Twenty Years Later, Selena Remains the Ultimate Mexican-American Film

I’ve seen Selena, the Gregory Nava-directed biopic of music legend Selena Quintanilla Perez, hundreds of times in my life. The first time was in 1997, when my parents rented it from the video store around the corner from our tiny apartment in SanTana because they were too poor to take us to the theater. I’ve seen it at the Frida Cinema with a drag queen bidi-bidi-bom-bom-ing her way across the stage in her best Selena impersonation. I showed it to my Vietnamese roommate at UC Irvine, who appreciated the cultural parallels displayed onscreen between my culture and hers. I’ve watched a used VHS copy I found in the 50-cent rack at a San Francisco video store and used it as my battle soundtrack while I got ready for a night out. I’ve watched it when it aired on television—with friends, my mom, by myself. I’ve been to girls’ nights where it played in the background so we could sing along with the songs and quote some of the iconic lines: “ES UN BRA!” “Me siento muy . . . excited!” And the “One word: Plastics” for the Latinx generation, “Anything for SALIIIINAAAASSS!”

I’m not the only one. The Tejano singer’s music has played at basically every Mexican-American get-together for a generation (you just can’t keep a chica still when she hears the opening bars of “Como la Flor”). Nostalgic millennials revere the film for its rare-to-this-day positive, aspirational representation of Latinos. Selena was the working-class kid who made it, the pre-Beyoncé, and proof that Mexican-Americans can influence popular culture. And a woman breaking boundaries in the Tejano—hell, Latin music—scene in general? Icon.

Now, as an adult equipped with film and media studies, I appreciate and identify with Selena even more, in ways I was only subconsciously aware of in my youth. Made just two years after her tragic death at age 23 in 1995 at the gun of her crazed fan-club president, the movie is an homage to the singer, created partly to dispel rumors and libelous, unauthorized biographies. The film holds a glittery, flowery candle to Selena and endears her in a new way to her legions of fans with every viewing.

But 20 years and hundreds of books, think pieces, documentaries, Buzzfeed listicles and graduate theses later, Selena resonates for reasons beyond the queen’s music. While the film presents Selena’s life as far back as her carefree childhood in Corpus Christi, Texas, Nava carefully inserted her father Abraham’s backstory as a struggling young musician hoping to launch his own doo-wop career with his group, Los Dinos. Because of their skin color, Los Dinos are turned away from a gig at a white establishment. In an even more dispiriting twist, Los Dinos are booed and jeered at in a Mexican paisa bar for singing the romantic ballad “We Belong Together” instead of traditional ranchera music. This divide between Mexican-Americans and whites and Mexicans is illustrated even further when Abraham (played by the always-amazing Edward James Olmos) later vents to his children the frustrations of being Mexican-American: “We have to be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans, both at the same time! It’s exhausting!”

Nava, who at that point had written and directed other powerful films such as El Norte and My Family, translated Selena’s goddess-like star power into a relatable, down-to-earth person. Archival footage of the singer’s performances show an unflappable, flawless human being, but in Selena, Jennifer Lopez’s incarnation cracks wise to her family members, scarfs down pizza, listens to American disco singer Donna Summer, speaks little Spanish, and famously elopes with her guitarist, Chris Perez. Lopez spent time with the Quintanillas to research her role and nail down Selena’s mannerisms and personality, allowing her to create an uncanny resemblance to the real thing.

Watching Selena’s story on the big screen, Mexican-American audiences in 1997 were seeing not only the life of their beloved star, but also a mirror of their own lives. She has served as a role model for an entire generation and represents a physical, spiritual ideal of Mexican femininity—the Virgin of Guadalupe in a body suit. The LGBT community has also expressed their devotion for the ambiguous nature of Selena’s love songs, including “Amor Prohibido” (“Forbidden Love”). Even the bro-iest Latino male knows to dedicate “I Could Fall In Love” to his closest bae.

Selena would have turned 46 this month. And while her legacy continues to be cemented with museums, wax figures and makeup lines, the ultimate tribute remains the film and her music. The two-hour-plus runtime always seems to fly by, and every time, I’m hoping the end—when “I’m Dreaming of You” starts playing—will be different. We’re still dreaming of her, too.

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