Growing Up Xicana: Looking back on La Reina Selena 21 Years After Her Death


Selena Quintanilla

I am seven years old and one of the kids in class starts singing “Bidi bidi bom bom” and I am ready to sing along because I love this song so much and I want to be Selena so bad. The kid continues singing and then ends the song with “Selena is a dumb dumb.” I turned so fast, gasped, and pointed my finger at the kid. “You cannot talk about her like that. Selena does not deserve your ugly words, pendejo.” I was ready to fight for my queen. I am still seven and it is time to take school photos, I specify to my cousin Omar, “I want my hair to look like Selena’s.” He curled my hair into tight swirls and then put it into a high ponytail and I never felt so beautiful in a school photo before. Anytime Selena’s videos played on TV, I was enchanted. Her energy was magnetic and I loved watching her perform. I am eight years old and I get home from school and turn on the TV. The news reporter is explaining that Selena was pronounced dead in the afternoon. I turned the TV off and stared up at the ceiling in silence for a long time, I didn’t cry, but my head felt light and I couldn’t think about anything else that day. I moved to Colorado that summer to live with my Tía Irma. For the sake of bonding, she used to drive me around in her red Toyota with the radio blasting. We danced and sang as  loud as we could in the car. I remember we made it back to the apartment in the evening after a session of karaoke in the car together and Selena’s newest song, “Dreaming of You” vibrated through the speakers. We sat in silence and let Selena finish singing before we got out of the car. Today is the 21st anniversary of her passing and I still think of her often, as a light and as someone who was taken from earth too early (she was 23). Even with her tragic departure, she is still an icon. She radiates power and what it means to be a xingona (a badass).

Selena was fierce, charismatic, and someone I looked up to as an example of what it meant to be powerful. I was a shy and timid kid, but I cannot tell you how many times I wore red outfits and snuck on my mamá’s red lipstick, then danced in front of the mirror to see my own fierceness. Here was this brown woman, with a beautiful voice, singing in my first language, reminding me: I could achieve my dream. It sounds cheesy, I know, but as a kid growing up in a turbulent environment these were the reminders I needed.

Selena was one of the women who helped me become less afraid of being louder and expressing myself. I grew up in an environment that regarded men and boys in the family as special. Even with my great grandma as the pillar and the matriarch of the family, the boys were favored and respected through a lens of marvel. For the girls in the family, we were loved, but we weren’t taught about our spectacular potential, we were left to mentally fend for ourselves. I grew up in an environment where the power structure clearly favored men. One of my mamá’s boyfriends sexually abused me for several years and I was left to silently cope. I latched onto music. I repeatedly listened to songs where women screamed at the men in their lives and in songs where the women thrived on being alone. They thrived on shining and no one could take this light away from them. One of my favorite songs by Selena is called “Si Una Vez” (If One Time). The song is about regretting falling for someone who did not appreciate and value her as a person. The song is about being free from a toxic man. I wanted my mamá to sing this to her boyfriend. He was my abuser, but she loved him and one of my coping mechanisms was to pretend angry songs were to him, to get rid of him, to exile him. Songs helped me escape and they reiterated to me, there was something spectacular about me, and I could define myself. I knew I had this light inside and watching Selena on television or hearing her songs always gave me butterflies and a sensation of elation because she represented strength and beauty to me.

Selena (Film) Released 1997

I watched the Selena film again because it had been several years since my last viewing. I adore J. Lo in her portrayal as Selena (holy shit, she looks so good in a bob). I am all about the musical opening (Houston Astrodome, 1995) and I am all about the purple outfit Selena wears for this particular concert.  As soon as I pressed play on my laptop, I could feel tears building up and my heart sinking because I know the outcome of the biopic. Watching the movie was an emotional experience, it left me wondering about who Selena would have turned into past her 20’s. She could have been so much more. I think this is part of the idolization of Selena, she was killed at such a young age and she was at the peak of her career as a Tejano music star. Her existence was brief, but she was a light for so many people.

The movie shows us a Selena who is goofy, humble, and hardworking. Scenes that stick out reiterate themes about what it means to be a brown woman in America. There are multiple scenes where Selena’s odds against a patriarchal Tejano music scene are placed into question. There are also scenes that reflect the experiences of Selena’s father, Abraham (portrayed by Edward James Olmos). He grew up in an America where establishments could declare they were “Whites Only.” He was blatantly discriminated against as a young musician. As a child, Selena did not know very much Spanish. She learned it through her music, which is primarily in Spanish. One of the quotes that always sticks out to me from the movie comes from Selena’s father. Selena wants to do an interview in Monterrey, Mexico, but her Spanish isn’t precise. Her father explains to Selena that being Mexican-American is a juggling act, going to Mexico for an interview could potentially damage her career: “We gotta prove to the Mexicans how Mexican we are, and we gotta prove to the Americans how American we are, we gotta be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans, both at the same time. It’s exhausting. Damn. Nobody knows how tough it is to be a Mexican American.”

This quote resonates with me. When you are brown and trying to assimilate for survival, there are so many introspective moments of how you will defend yourself in order to prove you are enough. I remember when I first learned English, I was so determined not to have a “Mexican” accent. I didn’t want to sound like my mamá. I wanted to sound American. I clearly remember being very self conscious of my pronunciation. I remember despising my dark hair and wet soil-colored eyes. I wanted to be lighter. I wanted to prove I belonged in white spaces. I wanted to leave traces of my brownness behind. I know how toxic these thoughts are now. I know how ugly this sounds. This is something we carry with us: can we prove we are enough or do we hide our ties to our lineage as we hear more people spewing out bullshit about “sending us back”?

Selena (the film) was released in 1997. I remember standing in line waiting to watch it with my Tía Irma. I cried in the theater but I felt better as I walked side by side with my Tía after the movie. She asked me what I thought of the movie and I told her I was sad that we lost Selena, but I was glad she existed for us to look up to. I walked with my Tía who is brown and butch and loved me so hard and I knew she wanted to share Selena’s music and story with me because we both saw her as a vital light in our own histories. I never thought of my Tía as an outsider, but I knew others did. I was thankful for her because she took me away from a violent environment, even if it was just for the summer. We shared our love for Selena and we mourned together over the summer. I thought of Selena as a guardian spirit for the brown girls everywhere who felt like outsiders.

Selena, we remember you and I hope your atoms have become whispers of wind floating into the dreams of brown girls, reminding them they are spectacular beings.

Selena's Last Concert

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4 Responses to Growing Up Xicana: Looking back on La Reina Selena 21 Years After Her Death

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  3. <3
    I'm a Brazilian woman and I only learned about Selena through the movie (that's how I met J-Lo too, actually) and it really touched me . It's interesting to read about her impact on fans lives. Such a though story…
    Loved your blog! :*

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