The Global Legacy of Selena Quintanilla-Pérez

Editor’s Note: Twenty years after her tragic death on March 31, 1995, Selena Quintanilla-Pérez continues to make an imprint on our community and across the world. We asked our own Christina Saenz-Alcántara to share her thoughts about Selena’s death and also write about what others have said about #Selena20.

My own Selena story started long before she became a legend. I was born in Corpus Christi, Texas. I grew up in Brazoria County, where Selena was born and her family owned a Tex-Mex restaurant in the 1970s.

Selena first entered my life when she performed at our local Mosquito Festival in 1994. Even though the Houston area was nearly 30% Hispanic or Latino (1990 Census), Selena’s performance was the first time that Tejano music was featured at our local festival.

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As the opening act, our paper reported that Selena drew more spectators than any previous opening day of the festival. Our very invisible status as Latinos in Brazoria County was now on the mainstage and the opening act at our signature local music festival. We did not feel so invisible in our community any longer.

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Selena died at an unique time in the cultural history of the United States. As discussed by Deborah Paredez’s book, Selenidad: Selena, Latinos, and the Performance of Memory, Latinos as a group were simultaneously hypervisible and invisible. In the mid to late 1990s, Latino artists (singing in Spanish and English) were “entering” mainstream (and white) America. For instance, despite a 30-year successful career, Santana finally swept the 2000 Grammys for his bilingual album Supernatural. Artists like Jennifer López and Ricky Martin garnered mainstream success. “Crossover” was the buzzword at the time.

However, contradictions began to emerge as well. In the mid to late 1990s, the Census started releasing data showing that Latinos were predicted to become the next “majority-minority.” In 1994, NAFTA was signed, triggering economic turbulence in Mexico. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, which permitted local police to work with ICE to deport undocumented workers, was passed. States with high percentage of Latinos like Texas and California eliminated Affirmative Action at its public universities. Academics and activists began to use the word “globalization” as a negative force that destroyed economies and cultural traditions in Latin America, resulting in more migrations to the United States.

U.S. Latinos and their identities were (and are) still caught in these contradictions. On one hand, the mainstream tells us to celebrate our culture. On the other hand, anti-Latino policies uproot our communities, disrupt our physical bonds to each other and exclude us from the full access to rights. As classical sociologist Emile Durkheim theorized, groups create symbols to maintain their unity, even when the group becomes physically disbanded.

Because of the timely emergence of her career and death, Selena became a unifying symbol. Jordan Wennen poignantly recognized this on the Latino Rebels Facebook page:

During that time, in the early 90s Chicanos and Latinos in America were facing a lot of legislation across the country that would leave them excluded and often times without any rights. Having someone in the entertainment business for Latin Americans to identify with caused a sense of pride, and a sense of belonging!

As other comments in social media reflect, many identified with how Selena was an important way to learn about cultural identity, tying onself to other Latinos despite geography and creating a sense of self. I tracked responses from men and women as far south as Argentina and as far north in Canada.

Many respondents noted how Selena validated their identities as Mexican Americans. Cindy Jurado stated this on Facebook:

Selena was me—I am Selena. A Mexican-American female trying to live life in the in between & Selena was my model that it’s is possible to be fully one’s borderlands self. #selenasporvida #latinidad

This is what John Paul tweeted when Latino Rebels asked its Twitter followers for thoughts:

Gabe Ortíz tweeted this:

Liz Malintzin credited Selena with introducing her to Mexican-American culture and female empowerment:

Non-Mexican Latinos also noted how Selena was influential in their lives. She helped to build bonds. Sandra Ortega, a Honduran immigrant and teacher in Phoenix, Arizona, wrote this on my personal Facebook wasll:

I never heard of Selena until she died and I started learning about her and the life of Mexican American in the USA… My daughter loves Selena and my students love the song “Como la Flor”

Michael Areizaga posted this:

I was growing up in Puerto Rico and she was the first Mexican American, Tejano artist most of us had ever heard. Her music has a quality that transcends cultures… Everyone loved her in Puerto Rico and felt the tragedy of her passing too young.

Stephanie Morillo, a Dominican from the Bronx, tweeted this:

All of these social media comments reflect that Selena was, is and will alway be an unifying force for the U.S. Latino commuunity despite the historical and ongoing pressures that we face to disband us and disrupt our attachment to our cultural identities.

For me and others who witnessed her talent early in her career, Selena will always be the Mexican girl from my neighborhood who made “it.” However, 20 years later, Selena has taken on a whole new symbolic meaning: the Latina who danced us towards the validation and creation of a global Latinidad.

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You can follow Christina Saenz-Alcántara on Twitter @ctsaenz.

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