Selena, Dehistoricized

Selena, Dehistoricized

Netflix’s Selena series was sure to be a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. Banking on the 1997 film’s success and the continued demand for Selena commodities (her MAC cosmetics line sold out in one minute), the drama was a low-risk, high-reward way to retell beloved singer Selena Quintanilla-Pérez’s story for a new generation and further capitalize on her tragic murder. But Selena: The Series finds itself at a very different cultural crossroads since the initial biopic, and fan reactions have been lukewarm. In an effort to connect to wider audiences, Selena and Southeast Texas are nearly unrecognizable, proving Hollywood, and the country at large, still have no idea who Latinos are.

When I watched it, I was acutely aware of what was missing. I was born in the Rio Grande Valley and raised in Houston. My father played in bands in the Tejano/Onda Cumbiera scene in the late ’80s, early ’90s, many times as an opener for Selena. She was in the air I breathed, in the water I drank, and on every Spanish channel and radio station. She was both exceedingly common and extraordinarily rare, the truck driver’s daughter à la esquina we all knew who just so happened to easily break every barrier placed in front of her and girls like us to become the legend she still is today.

But the show’s creators chose to erase all traces of Selena’s specificity. Instead, on-screen is a slimmer, lighter-skinned, middle-class-coded, quieter version of Selena’s former self. Other than the stage costumes, Christian Serratos, who stars as Selena, sports a basic wardrobe: clothing desexualized, makeup lightened, hoops removed. The cast lacks any trace of Rio Grande Valley pocho Spanglish or its Southern-drawled English learned from Spanish speakers, an immersive detail the movie made sure to include. The Brownsville–Matamoros area, a tropical delta by the sea, is depicted as a dry mountainous region. And Don Shelton, Selena’s queer Black backup singer, choreography consultant, and dancer from 1989 to 1990 and 1994 to 1995, remains completely absent from the narrative.

Further detractions from cultural reality can be seen in Selena’s on-screen musical performances. Selena’s most iconic performance was in 1995 when she performed a disco medley at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo in the Astrodome, filmed just one month before her death. Her flawless vocals, purple bell-bottom jumpsuit, and command of the stage were all there. But it was also a performance layered with her earliest references—Donna Summer, Gloria Gaynor, and Black disco groups—who would go on to shape her unique vocal style.

Citing Michael and Janet Jackson, Mariah Carey, Jody Watley, and Whitney Houston as her primary influences, Selena found Black music aspirational, a standard to live up to and an origin to credit. Selena’s life cannot be portrayed without Blackness—it is embodied within the contexts of her margins. In the 1997 film, Jennifer Lopez, who plays Selena, wears a bustier for the first time while singing “Carcacha,” one of Selena’s first cumbia hits, at a carnival somewhere in Texas. In reality, Selena’s bustier debut happened during an outdoor concert in Houston while covering Janet Jackson’s “When I Think of You,” one of her favorite songs. She would go on to borrow heavily (and consistently cite) Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation looks for her black belts, hats, tights, and boots costumes on and off the stage. Even though early performances of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” and Jody Watley’s “I’m Looking for a New Love” got chilly receptions from crowds, Selena insisted on connecting the cultures, and eventually pulled off performing “What Have You Done for Me Lately,” Ralph Tresvant’s “Sensitivity,” and even Black Box’s house classic “Everybody Everybody” to receptive crowds.

In the ’90s, Houston, a frequent tour stop for Selena, was a thriving transnational epicenter of Black and Latinx music, home to the “chopped and screwed” DJ technique; Sugar Hill Recording Studios; the cumbia, conjunto, Tejano, and bandas musical genres of La Onda Grupera; and the R&B group who would soon give us Destiny’s Child and later, Beyoncé. In the moss-bricked apartment complexes, trailer parks, and young pine starter homes all along Texas’s east coast, Black and Latinx cultures are next-door neighbors with porous borders, inextricable in their relation. It’s the Texas I know, Selena’s Texas, and one that continues to go unseen.

Blackness and cultural specificity is often erased under the guise of Latinx representation, a demand for inclusivity that, in an effort to appeal to the mainstream, flattens potentially complex characters and their contexts into mere identities, surfaces to project empathy onto. Selena’s love of Black disco, pop, and R&B was formative, but in the television version of her life, it is only ever depicted as a fixation on “English music” and a desire to “cross over,” a metaphor for the striving immigrant ready to assimilate—the American Dream. Selena’s Black influences are never used as opportunities to engage the deeper, more complex topic of why Mexican-American children of immigrants might more readily identify with Black culture than Mexican culture, and how it might speak to their social, political, and geographic displacement and alienation. The topic is only half-explored in the film when Selena’s father Abraham lectures her about how, “We gotta be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans, both at the same time,” and in the series, when Selena is categorized as “world music” and styled in an ethnic collage for her first major-label album cover. But she never gets to ask any real questions; Selena is only ever depicted as a bicultural wunderkind who laughs off not knowing Spanish in public, rather than a child navigating a complicated identity while having to feign a Mexican one.

Blackness and cultural specificity is often erased under the guise of Latinx representation, a demand for inclusivity that, in an effort to appeal to the mainstream, flattens potentially complex characters

Selena continues to have a substantial Black and Afro-Latinx fan base (including superstars Beyoncé, Keke Palmer, and Cardi B), but they’re never seen in the audience or in line for an autograph in the depictions of her life. Selena’s race and ethnicity are only ever engaged with her transnational appeal across borders, or racist encounters with whiteness, but never with her farm laborer grandparents or her mother’s Indigenous lineage.

In order for Latinx culture to be represented legibly, it is often portrayed in a vacuum, centering light-skinned Mestizxs or white Latinxs as its default representatives. As Selena becomes more of a Latinx commodity, she becomes the symbol of assimilation and erasure rather than a cultural rarity in her specific context, her story told over and over again as the only Mexican-American, Spanish-language, bicultural pop star ever to break into the mainstream. As the 2020 election showed, Latinos remain a little-understood false monolith rather than the racially diverse, complex, historical individuals we are. Selena: The Series is a missed opportunity to deepen conversations around Latinx experiences that can forge connections and build solidarities in shared racial geographies from real scenes in her life. And it forces us to ask: What does Latinx representation actually offer us other than the same narratives that keep us marginalized in the first place?.

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