20 Years Ago, Biopic Helped Give Pop Star Selena Life Beyond Her Tragic Death | KERA News

20 Years Ago, Biopic Helped Give Pop Star Selena Life Beyond Her Tragic Death

Mar 21, 2017
Originally published on March 21, 2017 10:50 pm

The biopic Selena tells the story of Mexican-American pop star Selena Quintanilla Perez, a Tejano music singer who made a rare crossover to mainstream American audiences. The movie debuted 20 years ago Tuesday, two years after the singer was killed by the former president of her fan club.

Deborah Paredez, author of Selenidad: Selena, Latinos, and the Performance of Memory, says the film is more concerned with the triumph of Selena's life than the tragedy of her death. "We learn about how she ascended to fame as both a Tejana superstar, but also as an international superstar," she says. "And only at the very end do we have the tragic end of her life. But even in that ending, we get a sense of what her promise was."

Selena started her career singing Tejano music, which is popular in Texas and among Mexican-Americans. But her music also drew from a range of Latin genres as well as American pop music. "Because of her particular sound and her style and her particular talent," Paredez says, "and because of the kind of global reach of the recording industry, she became truly a kind of international sensation."

Even after her death, the singer was so popular that when Warner Bros. held highly publicized open auditions for the film, more than 20,000 young girls and women showed up to be considered. According to Paredez, who interview some of them for her book, they traveled from all over the country. "So many of them talked about going to audition not so much because they were aspiring to be stars necessarily, or even be connected to Hollywood, but auditioning for Selena was, for so many young Latinas, a way of just asserting their own sense of their own specific Latina identity."

That may also be why the film has endured. "Times for Latinos aren't much better at this moment," Paredez says. There aren't a lot of other inspirational films for Latinos to turn to, and Selena, after all, represents two success stories: that of its subject and that of its Puerto Rican star, Jennifer Lopez, whose career the film helped catapult.

Paredez also points to another Selena legacy that doesn't often get talked about — one with queer Latino communities. "She provided a kind of a drag icon, for some," she says. "... Also, talking with queer communities who were deeply affected by the AIDS crisis, as Latino communities were, Selena's death and her legacy really was something that resonated for them as someone who died too young and yet who also had a life beyond death. ... And I think often that particular part of the story gets left out."

Editor Melissa Gray, producer Jordan-Marie Smith and intern Esteban Bustillos contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

"Selena" the movie debuted 20 years ago today.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SELENA")

JENNIFER LOPEZ: (As Selena) My dreams were the same as the dreams of all those people who were out there in the audience, like all their hopes were centered on me.

MCEVERS: That's Jennifer Lopez playing Selena Quintanilla Perez talking about what it was like to be onstage. Selena was the first Tejano performer to crossover to mainstream American audiences, and in the movie, we hear her singing voice, not J-Lo's.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SELENA")

SELENA QUINTANILLA PEREZ: (Singing) I could fall in love with you, baby.

MCEVERS: The movie came out just two years after Selena was killed by the president of her fan club. Here to talk about the film is Deborah Paredez. She's the author of "Selenidad: Selena, Latinos, And The Performance Of Memory" Welcome to the show.

DEBORAH PAREDEZ: Thank you. It's great to be here.

MCEVERS: So for people who either haven't seen the movie or maybe don't remember it because it has been 20 years, just remind us about this movie. I mean it's a biopic, right?

PAREDEZ: Absolutely. So as a biopic, it's absolutely invested in telling the story of the triumph of her life more than the tragedy of her death.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SELENA")

EDWARD JAMES OLMOS: (As Abraham) They can be mean, and they can tear us apart over there.

CONSTANCE MARIE: (As Marcella) Oh, why?

OLMOS: (As Abraham) Selena's Spanish is...

LOPEZ: (As Selena) What about my Spanish? I've been singing in Spanish for 10 years. It's perfect.

OLMOS: (As Abraham) Singing, yes. But when you speak it, you speak it a little funny.

JACOB VARGAS: (As A.B., Laughter).

OLMOS: (As Abraham) And down there, you've got to speak perfectly, or the press will eat you up and spit you out alive. I've seen them do it.

LOPEZ: (As Selena) Overreacting as usual.

PAREDEZ: We learn about how she ascended to fame as both a Tejano superstar but also as an international superstar. And only at the very end do we have the tragic end of her life. But even in that ending, we get a sense of what her promise was.

MCEVERS: And how popular was she when she was alive?

PAREDEZ: She was tremendously popular not just within Texas. She sang regional music. But because of her particular sound and her style and her particular talent and because of the kind of global reach of the recording industry, she became truly a kind of international sensation.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SELENA")

SELENA: (Singing in Spanish).

MCEVERS: When you first saw the movie - again, it was two years after she was killed - what did you think of the film? Did you feel like it accurately depicted her?

PAREDEZ: I think that the film absolutely depicted an important aspect of Selena. I think that as the official narrative, certainly there's a lot that gets left out.

MCEVERS: Like what?

PAREDEZ: You know, Warner Brothers held these very sort of highly publicized open auditions. And over 24,000 young girls and women from across the United States auditioned for "Selena."

MCEVERS: Wow.

PAREDEZ: Yeah, it's a huge amount. And girls and young women traveled from all over the country. Auditioning for Selena was for so many young Latinas a way of just asserting their own sense of their own specific Latina identity. And I really think it's so important - and it doesn't get often talked about - is how important she was to queer Latino communities.

You know, for some of the drag performers I talked to, she finally provided a model for them to be able - someone they could inhabit who they could also assert their own cultural identity. And I think often that particular part of the story gets left out of many of the kind of more mainstream stories that get told about her.

MCEVERS: What do you think now looking back has been kind of the long-term impact of this film?

PAREDEZ: I think that many people who were born, you know, either in the era when Selena died or after have come to know about her through the film, and so which means they've come to know about her through Jennifer Lopez performing her. And I think it shows what Selena did not just for those young women auditioning but for Jennifer Lopez, right? To become Selena means, like, you can also catapult your career. But it also means that there are so many people who've understood who Selena was through identifying with her as not just a Tejano but as a Latina - right? - because it's about a Puerto Rican then performing this...

MCEVERS: Right.

PAREDEZ: ...Texas-Mexican woman. I think that it's helped kind of create a particular kind of understanding of Latina identity or Latina identification. I mean I do think that unfortunately times for Latinos aren't much better at this moment. And so, you know, to have this kind of aspirational tale, you know, as those of us who are trying to still aspire to be acknowledged as citizens I think is really an important reason why that film continues to hold sway.

MCEVERS: Deborah Paredez, thank you very much.

PAREDEZ: Sure.

MCEVERS: Deborah Paredez's book is called "Selenidad: Selena, Latinos, And The Performance Of Memory." The movie "Selena" premiered 20 years ago today.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BIDI BIDI BOM BOM")

SELENA: (Singing) Bidi bidi bom bom, bidi bidi bom bom, bidi, bidi, bidi, bidi, bidi, bom, bidi, bidi, bidi, bidi, hey, yeah. (Singing in Spanish). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.