Como “La Flor,” also known as Selena

©Copyright John Dyer Photography 1992 / mcnayart.org / heidivaughanfineart.com

Today, April 16, is Selena Quintanilla-Pérez’s birthday. SQP, more commonly known as Selena, was a famous singer of the 1980s and 1990s decades, known for her contributions to the Latin music scene and her memorable fashion choices. ‘La Reina de Tejano’ was tragically killed in her hometown of Corpus Christi days before her 24th birthday; I’ll be celebrating my 24th birthday this year, which with all the racialized and gendered violence that is constantly occurring in the U.S., seems to be a blessing.

I believe it was the summer of 2020 when I watched the Selena movie for the first time. Considering that many of my Latinx friends have said that they grew up with this movie with it constantly being played on television, I didn’t understand how I had gone 23 years without even seeing it once. Once I finally watched it, I found Selena’s character to be very relatable, and I deeply empathized with her personal struggles around belonging.

At first glance, Selena and I couldn’t be more different. I am an African-American woman, originally born and raised in NYC, who comes from a low-income background. Selena was a Mexican-American woman from the South, specifically from Texas (which has its own special identity as a border-state), who also came from a low-income background. Although I have a deep appreciation for music, played a few instruments, and have dabbled in choral groups from time to time, Selena was a vocalist and was surrounded by musicians pretty much her entire life. I grew up partly as an only-child until I became a big sister during my pre-teen ages; Selena was always the youngest of her siblings and grew up being fairly close in age with them. I’ve grown up for the most part in a single-parent household and without strong family relationships; whereas, Selena had a close-knit and strong family unit. That strong family unit was essential to her identity and identity as a band member of Selena y Los Dinos.

While watching Selena, I was mesmerized by Selena Quintanilla’s presence, her stage performances, and by her bright personality, even though she was technically being played by Jennifer Lopez. I was in love with her music; I vibed to all the songs that played in the film, and sometimes danced alongside her while trying to match her energy. La Leyenda was all I could play on Spotify for about a month or two; my sister was getting tired of the constant Selena, or would inadvertently start humming “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom” without noticing. Favorites from the compilation album included: “Como La Flor,” “Baila Esta Cumbia,” “Besitos,” “Amor Prohibido,” “La Carcacha,” and “El Toro Relajo.” Even more favorites were added to this list once I watched Part One of Selena: The Series, which focused on different aspects of Selena’s life and songs that weren’t covered in the film. I had pretty much become a mega-superfan. From what I could gather from these adaptations and the rare photos and videos of her on the internet, she seemed to be this huge star who was also a ray of light to everyone around her, liked to joke around and be creative, was grounded in family and personal values, and was fiercely-loving and unapologetically-trying to be her own person. Basically like any other teenager or young adult trying to come into their own.

Unfortunately, because I wasn’t alive when she was (I was born in 1997, which is also when the film came out — 2 years after her death), all I have are these tidbits of Selena; and I felt like I was finally getting the chance to really know her. I felt a deep connection to this person, despite the fact she was dead before I was even born. It’s pretty legendary when you think about it, that she could continue to have such an impact 25 years later; but with 2020 already being a year of so much loss, especially for me (via my father), it hurt to feel her loss when I had just gained her presence. But there’s also another reason why I felt a deep connection to Selena: It was because she too was trying to find her place in the Latin American community, whether it was by way of the music industry or by learning to speak Spanish, because she felt that she had no claim to the community since she felt that she was truly American (that is, of the United States) as opposed to Mexican-American.

As I mentioned earlier, I am African-American. On my father’s side, I am a direct descendant of enslaved people due to my family’s roots in South Carolina. On my mother’s side, I don’t know much about my family’s relationship to chattel slavery, but know that some of my ancestors were from Alabama before migrating to New York. (I’ve recently found out that an ancestor from Alabama was killed by the KKK, so this migration was most likely due to Jim Crow segregation). I also know that I am of Honduran descent. Honduras is a country in Central America, a region that gets very little attention in discussions of Latin America, but is slowly starting to gain visiblity; my ancestors are from Roatán, which is an island in Caribbean off the coast of Honduras. But race holds more weight in the U.S. than ethnicity in terms of how people are treated, so for all intents and purposes, I am a Black person who just happens to be African-American. (Black and African-American are not synonymous, although they are typically used interchangeably.)

Prior to college, I didn’t have many interactions with Latinx people. Before moving to the suburbs of Orange County in 6th grade, I was raised in a borough of NYC called The Bronx. The Bronx does have Latinx communities — my neighborhood had a Puerto Rican community, and a cousin of mine is Afro-Puerto Rican — , I just wasn’t a part of those communities myself. In my elementary school years, I attended a predominantly-Black school — so Black that aside from a few teachers, I hadn’t really met many white people. The school was run mostly by Jamaican immigrants and Jamaican-Americans, and a majority of my friends were Jamaican as well. And aside from the occasional Patois, everyone spoke English as their first or only language. After elementary school, I attended predominantly-white schools, so there was very little diversity during these periods. It wasn’t until college that I was surrounded by people who didn’t speak English as their first or only language, and started to feel like an “other” in a way that I hadn’t experienced before.

In my first semester of college, I joined a(n) (Afro)Latin dance group whose members were largely Latinx/Latin American and/or Caribbean — thereby exposing me to these cultures, Latin music, and Latin dance styles. I’ll never forget a conversation that I had with a friend once, who was also in this group and was a Haitian-American immigrant: “Do you speak any other languages at home?” “Nope, just English.” “Huh. You know that’s weird right?” And the reason why that’s “weird” is because the U.S. is actually full of immigrants and those who come from immigrant families. As an African-American, I certainly wasn’t white, but I was also “too American” to be included in this aforementioned immigrant community — though, for the most part, my ancestors were forced to come to this country against their will. It’s a pretty weird dynamic in my case. But when you add this other piece — my ancestors who emigrated from Honduras generations ago, but were then forced to assimilate when they arrived in New Orleans and eventually migrated to New York — , that ancestry is distant enough that my family doesn’t speak Spanish (or any other language aside from English), I can’t really claim (Afro)Latinidad because of it, and I am just African-American. An American woman in brown skin with other ancestral identities floating around.

So how does this relate to Selena Quintanilla-Pérez, you might ask? Selena was also an American woman in brown skin — brown enough that she couldn’t be considered white, and thus “American.” But she didn’t feel that she was Mexican-American. She didn’t grow up speaking Spanish, she liked “American” food, and she grew up in Texas. She didn’t feel Mexican enough and she didn’t feel like she could claim Mexican-American identity; however, as a woman (initially, a girl) in the Tejano music scene, her father didn’t think she would be successful unless she gained a Latinx-backing by singing her songs in Spanish. Now, remember: Selena did not grow up speaking Spanish, so learning to sing in Spanish required quite a bit of labor on her part. She essentially had to code-switch to gain enough fans so that she could eventually make an English crossover album, which was always her dream. (She eventually made this crossover album, but didn’t live to see it released to the public.) Although the first part of Selena: The Series was far from perfect, the series shows Selena’s process of learning Spanish phonetically through watching telenovelas and listening to language tapes, and shows her fear that her English crossover-album won’t be successful because mainstream media might not accept her, both of which humanized her in a significant way; but many interviews show that Selena eventually accepts that she is Mexican-American — an American girl at heart with a deep appreciation of her Mexican ancestry and Tejano culture, even if she may sometimes have insecurities about her place in both. Given this similarity between Selena and me, Selena’s music has become an escape for me to increasingly learn words in Spanish and be connected to Latin culture — making me feel closer to Latinidad — , and practice my dramatic-Spanish-singing, similar to the dramatic-Spanish-speaking she would do while watching telenovelas.

Selena will unfortunately never be returned to us, but these pieces of her — her music, performance and interview clips, film and TV show adaptations — live on and give us a little bit back. She was only at the beginning of what probably would have been a long and fruitful career, but I for one will never stop being mesmerized by her artistry and her impact, and I’ll take what I can get.

In celebration of her birthday, consider watching her last televised concert performance at the Houston Astrodome, here (open in YouTube for the full playlist):

(AP Photo/Houston Chronicle, John Everett)

Toni Wilson (she/her) is a self-proclaimed writer from New York who is ready to share her words, however they come out. https://linktr.ee/toniwilson

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