Anything for Selenas
Muna Mire and Aaron Cantú remember Selena Quintanilla-Perez on the 21st anniversary of her death.
Muna Mire: I just got through fact-checking an article about Corpus Christi, hometown of late Tejano luminary Selena Quintanilla-Perez. Aaron, as a fellow fact checker, you know that when you are verifying a longform narrative, you take a deep dive into a very specific area of knowledge. For the past month, I’ve been obsessed with the culture of both Corpus and the Valley, where you hail from. And then, apropos of nothing at all, a friend suggested we watch the Selena movie together. The one with J. Lo in it. It’s still my favorite acting performance of hers. It was like I had gone back in time to when I was a kid, listening to her (English language) CD over and over. I think Selena is a ghost in the culture, and in a lot of ways she’s like the ultimate martyr. Her life story has reached the proportions of myth but I’m glad we have our image of her. It means so much to so many people.
Aaron Miguel Cantú: I’m so curious to hear more on what you’ve learned about Valley culture! Interestingly enough, in addition to being born and raised in McAllen, I’ve actually been thinking a lot about the Valley too, for an essay I just wrote on an attempted insurrection there a century ago. Growing up in the Valley, you have this feeling of being from a forgotten place, of being behind the rest of the country culturally, and you can trace this collective insecurity back to the legacy of white settler colonialism in South Texas. So, for Selena to be this huge icon, singing and dancing on a national stage to our music – the goofy Tejano sounds with polka-sounding accordions and what not that I was always a little embarrassed of – was such a big fucking deal. To be honest, I didn’t even know she was so popular nationwide until after she died and I was a little older. She just made really good music that I’d hear everywhere – in the car on my way to school, weddings, birthday parties with piñatas. She was just as much a cultural staple as rice and beans and tamales. For Tejanos in the Valley her sudden death was like having a million hearts ripped out at once.
MM: Yeah, she got a lot of play on the airwaves in the 90s. I think she also had a special appeal to little girls? That’s who I remember listening to Selena, but I mean, that’s also pretty much who I was interacting with exclusively. My mother liked Selena’s music because it was modest and she didn’t mind my listening to it. There was something about her – beautiful, Brown, descended from migrants – that I feel there was kinship with in my house. And the music (the horns and accordion!) reminds me of Somali big band sounds. She is a crooner, too. She warbles about love in this way that reminds me a lot of Somali love songs. When I was fact-checking, I learned that Corpus is home to a giant monument – a big-ass Selena statue! She’s literally larger than life there. I think it’s interesting how we pay tribute to her memory – from the last concert and the endless tribute videos – it reminds me of how we talk about Aaliyah. She was only 23 when she was killed, younger than both of us.
AMC: I think that like Aaliyah, Selena felt like an ageless figure, sort of like Jesus too. She died 10 years before the Jesus age and she’d already done a comparable amount of things. You mention the statue in Corpus Christi, I remember visiting it with family and they paid respects to her like a saint. I think my mom may have even taken holy water to bless her. All around the Valley are large murals and statues of Catholic holy figures and I think it’s funny and fitting that we unofficially canonized Selena … it makes total sense if you know the culture. And speaking of the way Selena transcended age, I think enjoyment of her music in the Valley also transcended a ton of gender norms in an extremely machismo culture. Years after she died, it was completely fine, or acceptable socially, for boys to listen to songs like “Dreaming of You” and “Amor Prohibido” after like playing kickball in the neighborhood. I know because I did this. I actually remember when I was like in 2nd grade or something, my friends and I – all boys, all allegedly hetero – made up a little dance to some of her songs, and performed the dance for our parents. The romanticism of her music, the hopelessly-in-love-ness, resonated with everybody and with Tejano/Mexican values of devotion to a lover.
MM: I find that delightful, that she allowed space for another masculinity. The idea of hopeless devotion to your love is itself a challenge to machismo, which in many ways is unfeeling. Is there a contradiction between the ways in which machismo is unfeeling, yet men sing about love? Why was Selena so good at breaking down that barrier to those emotions? It definitely comes through – in the lyricism and romance of her music. I didn’t know that about her sainthood. I understood that she was prayed over, but I think culturally that’s where we diverge from Aaliyah. We pour one out for her, but it’s different from placing her among saints. Selena was Catholic and she was Tejano and I think she will always belong to y’all first – even if her appeal was global. I hear her influence in so much music that came after.
AMC: The contradictions of masculinity in Mexican culture are a way more complicated thing than I could begin to parse here. On the one hand, the idea of falling into somebody, and them into you, is such a thing, and Selena perfectly captures that feeling in “Fall in Love,” and it’s also a very matriarchal culture. On the other hand, there is a deeply virulent strain of anti-woman sentiment – the word “femicide” was inspired by the massacres of women in Juárez in the 90s. So I don’t really know. As a little boy, I saw everybody revere her, both men and women, so it was natural to follow their example. She was the soundtrack to everybody’s most intimate moments, even when they happened inside your head. I remember I had a crush on a girl in first grade and I would imagine her and I riding roller coasters and eating ice cream together, all as Selena narrated the scenes with her music. I definitely see her mark on later artists in the 90s, I think specifically about “Truly Madly Deeply” by Savage Garden, which inspired the same sort of feelings. Who else do you think was influenced by her?
MM: I hear her in the Spice Girls ballads that were mega popular right after her. I think they spoke to a kind of feminine subjecthood and vulnerability – think Como la Flor – that was young and eager to touch the world. But you can hear it in the music too, the chords and arrangements on some of the ballads.
AMC: Word, thanks for doing this with me. I’ve been listening to Selena much of the last 24 hours and it’s been one of the best days I’ve had in awhile.
MM: It’s like the universe – through my fact-checking assignment and random friends – was conspiring to bring this conversation into fruition, and it was so dope to talk with someone from the Valley about it. SIP Selenas!!!