La Chicana ModernaMost people, including many Mexicans, don't understand shit about good Mexican food. Good Mexican food, unlike fine cuisine, is not a vulgar display of extravagance. Good Mexican food is created out of necessity, stretching its ingredients to feed as many mouths as possible. It is rich with the flavor of poverty. Chicano music, like Mexican food, is often an invention of necessity. Chicano artists who provide their audiences strictly with entertainment are cherished, but those who also express the mentality of the culture are our necessary heroes and heroines. That being said, of all the Chicano artists that have appeared since the annexation of Aztlan by the United States, none was more necessary than Selena.
by Ray Aldaco
Selena was a Chicana. Her family was Mexican-American. If that sounds repetitive, it's only to emphasize that as a Chicana, Selena was raised with conservative Mexican values. As a result, her entire life and legacy can be viewed as a conflict of two forces. The first is la familia, a theme that extends far beyond family to include tradition, culture, and values. Family is life. Life is a patriarchy. The second theme is la Chicana moderna, a phenomenon that combines assimilation, feminism and the American Dream. It is the rejection of conventional family values by young Chicanas who are/were raised by macho fathers and submissive mothers. It is also the search for a voice and identity. Selena expresses both themes with unprecedented power, and was marketed (by her father's company) to leave them in conflict as often as she resolved them. And although fans typically perceived la Chicana modernaas the dominant image, it was not until the years approaching Selena's death that the ongoing tug-of-war began to lean in her favor.
Selena's father, Abraham Quintanilla Jr., was a disgruntled failed musician who was forced into a nine-to-five life by the rejection of his doo-wop/rock n' roll band, Los Dinos, by both white and Hispanic audiences who were baffled by a group of Latinos performing songs other than corridos or rancheras. He took the failure personally, and carried the sting with him throughout his life. Like all Mexican-Americans of his generation, Abraham experienced a great deal of institutionalized racism during his childhood. Attending elementary school in Corpus Christi, Abraham and his fellow students were sent to the principal's office and/or whipped if they were caught speaking Spanish. When Abraham settled in Lake Jackson, TX with his wife Marcela to raise his family, like most Mexican-Americans of his generation, he raised his children to speak English, so that they might avoid the humiliations he endured.
Selena Quintanilla was born on April 6, 1971. She, along with her older brother and sister, A.B. (Abraham III) and Suzette, were part of the second generation of Chicanos. Selena pronounced her name with an American accent, and for much of her life couldn't speak Spanish --although she could sing it perfectly. One day, during Abraham's ritual after-work guitar jam, Selena joined by singing along with her father's strumming. Realizing that his daughter had an amazing voice, Abraham began imposing music on his children, perhaps as a hobby at first. As Abraham recalls, "I was really surprised that at that age she had the talent to sing, her timing, rhythm, and everything was there! So that's when the wheels started turning in my mind. Ah, a way to get back into the music world." Whether Abraham is referring to business or pleasure when he says "music world," it is undoubtedly his own business and pleasure. Suzette recalls her father's persistence as "a constant battle"; Abraham laughs it off saying, "Here are some kids who knew zero about music, and you place an instrument in their hands and try to teach them, and, you know, it's crying time." Abraham, robbing his children of a normal childhood, transformed his family into a band with A.B. on bass, Suzette on drums, and of course, Selena singing in the spotlight. If Abraham's intentions to relive his dream through his children wasn't obvious enough, by the time Selena was ten, he appointed himself manager and named the band: Selena y los Dinos, a tribute to his old band, Los Dinos. Even more incriminating is the fact that he forced Selena to drop out of high school as a means of "allowing" her to focus her energy on music. Selena, being mija, obeyed. After all, Father said it was in her best interest.
Selena completed her high school equivalency at home between rehearsals and while on the road. Ironically, she later encouraged young Chicanas to stay in school, advertising it as the way to achieve their dreams, subtly spreading the Chicana moderna mentality. To the young Latina, Selena was an independent woman who had built a career on her own terms. But the feminist victories of Selena y los Dinos were, in most cases, an illusion. With Selena y los Dinos, we have a brother who wanted to be a composer and a father who wanted to be a star, both able to realize their personal goals through Selena. Selena y los Dinos was a family business owned and operated by la familia, in other words, el papa.
As the business grew, so did the band, and so did the family. On April 2, 1992, Selena and Dinos guitarist Chris Perez eloped. Why? la familia. Typically, when a traditional Mexican woman gets married, she is withdrawing from her father's control and adopting a new patriarchy. Of course, breaking up his version of la familia, would be the end of Selena y los Dinos, and Abraham could not afford this. To have "his" band destroyed twice, consecutively, would be unacceptable. It should not seem out of character then, that Abraham chose to accept/approve their marriage only under the condition that they move in next door, into a house he owned. A.B., who by this time was married and had two children, was already living in a home on the opposite side.
Still, to young Chicana fans, Selena was la Chicana moderna. And perhaps the largest obstacle for la Chicana modernais that in Mexican culture, women are often viewed as commodities. As a rule, a girl who is not a virgin is not a valued bride-to-be. A woman who exhibits any level of sexuality beyond the accepted threshold is labeled a puta. To conservative Chicano culture, female sexuality is a dangerous thing. But Selena changed all that. For second and third generation Chicanas searching for identity, frustrated at the contrast between their own image and that of blonde-haired, blue-eyed Barbie, Selena was the first real role model. Before Selena, the only fashion and dance considered fully acceptable for Chicanas was ballet folklorico. Can you imagine? When I think about Selena, one image from the peak of her career always pops into my head: a photograph, originally taken for Maz magazine, in which Selena stands boldly with her hands behind her back, as if at parade rest, proudly flaunting a black-silver-sequined bra/bustier, tight black pants worn high at the waist, classic Latina hoop earrings, and a black hat that Fidel Castro would wear if he had better fashion sense and a taste for shiny embroidery. In this picture, although Selena radiates a strong sexuality, she does so in a defiant, almost militant manor. Her image, in the realms of Chicana sexuality, is a call to arms.
She was a physical embodiment of the Chicana American Dream--Madonna except brown, curvaceous, and someone average Chicanas could identify with. But unlike Madonna --who happened to be Selena's idol-- she was saddled with the ever-present familia, which once again clashed with la Chicana moderna. The contradiction here is simple: how can Selena's portrayal of sexuality be part of la Chicana modernawhen she is being packaged as a male fantasy by a patriarchal organization? It can't. But the contradiction either didn't occur to fans, or simply did not matter to them. It didn't matter to her fans that all this imagery was under the control of her father. The concept Selena symbolized dwarfed such petty details.
Regardless of who was calling the shots, one thing was clear: la familia needed this particular Chicana moderna far more than she needed them. And fans knew this. After all, they came from miles around to see Selena, not Los Dinos, and certainly not Abraham. Being a symbol of la Chicana moderna, Selena inspired many Chicanas to seek a life involving more than marriage and children. Still, it would be extremely inaccurate to say that Selena became a symbol of la Chicana moderna in spite of la familia. Quite the contrary, she became a symbol of la Chicana moderna because of la familia and the support it provided her. Ironically, Selena inspired a generation of Chicanas to rebel against the confines of their families even though she herself was raised in a supportive, sheltered, and in fact controlling environment. It was because of la familia that we have Selena's music.
And the music was simply brilliant. If all Selena accomplished in her life was adding a feminist perspective to a Tejano music with a long tradition of macho attitudes, that alone would have been enough to warrant recognition. She was capable of providing her audience with everything they craved, whatever they needed, and then some. Danceable cumbias such as "Como La Flor," "La Carcacha," and "Amor Prohibido" provided Chicano escapists a distraction from the hardships of everyday life, while simultaneously providing listening Chicanas with a much needed female-oriented perception of love. Meanwhile, her stunning stage presence allowed audience members to participate at a baile by watching rather than dancing if they so chose. Even in her lyrics, she was la Chicana moderna, exhibiting the image of an assertive woman, criticizing men who mistreated her, and undermining the image of the typical Mexican macho like no Chicana artist ever before. The best example of this is without a doubt, "Que Creias," where she opens by boldly singing:
Que creÌas, que te iba a perdonar?
Que me iba a olvidar del dano que me hiciste?
Pero yo aprendĚ a vivir sin ti
Ya no haces falta aquÌ
AsÌ es que puedes irte
What did you think, that I was going to forgive you?
That I would forget the way you hurt me?
But I've already learned to live without you.
I don't need you anymore.
So you can just leave
"Que Creias" was also a significant Tejano ballad because it, along with Selena's cover of "Tu Solo Tu," absorbed mariachi aesthetics into the strictly ranchera Tejano landscape. "Que Creias" in particular, went so far as to combine violins, Spanish guitars, guitarons, and trumpets with light Tejano synthesized backing chords --and pulled it off convincingly.
One album above all the rest illustrates how influential Selena was within the Tejano genre: 1995 Tejano Music Award Winners. This compilation opens with two Selena tracks, "Bidi Bidi Bom Bom," a cumbia, and "Si La Quieres," a song brave enough to perk up the ranchera's typical drum/bass quarter-note polka beat. The remainder of the collection, consisting of other artists honored at the 1995 Tejano Music Awards, is a bland plateau of rancheras sung by men offering the same story, with different lyrics, set to nearly identical bass lines. What "Bidi Bidi Bom Bom" had that the others did not was originality. The main lyric, "Bidi Bidi Bom Bom," is not a random onomatopoeia; it is the sound of a beating heart, which in the context of the song is a triumphant indicator of love. "Bidi Bidi Bom Bom" is a proud celebration of love in terms la Chicana modernais comfortable with. Although less obvious, the song's guitar solo, performed by Selena's husband Chris, is equally radical. Not only was it innovative to incorporate a metal/hard-rock influence into a Tejano cumbia, but doing so, in the context of "Bidi Bidi Bom Bom," had many progressive implications. In Chris's guitar, we hear the assimilation of la Chicana modernathrough the absorption of musical aesthetics. Assimilation, of course, involves an evolution of values, an obvious threat to la familia. Even more critical however, is the fact that Chris is Selena's husband, and therefore, by performing such an outrageous Tejano solo on such a feminist song, he is supporting la Chicana modernaand her point of view though the voice of his guitar.
In the years approaching her death, Selena was truly evolving into la Chicana moderna. Beginning to take control of her enterprise, Selena became a spokeswoman for Coca-Cola, and along with other Hispanic artists, sang in a widely televised advertisement. She also signed a deal to begin recording her first English crossover album. But, neither television commercials nor music were her true passion. Developing a talent for fashion by designing her band's outfits while touring, Selena yearned to launch her own clothing line. Her dream became a reality on January 27, 1994 with the grand opening of the salon/boutique Selena Inc. Though Selena would jokingly tell interviewers, "I want to do something outside the music business to see whether I'm un poquito inteligente," she was clearly becoming quite the business woman. Because of Selena Inc., she found herself working closely with fashion designer Martin Gomez, heading projects, and hiring employees, as well as assistants to help manage them. This is how Yolanda Saldivar, who had done an outstanding job managing Selena's fan club for three years, came to find herself as manager of Selena Inc.
If Selena was la Chicana moderna, then Yolanda was la Chicana pendeja, or perhaps a bastardization of la Chicana moderna. Though unlike Selena, Yolanda had gone to college, eventually earning enough credits to be certified as a nurse by the Texas Board of Nurse Examiners, she was never la Chicana moderna. Ironically, though Yolanda was clearly allowed more independence than Selena, her freedoms were not the result of the loving support of la familia, but rather, the cold indifference of her family. She was a nomad no one seemed to care about, and a woman who made a living by stealing; she fought no battles, she only cheated. Selena and Yolanda had one thing in common: they both were loners. Still, unlike Selena, who since childhood never developed much of a life outside the constraints of music and family --which in most cases were strongly interconnected-- Yolanda never developed much of a life to any extent. At Selena's side, Yolanda could bask in reflected popularity; and as her friend/assistant, she was endowed with a level of importance she had never before experienced.
According to co-workers and guests who visited Yolanda's home, she maintained a shrine, complete with candles, devoted entirely to Selena. But underneath her mask of admiration and friendship, Yolanda was jealous, peculiarly revealing to a boutique employee, "God, if only I was like Selena" If young Chicanas saw in Selena all they aspired to be, Yolanda must have seen in Selena all she was not. Perhaps it was this envy that led Yolanda to embezzle Selena Inc.'s funds. Maybe it was simply in her nature --it was certainly not the first time Yolanda had stolen from an employer. It was Abraham who first noticed suspicious inconsistencies in the bank account pertaining to Selena's fan club. It was an account Yolanda had access to; and when she repeatedly failed to produce her financial records, their suspicions were confirmed. The situation, however, was complicated. Yolanda couldn't simply be fired; after all, many contracts were still signed under her name, and Selena Inc. still needed to retrieve the financial records she was withholding. Yolanda was an outsider who found inclusion through Selena, but now she was once again being cast out. Selena, la Chicana moderna, took matters into her own hands. On March 31, 1995, Selena agreed to meet Yolanda at Yolanda's motel in hopes of settling this matter once and for all. Yolanda, at the end of her rope, fabricated a story involving rape to explain her elusiveness. Determined to uncover the truth, Selena took Yolanda to get a rape exam, but the results were inconclusive. Later that day, back at the motel, Yolanda shot Selena. She was rushed to Memorial Medical Center where she later died at 1:05pm.
Selena's crossover album, Dreaming of You, was released posthumously later that year. Just as the death of John Lennon seemed to spread the "Imagine" dream, the passing of Selena seemed to heighten the hopes and ambitions of la Chicana moderna.
Personally, I wish I had appreciated her more while she was alive --the fact that I didn't is perhaps an insight into my juvenile internalized racism, and/or my quest to rebel against my parents through assimilation, and/or my love of rock music. Only recently, living in New York City, a million miles and a couple of culture shocks away from my hometown of El Paso, TX, I am barely beginning to realize what it means to be Chicano. Being part of the third generation of Chicanos, and being born male, I never had to endure the financial hardships of my grandparents or the social turmoil of my parents. In Selena, I see the struggles of my mother and grandmother validated, appreciated, and set to music. For nosotros Chicanos who are searching for a correlation between our current selves and our heritage, we, or at least I, still need Selena.
Brennan, Sandra. "Selena." Allmusic. 3 Dec. 2005
Conversations with intellectuals about Selena. Xochitl Films, 1999.
Corpus: a home movie for Selena. Producer/Director, Lourdes Portillo. Xochitl Films, 1998.
Koster, Rick. Texas Music. New York, St. Martins Press, 1998.
Patoski, Joe Nick. Selena: Como La Flor. New York: Boulevard Books, 1996.
San Miguel, Guadalupe Jr. Tejano Proud: Tex-Mex Music in the Twentieth Century. Texas A&M University Press, 2002.
Selena. Dir. Gregory Nava. Perf. Jennifer Lopez, Edward James Olmos, and Rebecca Lee Meza. Warner Bros., 1997.
Special thanks to Robert Christgau for his help with this piece
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