There is a grave earnestness to Netflix’s Selena: The Series. It moves at a stately pace, has some clunky dialogue and some scenes that go on too long.
That’s not to condemn it. It’s an interesting journey into a part of the American cultural landscape that might seem very remote to us here. Besides, it’s about a saint, and that saint is the late Selena Quintanilla-Perez. In her short life, she took Tejano music mainstream, and the series is a sometimes solemn but deeply empathetic exploration of an iconic family’s history and of Tex-Mex culture. It’s as much cultural anthropology as it is a drama about a tragic figure’s rise to fame.
Her story was told in the 1997 movie Selena, which helped make Jennifer Lopez a star as the adult Selena. The story told – in the series, more detailed than the movie – is seemingly straightforward but loaded with meaning for a great swath of the American population. Her family was poor, and on food stamps for a while. Dad (played in the series by Ricardo Chavira) was a musician who had some small local success with a band in his youth. He created another band anchored in the family, with daughter Selena’s pure, powerful voice as the main attraction. After many ups and downs, the downs being about Tejano music not fitting into any accepted pop category, Selena was a star, but at age 23 was shot dead by a woman in her business organization who was embezzling money.
The story exists in the cauldron of American identity politics. Selena was born in Texas, and English was her first language. Her music was too Mexican for white audiences and too American for Mexican audiences. In the series, this all plays out as obstacles to overcome. The teenage Selena (Christian Serratos) resists learning Spanish partly because American, English-speaking singers are her idols. But she tries, mainly using Mexican telenovelas on TV to acquire the language. To the Mexican audience, she sang with an odd American accent. When she began to write and record songs in English, she figured her Mexican fan base would be puzzled that she had learned English so quickly and easily. They thought she was one of them. It’s all about the question “Where do I fit?”
Her American fan base, mainly teenage girls, adored her with a devotion uncommon even in pop music. And she fed off the audience’s worship. One reason for the adoration was that Selena, who crafted her own fashion sense, one rooted in the local culture of her community, changed the perception of Tex-Mex women. What was disdained as “cheap and commonplace” by Anglo snobbery suddenly became both glamorous and authentic.
NBC journalist Leticia Miranda has written eloquently about Selena’s impact on her and her friends in their youth: “Her music was a transcendent fusion of Mexican cumbia, Tejano music, synthesized techno pop, and heart-wrenching boleros. We weren’t just fans; we were Juan Diego summoned to the hill of Tepeyac by the Virgin Mary herself.” And right there is part of the canonization of Selena – she is linked directly to Saint Juan Diego (canonized 2002), an indigenous Mexican convert to Roman Catholicism who was visited by the Virgin Mary.
This all makes Selena: The Series more than another sobersided effort to document, in fact-based drama, her life and that of her family. Throughout, even when the series seems overly heartfelt, it’s about a figure who means vastly more – a mythic figure, a legend and a saint in a community that needs saints.
It’s interesting to compare the idolization of Taylor Swift with the status of Selena. Miss Americana (also on Netflix) amounts to Swift’s coming-of-age story. As filmmaker Lana Wilson structures the narrative, it’s about the singer’s progression from a teen star who craved attention and praise to an adult who cares less about what others think. There’s little high drama, because Swift is most definitely in control of her life, career and music. She could evolve forward and enter, flannel-clad, into the romantic American folk tradition that is so evident in Taylor Swift – Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions on Disney+. Selena Quintanilla-Perez never had the same control, choices or ease in her life and career.
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