Photo by Ahri Vi
When I hear the words “it factor,” my mind automatically thinks of Selena. How else can you explain the deep bond she has with her fans, even 26 years after her untimely death? She’s become an icon in the Latino community, with the likes of Pedro Infante, Vicente Ferna ndez, and Celia Cruz, and her influence can still be felt today. I was born after Selena’s death in 1995, yet she has been my lifelong idol. That could easily be explained by the fact that my mom’s family had been following Selena’s career since the first time she was on The Johnny Canales Show, and were major fans of her before and after she passed. However, what about the countless fans who were introduced to Selena after her death? The ones who learned of her due to the 1997 biopic, or the 2020 Netflix series? How about the children born decades after her death being enamored by her spirit, her voice, and her music? And the fans who aren’t from the Latino community and find out about her later in life?
I think it was a culmination of things. There were a lot of factors in Selena’s success, which only made her death more tragic. Of course, her music and her talent are the main points of interest, as she was on her way to becoming a superstar, but her impact was a much more personal one. First, we have to consider who Selena’s main audience was. Selena was gaining popularity in the 90’s, when a rise of Latin American immigrants coming to the US began. And unlike the actors of Latin American media, Selena was notably Mexican, with brown skin, black hair and dark eyes. As one of the few celebrities with visible indigenous ancestry, Selena looked more like the Latino audience for Telemundo and Univision than the actors who worked for the networks. Which brings me to another factor of Selena’s success; Selena was a Mexican-American from Texas, who didn’t learn Spanish until later on in life, yet she primarily sang in Spanish. She would mess up her Spanish when she spoke in interviews, but instead of getting embarrassed, she would laugh and smile that radiant smile of hers before proceeding.
Not only did this give a sense of pride to Latin Americans, but it was a rare form of visibility to Latinos who were born and raised in the States, who may or may not be good at speaking Spanish, if they were able to speak it at all. And while she would make mistakes while speaking it, you wouldn’t think Spanish was Selena’s second language when you hear her sing. I was around 8 or 9 when I found out that Selena didn’t actually know how to speak Spanish, and that she had been learning throughout her career in order to communicate not only with interviewers, but most importantly, to her fans. This may be one of the biggest reasons why she’s still adored today. Selena’s love and dedication to her fans is famous, as many have recounted the various instances where she would stay signing autographs until every single person at the event left with one. She would bring male fans on stage so they could play the part of the boyfriend who wronged her that she sings about, and there is even a video where Selena asks her fans during a concert to not drive while drunk. Her interviews showed her dedication to her craft, her open and welcoming personality, and her humble demeanor. It’s easy to see that she wasn’t just a singer, but a person. A very young person on her way to achieving her dreams.
There are other reasons why her legacy continues to live on, mostly due to her family. They commemorated her through the 1997 biopic Selena, which launched Jennifer Lopez into stardom, and then in 2020, released a Netflix series called Selena: The Series. While her fans are dedicated to her, many of Selena’s fans are critical of Selena’s family. Many criticize how soon the movie was released after her death, and the show was criticized for a reason I’ll get to in a little bit. Many believe that the Quintanilla family use Selena’s image and name as a way to continue making money off of her, and feel that they are not letting her rest in peace. It also doesn’t help that her father, Abraham Quintanilla, is known for being very protective over the image of his late daughter, not allowing any depiction of Selena that isn’t approved by him to be shown.
The only exception to this is the infamous book and then later series El secreto de Selena, which was written by journalist Maria Celeste Arraras, who interviewed Selena’s killer, Yolanda Saldivar. It’s basically Saldivar’s explanation as to why she killed Selena, however many of her claims have been disproven, and Saldivar is notorious for repeatedly changing her story over the decades. I’m not sure why the Quintanilla family couldn’t sue Arraras, or if they even attempted to, but they did publicly disapprove and criticize both the book and the series. However, there was one series Abaraham Quintanilla sued over, despite it only having been greenlit, and this is the second reason why the Netflix series caught a lot of backlash. The potential series that never saw the light of day was based on a book written by Chris Perez, former guitarist for Selena y los Dinos…oh, and also Selena’s widower. The best way to describe Chris Perez is that he is the black sheep of Selena’s legacy, despite being loved by a good portion of her fans.
It’s hard to explain the decades-long tension between the Quintanilla family and Chris Perez, as it stems from when he first dated Selena to the present day. Perez is a private person by nature, so he does not go into detail as to why he and the Quintanillas have legal problems, however they did settle last year. As far as I know, Perez hasn’t spoken badly about the family, other than saying that they don’t like other perspectives of Selena being depicted, but that he understands why. Many fans were confused as to why Perez’s book couldn’t be allowed to become a series, as his book To Selena, With Love gives a more intimate look into who Selena was. It helps humanize her, and shows that the Selena people saw on television and on stage wasn’t a persona. I have personally read it, and let me tell you, I’ve cried multiple times over it. It is truly a love letter from Perez to Selena (no pun intended). However, when the Netflix series produced by the Quintanilla family was announced after the lawsuit, people began to make their assumptions. Despite how messy the interpersonal politics within Selena’s family are, there’s no denying that both sides have done everything in their power to keep her memory alive.
While there are more reasons why Selena is still beloved, I think I’ll finish with one major fact; Selena died so young. She had only been 23, only a few weeks from her 24th birthday. According to Perez, they had been talking about starting a family, and it was well known that Selena was in the process of making her much anticipated English-language album. She was in the beginning stages of becoming a crossover, something her peers like Ricky Martin, Gloria Estafan, Shakira, and later Jennifer Lopez would achieve in doing. When Selena died, her fans were left with the question of what she could have done had she been able to.
Would she have gone into the mainstream English speaking market? She had cameos in the novela Dos Mujeres, Un Camino and the movie Don Juan DeMarco, so would she have gone into acting? Would she have had the career that Jennifer Lopez was able to achieve due to the success of the biopic? Or would Selena have settled down? Would she have been satisfied by being a wife and mother? We will never know these answers. And while I had always known she had died young, it didn’t hit until a few years ago during the 24th anniversary of her death in 2019. That one had been an especially hard hitting one because now it was official; Selena had been dead longer than she had been alive. Now, in the 26th year after her death, I will turn 23, the same age Selena was when she died. Next year, I will be older than the woman who has influenced me since I was a little girl.
Selena means a lot to many people. To me, Selena was proof that you didn’t need to choose between Latino and American culture. She reminded me of my mom, as they both had brown skin, dark hair, and dark eyes. Her love for Spanish music was the same as mine, as it is often joked by my family that I knew how to sing before I knew how to talk. But most importantly, Selena reminds me that life can be taken quickly and unjustly, and thus you must live for yourself while you can. As I have been writing this, I’ve been listening to her music on shuffle, and inevitably, her posthumous hit “Dreaming of You” started playing. Fitting, huh? I had been avoiding listening to it as it makes me wonder what could have been, but mostly because it makes me think of the last line of Chris Perez’s book; “Selena, I’m still dreaming of you.” It’s a sentiment that all her fans and anyone who’s encountered her feel.
¡Que viva la reina!