20 Movies 20 Years Later

The Story Of Singer Selena's Life Was More Than A Play-By-Play, And Taught Us To Embrace Our Heritage

"Selena" turns 20 this year.

20 Movies 20 Years Later remembers and explores the films that touched us back then and still resonate today. Join A Plus as we rewatch movies released in 1997 and celebrate their contributions to pop culture.

Two years after Selena Quintanilla-Perez's death, her life was immortalized on the big screen.

Quintanilla-Perez, known as just Selena to her fans, was also the simple name given to her 1997 biopic. The film is a look back on the Mexican-American singer who was hailed as the Queen of Tejano music, also known as Tex-Mex, a mix of pop and folk music. Selena died at 23 when the president of her fan club shot her after being accused of embezzling money from her family's clothing boutique.

While most biopics can take years to develop after a person's death, it was quite the opposite for Selena. In a recent interview with Entertainment Tonight, Selena's sister and father said it was their choice to release a biopic as soon as possible. 

"I wanted the world to know about my kids, my daughter," Selena's father, Abraham Quintanilla, said. 

Suzette Quintanilla-Arriaga, Selena's sister, added that she and her family wanted to "make sure that Selena was portrayed in the right light, in the right way."

Selena didn't just introduce the Queen of Tejano to people unfamiliar with her impact on the Latinx community, it introduced the world to an up-and-coming actress named Jennifer Lopez, whose ultimate rise to fame was playing Selena. Despite receiving some backlash for being a Puerto Rican playing a Mexican-American, Lopez helped show audiences what a strong Latinx female lead looks like.

The crux of Selena is that the singer embraces her Mexican-American identity. It's embedded in her at a young age when her father, played by Edward James Olmos, is blown away by her singing voice. An early scene in the film shows how Quintanilla encourages his daughter to sing a song for him in Spanish. 

To a young Selena, played by Rebecca Lee Meza, her ethnic identity isn't something she fully embraces. She doesn't know Spanish and doesn't enjoy music sung in Spanish, proclaiming that she only enjoys artists such as Donna Summer. Her priorities lie in just being a kid. But when it comes to what it feels like to sing for an audience, young Selena is enamored.

"It's like you can feel them when you sing," she says.

Selena continues to touch on the theme of accepting your heritage as the film progresses and the title's namesake grows up. As Selena's singing career takes off, Abraham explains to her and her brother, A.B., what it's really like to be Mexican in America. If Selena were to visit, he says, the press would eat her and spit her back up alive because of the way she speaks Spanish.

Unbothered by his comments, Selena tells him he's overreacting and rolls his eyes. But Abraham stands behind his thoughts.

"Being Mexican-American is tough," he says. "Anglos jump all over you if you don't speak English perfectly. Mexicans jump all over you if you don't speak Spanish perfectly. We've got to be twice as perfect as anybody else."

Drawbacks and criticism to this extent are still relevant to immigrants, regardless of what country they're from, which is another reason why Selena made waves when it was first released. These families constantly toe the line between learning to speak perfect enough English to fit into societal norms and making sure their children speak their native language fluently.

Despite how harsh Abraham's comments are towards Selena's Spanish speaking and overall outlook on achieving perfection as a Mexican-American, he continues to instill the pride that makes Selena who she is when she grows up.

All those years of Abraham's lectures about taking pride in being Mexican-American come to a head when Selena becomes famous and gets nominated for a Grammy. A defining scene in Selena is when she and her friend are shopping for a dress and come across one at an upscale store at a mall. When a White woman, presumably the owner, sees Selena and her friend, she implies to them that they can't afford it, so there's no reason for them to even try it on.

But once an employee recognizes Selena and leads the entire mall to the store to meet her, the owner is flabbergasted that she just denied a celebrity. Selena sticks to her guns and never lets the shop owner's discrimination get to her, which is another reason why the movie is still relevant 20 years later. Prejudice still clouds America, and Selena's cool and confident actions still make her a role model for young Latina girls.

Twenty years ago, Selena was the biopic that fans needed to celebrate the singer's life one last time. Today, it's a representation of what a strong Latina looks like. She's brave, she's confident, and she embraces her identity as a Mexican-American woman. Both the film and the singer inspired Lopez to pursue a singing career. She also paved the way for others, such as Shakira, to go forth and push English and Spanish music into the American mainstream. 

Lopez's portrayal of Selena was also important to the film because it contributed to ending the lack of Latina lead roles in films. While that's still the case today based on a 2016 study from the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism that says 5.8 percent of speaking roles in TV and film go to Hispanics or Latinos, Lopez is still the face of a Latina in the mainstream. And when new generations of Latina girls discover Selena and the artist's music, they'll have two people to look up to. 

Selena is available on AmazonGoogle PlayHBOiTunes, and YouTube.

Cover image: Movieclips / Warner Bros.

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