The backstory of Selena Quintanilla Perez's rise to fame has been chronicled in film, books, TV shows and musicals. It still isn't enough.Christian Serratos as Selena Quintanilla Perez in "Selena the Series."NetflixDec. 3, 2020, 8:34 PM UTCBy Raul A. Reyes
Selena Quintanilla Perez — though, today, almost everyone knows her simply as Selena — died young and on the cusp of her greatest success. In part because of that, she achieved in death a kind of immortality, like James Dean or Marilyn Monroe. Like them, she will always be a canvas for the hopes and aspirations of others.
To this day, you can see Selena depicted on murals in cities with large Latino populations. For little Latina girls, watching the 1997 film “Selena” starring Jennifer Lopez is still a ritual activity at sleepovers; “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom,” one of Selena’s hits, remains ubiquitous at Mexican American wedding receptions. Selena seems destined to stay beloved by grandparents and drag queens alike.
She is gone – and yet she is everywhere.
More than 25 years after her death, there’s still something about Selena — and so, on Friday, Netflix is releasing the first season of “Selena: The Series,” a new show about the late singing superstar.
Selena embodied a unique combination of Latino identity and the American dream.
The series charts the backstory of her rise to success: her working-class, Mexican American roots in South Texas, her ambitious father and her struggle to succeed in the hyper-competitive music business as an English-speaking, Spanish-singing Tejano musician.
While Selena is credited with making Tejano music hip for a younger generation, her own musical tastes ran to singers like Michael Jackson and Donna Summer.
“I don’t know Spanish,” a young Selena says to her father in the series. “Why do I need to sing in Spanish?” Most Latinos — especially assimilated young Latinos who grew up in English-speaking households — can relate to this notion of navigating two cultures, and the sense of the contradictions inherent in being a Hispanic American.
Selena performs in 1995.Arlene Richie / The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images
Selena actually had to study Spanish before her career took off, and she faced difficulties being accepted as a Spanish-language musician because of it. Plus, in her day, there were fewer opportunities for Latina musicians in the mainstream American music industry.
Still, after humble beginnings singing with her family band in local venues, Selena became a star in the Latin American market, eventually winning a Grammy in 1994. With her captivating sound and bubbly personality, she was poised for crossover success in the mainstream U.S. market – until March 31, 1995, when she was shot and killed by the former president of her fan club in a business dispute.
“Selena: The Series” is certainly a tribute to an ongoing cultural phenomenon. And its existence today reflects an era in which Hollywood and the entertainment industry — and, perhaps, American institutions as a whole — are finally recognizing the power of Latinos as consumers and voters.
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But why does Selena herself continue to fascinate? The truth is that she embodied a unique combination of Latino identity and the American dream.
Selena was a vibrant performer who achieved success without leaving her family behind; her siblings performed in her group, and her father was her manager. She was an international pop star who continued to live in a modest tract house next door to her parents in Corpus Christi, Texas. She was known for her outrageous costumes and her sexy image, but she married her first boyfriend (over her parents’ initial objections). She managed to become rich and famous while staying accessible to her fans and true to her roots.
Selena’s talent and charisma made her a star — and then her fans’ loyalty and dedication made her an icon.
The existence of "Selena: The Series" reflects an era in which Hollywood and the entertainment industry are finally recognizing the power of Latinos.
Once Selena died, the public immediately showed that it had no intention of letting her memory die, too. Her posthumously released album, “Dreaming of You,” went multiplatinum and to this day ranks among Billboard’s biggest-selling Latin albums. In addition to the 1997 movie, which gave Lopez her breakout role, there have been Selena musicals, books and TV shows. A 2005 tribute concert on Univision drew record ratings — the highest (at the time) for a Spanish-language TV special. The Selena museum, operated by her family, is one of the top attractions in Corpus Christi.
Selena’s cultural influence and significance have remained as strong as ever in the decades since her death. A Selena-inspired makeup line, children’s book and even a reusable supermarket bag have all been bestsellers. (There was such overwhelming demand for the latter, a simple tote bag, that it crashed the website of the H-E-B supermarket chain in 2018.)
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Aside from her music, Selena’s greatest legacy is the pride that she inspires in Latinos. Mexican Americans, in particular, feel a sense of ownership toward her, as though she were a beloved family member. She is a viewed by Latinos as someone who successfully and authentically represented our culture. And, even without a Netflix series to introduce her to a new generation, she is someone we will never forget.