Before it was even released, Selena’s burden was that it cast Jennifer Lopez as the titular character. The issue, largely among the Mexican-Americans that revered and supported the young Tejana star, was not that Lopez was a relative unknown, or that prior to this her biggest role had been as a Fly Girl on In Living Color. It was that casting a Puerto Rican actress in the role of a Mexican American woman seemed to many like an affront—not just because our cultures differ enough that even our Spanish accents sound like different languages, but because the rare role portraying a Mexican American woman who wasn’t a domestic worker or a stereotypical chola wouldn’t go to an actual Chicana. Fans organized protests before filming even began, promising to boycott the movie.
Looking back at the glorious film Selena—which was released 20 years ago today and chronicled the life of the Tejana pop star who was murdered in 1995 at the age of 23—we see not just the film that launched Jennifer Lopez’s entire career but also a slice of cultural history that we can learn from today; the way that the options for actors of color were then even bleaker than they are now, and the way that the white supremacy inherent in creating stereotypical roles can create culture of scarcity that, by its nature, can lead to infighting within our own communities of color.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the US films that depicted Mexican Americans as primary were generally of the gangster variety, and though many remain cultural classics—Mi Vida Loca, American Me, Blood In Blood Out—they still paint a limited portrait of a hugely diverse population that encompasses 50 states. In 1987, Cheech Marin explored the vagaries of immigration and la migra in the comedy Born in East L.A., and while it remains a classic for its subject matter and how it complicated various Mexican American identities, upon its release it was widely panned. La Bamba, made that same year and starring the god Lou Diamond Phillips (Filipino-American), was a revelation; it portrayed the rock star Ritchie Valens with nuance, and further it didn’t gloss over the music industry racism that prompted him to assume a stage name (he was born Richard Valenzuela, in Pacoima, California).
That it took ten years before before another mainstream feature film focused on a Mexican American as the lead is telling enough. The way white supremacy, in Hollywood and overall American cultural norms, informed audience reception was particularly ironic considering the irony that there were few roles for Puerto Rican actors, as well—the silver-screen discrimination was pan-Latinx, a unified culture under God. But the controversy eventually died down, particularly after Selena’s father Abraham Quintanilla cosigned her performance—and especially once the film was released and everyone saw how fully and perfectly Lopez embodied the Tejana icon.
Once Selena dropped, forget it. Lopez was spunky, respectful and true as Selena, touring throughout Tejas before breaking onto a world stage, and her portrayal helped make Quintanilla an even further icon beyond Latinx communities, to a degree that the entire world now affords her the reverence she deserves. Beyond that, though, Lopez captured exactly what made Selena important to young Chicanas, and as a vessel became an icon herself: she reflected the girl-next-door, down-to-earth, spirited and spiritual young woman who many of us saw in ourselves. You could relate to Selena and her sweet pop music and her tale of young love, and through J.Lo, you could feel like you knew her even better.
Additionally: that ass. Scholars have expounded upon the way Lopez erased the intra-Latinx friction—which reflected long running tensions between Chicanxs and Boricuas, another side effect of white supremacy’s culture of scarcity—and particularly the way her body, like Selena’s, became a site of acknowledgement and intra-Latinx unity. For instance, in professor and filmmaker Frances Negrón-Muntaner’s essay “Jennifer’s Butt,” she writes about the way both Selena’s booty (more ample than is normally associated with a Chicana) and Lopez’s were viewed in a climate that, at the time, she describes as “Anglo analphobia” (i.e., before white people en masse decided that having big ass was a desirable trait):
Jennifer Lopez’s close identification with Selena seemed not only based on their parallel crossover successes, but on a common experience of having a similar build, a body generally considered abject by American standards of beauty and propriety. [...] “Latino” cultural practices tend to be managed discursively by “serious” concepts such as class, language, religion and family—the stuff of sociology and political activism. It was precisely the body, particularly the curves (or in less poetic Puerto Rican street language, the culo) that proved to be the most compelling way that Lopez and others found to speak about how “Latinas” are constituted as racialized bodies, what kind of cultural capital is associated with these bodies, and how the body surfaces as a site of pleasure, produced by intersections of power, but not entirely under its own control.
It was partly through the body, too that Selena spoke, something Lopez could certainly relate to as a dancer. Within the freedom that she exhibited on stage, beyond the general exuberance of her more upbeat tracks, was the way she commanded it physically, modernizing more traditional movements like cumbia, rumba and Cuban motion with a freestyled disco abandon. Witness this famous clip of Selena performing her biggest song, “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom,” in 1995, and Lopez recreating a medley of her performances in the film Selena:
Selena’s relatable nature is aptly reflected in Lopez’s performance, and especially in the way both have a sort of ease and command over their physicalities; Selena put in work, but she never tried too hard, which was key in her fans’ understanding of her as a performer of the people—a rare working-class pop icon who would not allow herself to be overly sexualized, in a country that still equates Latinxs with “spice” and sex. In the essay “Becoming Selena, Becoming Latina,” the Columbia professor and poet Deborah Paredez (who also wrote the 2009 book Selenidad: Selena, Latinos, and the Performance of Memory) draws on her colleague Negrón-Muntaner’s work and expands it, detailing the way Selena embodied someone young diasporic U.S. Latinxs across the spectrum could look up to, and was a “significant intervention in dominant portrayals of Latina sexuality”:
Selena “crosses over” the spectrum of Latina identity via processes whereby her explicit, localized Tejana-ness was simultaneously celebrated even as it was transformed into (and thereby at times effaced by) an emblem of transnational Latina identity. This production of Latina subjectivity emerges in what Latinas have to say about Selena. Latinas’ memories of Selena not only take part in transforming Selena into a Latina icon but constitute a powerful vehicle for enabling their own process of becoming Latina... [it] thus illuminates the ways in which the Latina body was produces and Latina subjectivity was remade at the close of the twentieth century.
In the 21st century, this is ever-expanding, and representations of Latinxs in popular culture are broad and more inclusive than ever—Hollywood is getting incrementally better at representing us across the spectrum, especially with the exciting dominance of women like Dascha Polanco, Gina Rodriguez, America Ferrera, Dania Ramirez, Rosario Dawson, Naya Rivera, Eva Longoria, the list goes on. It’s both heartening that the Selena controversy feels ancient, and dismaying that it feels simultaneously as close as ever. But if there’s anything Selena, Selena and Jennifer Lopez taught us, it’s that we need to stick together.
Also, that everyone needs a Tapatío holster.