials it up, like, “Do I have to be more Black or . . . ?” And you realize, oh my God, code-switching is in everything. For me, being a lesbian, how feminine do I have to be? How do I present myself? Do I just act like me?
Medrano: Selena was the code-switch queen.
Bergara: I was the first Latina to play Blues on the Green, which is a series of 20,000-person concerts that happens every summer in Zilker Park, where Austin City Limits takes place. I’m an industry professional who knows all these bookers. They’ll call me, I’ll sign a contract, I’ll show up, I won’t be a diva. And I had to question: Did all these things happen because I’m a good performer, or did they happen because I was the most accessible, safest Latina they know who would show up to work?
One of the things that we’re doing in 2021 is incorporating a diversity clause into our contract that’s basically saying, I’ll come to your club and I’ll play your show, I’ll play your festival. But I need to know that you have diverse booking processes throughout the year. I will not be the brown band that you book on Cinco de Mayo and 16 de Septiembre, and then you call it a day. So if you book me, you better come correct, because I’m going to be checking your booking calendar. We really want to use this platform for good, and to make sure that the door stays open.
“If we don’t have each other’s backs, we continue to set this narrative that there’s one seat at the table and we have to fight to the death for it. And instead of making more seats at the table, we’re just going to end up taking ourselves out.”
Diaz: Selena opened the door, and we gotta keep doing that.
Alva: Any young girls that come to our shows, they’re watching us.
Bergara: Jenn and Phanie have let my band play at the Bang Bang Bar [where they both work] on Fiesta Oyster Bake weekend, which is a huge weekend in San Antonio. And that is not a traditional space for us to play. [Bidi Bidi Banda usually plays at clubs.] It’s our responsibility to each other, and to the continuation of this effort, to do that. Because if we don’t have each other’s backs, we continue to set this narrative that there’s one seat at the table and we have to fight to the death for it. Instead of making more seats at the table, we’re just going to end up taking ourselves out.
All of us here are coming from different genres. Here’s a melting pot of music—that’s what Selena was. We owe it to Selena to be a squad! To keep the squad intact.
Mejía: What is something Selena doesn’t get enough credit for?
Bergara: She didn’t finish school in the traditional way, but she really invested deeply in making sure that young people got an education, and that they were taking it very seriously. She really valued that, down to her business practices. And she did all these videos in the nineties, the “Stay in School” videos. They’re so cute.
Diaz: I think people are starting to recognize that. It’s starting to pop out, this appreciation of how humble she was.
Bergara: You wanted to be friends with her! She looked like my cousin who I meet at Whataburger at two o’clock in the morning. She was so personable.
Medrano: One of the things I think she didn’t get enough credit for while she was alive was being active in the historical education of what tejano music was and is. There are videos that she did, these PSAs about tejano, about Mexican music, that are so important. The impact was there. You started to see more investment in the Mexican, Latinx identity. You can imagine that she would have kept it going until this day: acknowledging the ones that came before her, and the ones who are coming up.
I’ve heard story after story after story of artists who were around at that time, talking about how supportive she was of the community! And it wasn’t just that she was trying to get a photo op. She was doing it genuinely, from herself. I think that’s something she doesn’t get enough credit for: the amount of unity that she inspired and created in the eighties and nineties in the tejano music industry, and the Latin music industry. Without her, we would not be where we are today. There would not have been a People en Español.
That’s what inspired me to do tours at public schools prior to COVID-19. I’d go and talk about the importance of education and being a musician. They would be so happy. It was just that moment when you realize these kids, they want to see themselves in the music and the videos and the things they ingest. When it’s in front of them, they feel that energy.
Mejía: What Selena song gets you every time?
Diaz: It’s still “Si Una Vez.” It reminds me of when we got to play the song in front of [Selena’s] family at a show, it reminds me of recording it, it reminds me of the time in our career when we did that. It reminds me of hard work.
Alva: “No Me Queda Más.” I love that song because of my mom. She cherished Selena, like, hard-core. I still have some of her Selena magazines.
Bergara: At my grandma’s house, if you walk in, on the mantel there’s a picture of Jesus, and there’s a picture of Selena!
I will also choose “No Me Queda Más.” That’s my favorite Selena song to perform and play. It’s a story about a person who is just in love, in this place that someone is saying doesn’t exist. It’s an incredibly sad and beautiful song. And the gossip on that, I think, was that Ricky Vela, Selena’s keyboard player, wrote it about Suzette, Selena’s sister, because he was so in love with her. The song is so special to me, and no matter where I play it, anywhere in the world, it is just gut-wrenching. Someone is always crying. Sometimes it’s me.
Medrano: “Tus Desprecios.” It’s not a love song. It’s “You’re annoying me, get out of my face.” I really enjoyed the songs where she did that, where she seems like she was mad at somebody. Those were interesting, because we could see a little bit more of her. Not just the bright, bubbly cumbia version of her that people idolize. You saw a bit more of a growl.
So that was a song I had to do in my shows. I know a lot of people would expect “Como La Flor” or “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom.” That’s not me; I don’t feel like I could interpret those the way people want. That’s why I always gravitated to “Tus Desprecios.” I felt a little necia (“naughty”).
Mejía: It’s staggering to think of how much she achieved in her brief life.
Bergara: She passed away when she was about ten years younger than me. At 23, I had ruined my life, like, six times already. I was a little idiot at 23. To see those things this young woman was doing was just fascinating.
Alva: You forget how young she is, right? She was just so big. Bigger than anything.
Medrano: And the music that she did, the way that she interpreted it, made you feel like there was so much experience behind those songs and behind that voice. She feels, as many say, like an old soul.
Bergara: It would take three of me to do what she did, the singing and dancing and being funny and personable. None of us are worthy.
Medrano: The music industry, for some reason, likes to pit us against a ghost. They want to pit us against Selena, as if that is ever going to happen. The next this, the next that. And that’s the one thing I’ve done with my time in the industry, I stuck to that: No, you’re not going to pit me against a ghost. Especially someone that big! It’s not fair to the genre or my legacy, or the legacy of the woman you’re trying to put me up against. The music isn’t the same. I represent a different woman.
As time goes on, we can remember her. We can commemorate her. But for the tejano industry to be what it needs to be, we need to stop venerating and pitting these beautiful, beautiful women against a ghost. We’re not Ghostbusters.
Bergara: How do you compete with a memory? How are we supposed to compete with this person who’s no longer here and honestly would not want us to be competing against each other at all? I think there needs to be space for Veronique, and Fea, and Bidi Bidi Banda to be on the same lineup.
I think what we’re all trying to say is that Selena was a real one. She was a genuinely nice person, which makes it harder to accept what happened to her. I’m in a place where I’m in receipt of all this Selena information—I listen to podcasts, all that. If you hear her on the phone talking to her staff, leaving voice mails for people, she was generally considerate of the people around her. There are no stories about Selena being competitive or ugly or catty or not talking to people. You can’t find them, because they don’t exist. If they existed, I would know, and they’re not out there.
Medrano: A lot of women feel so connected to her, especially female musicians. And when they say, “Oh, I was inspired by her,” they’re not trying to emulate her. They’re not saying they want to be the next Selena. There is no next Selena. She gave us the seed to say: “We can do more.”
This discussion has been edited for clarity and length.
This article originally appeared in the April 2021 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Selena, Queen of Tejano.” Subscribe today.