On Selena's Enduring Legacy and Impact on the Chicana Community

From the 1997 "Selena" biopic starring Jennifer Lopez to the documentary "Conversations with Intellectuals About Selena," cinema has solidified the Tejana pop star as an eternal icon.

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Jan 26 2018, 4:21pm

Photo by Arlene Richie via Getty Images

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Selena Quintanilla died mere weeks before her 24th birthday, yet nearly 23 years since her death in 1995, her star power remains as radiant as ever. In fact, she’s posthumously become more iconic, topping Billboard No. 1 several times, and even as recently as November, earning a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Since her time, another famous pop star by the name of Selena has popped up (Gomez was actually named after her) but Quintanilla remains the reigning queen of the mononymous Selena. Even though she was only in the spotlight for a brief period of time, she’s never left the pop conversation.

An authorized 1997 biopic, directed by Gregory Nava and starring Jennifer Lopez, solidified Selena’s status and simultaneously made a star out of its lead, J. Lo. The film mirrored the impact Selena had on the industry, giving audiences a Latina heroine who defied expectations. Though there was controversy around the fact that Lopez, a Puerto Rican actress, was playing a Mexican woman—especially when Mexican stars were already given such scarce opportunities for film roles—the positive impact of Selena and its casting is hard to ignore. Not only did it boast an all-Latino cast, but it also featured a Latina lead who challenged character stereotypes.

The Tejana pop star was already huge because of her crossover appeal, singing in both Spanish and English, but Selena molded Quintanilla into America’s Chicana sweetheart, thanks in large part to Lopez’s sincere performance. Lopez brought the moves and style (including the infamous bedazzled bustier), but she also gave us a glimpse into Selena’s life beyond her public persona, portraying her as the obedient daughter who longed to love and be loved. Lopez captured Selena’s struggle with wanting a normal life and relationship while knowing she was destined for public life as a star—especially as a role model to other Chicanas. Before there was even a “Jenny from the Block,” Lopez brought that same vibe to the role of Selena; she was charming, sweet, and relatable.

“My dreams were the same as the dreams of all those people who were out there in the audience, like all their hopes were centered on me,” Lopez says in Selena. Her boyfriend (to be husband) and bandmate, Chris Pérez, reminds her of that later in the movie when she considers quitting. Selena’s appeal reached, and continues to reach, beyond Latinx audiences, but she also became more meaningful to this specific community after her death—especially to fellow Chicanas. The movie, ending with Selena’s untimely death when she was shot in the back by the president of her fan club, Yolanda Saldivar, feels unfairly abrupt, just like Selena’s life and career.

Jennifer Lopez as Selena Quintanilla in "Selena." Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

But Selena has remained a constant fascination and enduring idol, still making headlines because Khloe Kardashian says she’s a fan, or because there’s an upcoming ABC TV show based on her life. There’s even an anthropological interest in Selena’s legacy, and one such interesting discourse can be found in Lourdes Portillo’s rarely seen, rarely screened 1999 documentary, Conversations With Intellectuals About Selena, part of an upcoming series at Metrograph dedicated to showing movies by women filmmakers in which women tell their stories. (The series, which runs from February 2–11, highlights radical underground films from Agnès Varda, Chantal Akerman, and lesser known female filmmakers whose works deserve their due. Also, in March, BAM will be showing Selena and Corpus: A Home Movie for Selena as part of its Chicano Cinema series.)

Portillo’s hour-long film, though unflashy in presentation, gives voice to women academics—all of Mexican descent—as they talk about Selena, her legacy, and what she means to them, even though some admittedly are not fans of her music. Selena was a good girl who told her young fans to stay in school. She also “gave these girls a way to have Chicana sexuality,” one woman says, and another notes that Selena gave the term “Chicana” itself a frame of reference. The academics also discuss that the very things people criticized Selena about in regards to her Chicana authenticity—like modeling herself after Madonna and singing in English—are actually all “very Chicana things.”

This doc doesn’t show any footage of Selena (Portillo made another Selena documentary that same year called Corpus: A Home Movie About Selena that does contain footage), but it’s rather a vérité film that shows a group of women sitting around a table and talking about the pop star. It’s not necessarily an aesthetic feat, but does offer the chance to explore topics that are often excluded from conversations or written pieces about Selena.

They discuss in length her relationship with her father, Abraham Quintanilla, who managed basically every aspect of Selena’s life (he was a real dadager type), and the deep misogyny that shaped her career and possibly her death. “That little girl’s narrative is all of our narratives as Chicanas,” one woman says in the film, as Lopez had said in Selena. Even though Selena’s mom is more of a minor character in the story of her life known to the public, the female academics also talk about how much impact she’s had on mother-daughter relationships in the Chicana community, and how Selena’s sincerity—starkly absent from her father—must have come from her mother.

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The documentary takes its most interesting turn when the women discuss Selena’s possible repressed queerness, and her rumored relationship with her killer Yolanda Saldivar, as well as the significance of Selena dying while clutching the ring Yolanda had given her. They compare it to cinema’s representation of doomed (often subtextual) lesbian relationships such as Thelma & Louise and Heavenly Creatures. One woman even suggests that Selena is a victim of homophobia because the climate that hypothetically forced both her and Yolanda to repress their sexualities eventually led to her demise.

Many of the discussions ultimately leave viewers to come to their own conclusions, and each woman has a different story about Selena—and how they’ve applied her narrative to their own—but the documentary provides a chance to eavesdrop on intellectual women dissecting the public and private personas of the Tejana star. One thing they can all agree on, however, is that she has become an icon for good reason. One woman even compares Selena to Jesus—both had far more influence after their deaths.