Continuing Selena's Legacy Is More Important Than Music

Part of the Smithsonian-sponsored traveling exhibition "American Sabor: Latinos In U.S. Popular Music," taken in 2012EXPAND
Part of the Smithsonian-sponsored traveling exhibition "American Sabor: Latinos In U.S. Popular Music," taken in 2012

I read Jaime-Paul Falcon’s blog the other day in the Dallas Observer, which made a bold statement about Selena’s family tarnishing her legacy, and it started an important dialogue within me.

Later, the movie Selena came on and it was on the scene where she couldn’t answer a question posed in Spanish from Mexican press, but managed to walk away unscathed. In fact, she charmed the group of reporters in English.

That’s because Selena was bigger than language. She transcended things that normally keep people apart.

The scene that followed was one where she was able to calm a rowdy crowd with her voice. Overcome with enjoyment during a concert, they almost caused the stage she was on to collapse. That moment in the movie really delivered why Selena was so special.

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She was bigger than life.

And I gulped. My chest jolted a bit, like when I wake up on Sundays and expect to hear from my father and remember he’s dead, though it’s been more than a decade. Every time that movie is on, I’m pretty much like any other Mexican-American in Texas who grew up in the golden age of Tejano music.

In fact, let’s narrow it down a bit.

A Mexican-American, who doesn’t speak Spanish well, but loves and identifies with his heritage. A skinny, 120-pound, 16-year-old kid from Richmond, Texas in 1996, proudly wearing country-western gear bought by his mom at a garage sale, dancing with pretty girls at quinceañeras and Tejano concerts, making life memories to words he didn’t understand.

Like every other person who can identify with that previous paragraph, I try to find meaning in Selena's death when I watch that movie and I’m unable. And I think that people are sadder about the story Selena didn’t get to tell for a people than her actual death, and they don’t realize it.

That’s why I have a different opinion than Falcon on the matter, and it’s less about the merit of his argument and more about the stories people need to hear.

There’s a reason why when someone of Hispanic descent makes it in the NFL, music or in American cinema, flocks of Hispanics rush to slap a heritage label on him or her.

It’s really simple, in fact: Because there aren’t enough of us. We want to see ourselves in the mainstream and we want to see a different story told. Different from the one clouded by polarizing politics, or “Maria” playing the maid in movies.

We want to see the one Selena was going to tell: the beautiful Texas girl who loved pizza more than tacos, succeeding because of her parents’ sacrifices. The one who couldn’t speak Spanish, but could sing the words of that language in a way that overwhelmed people in countries south of her, and also dominated mainstream airwaves with English love ballads.

She was going to give some of those people on Halloween, who see culture as a costume, a reason to dress like a Mexican-American singer from Corpus Christi in the same way girls try to look like Audrey Hepburn, versus putting on a sombrero and fake mustache.

She was going to help balance out the stories that portray us in a negative light that are so far from being representative of our values.

But she wasn’t going to do it alone.

There’s this singularity to Selena’s remembrance that’s false, because there was an entire family behind her stardom. It wasn’t just her.

It was the dad that placed all his bets on a family to break it big in a music genre that was dominated by a language his daughter didn’t speak. It was the brother that wrote and produced some of her most influential music. It was the mom and sister who were critical parts of her rise and served as her support structure. It was the love of her life, her husband.

Selena didn’t build the Selena brand alone. The family did it together. It was Selena y Los Dinos on that bus.

L-R: Snow Tha Product shows her appreciation; an ad for M.A.C.'s new Selena cosmetics line due next year
L-R: Snow Tha Product shows her appreciation; an ad for M.A.C.'s new Selena cosmetics line due next year

So when the debate of whether her family is mismanaging her legacy by releasing unproduced songs, M.A.C. releasing an exclusive makeup-collection line in her honor, or the possibility of a Selena hologram going on tour, I think less about where the money is going and more about what story is being told to larger audiences about who we are and what we can become.

The problem with the Mexican-American story, as told in the mainstream, is that we aren’t the authors of our own narrative. In media and cinema, we get portrayed the way those in charge are comfortable seeing us. And that shapes perceptions of the people who aren’t us.

But some of our stories breakthrough and defy stereotypes. Those are the ones we need to keep alive and those are the ones that give people a new reality of who we are and what we are capable of.

People like young Mexican-American girls. Oh, say, folks like Selena Gomez or rapper Snow Tha Product, who were told by Selena Quintanilla’s success that, “Yes. You belong on the big stage too.”

Mismanaging the legacy to me would mean not being innovative in keeping Selena alive, because above and beyond fan desire, there simply aren’t enough good stories being told about our community. If there were, then maybe Selena would have been forgotten by now. And, somehow, I think she would have been okay with that outcome.

Falcon’s opinion isn’t wrong. It’s a point of view that creates healthy tension. It pushes the conversation to new places. There’s nothing wrong about caring about the legacy so much that you want it to be held a certain way.

And there’s nothing wrong with disagreeing with it, either.

I don’t know that the Indiegogo campaign not raising the $500,000 for the hologram was proof that fans “are uncomfortable with her image being exploited,” as Falcon claimed, or if the fan base just has to prioritize spending choices [cough: see garage sale].

But if it did come to life, I’d put it to good use.

I have a daughter who is 13. She’s a passionate, talented dancer. One half of her is Mexican-American and the other half is Korean-American. She lives in a mostly Caucasian area of the world. I don’t know how that impacts her, but I know what kind of music she buys and it ranges in skin tone from Kesha to Nikki Minaj, but nothing in between.

I’d take her to see Selena’s hologram to see in between.

Now that she wears a bit of makeup, I might buy her the M.A.C. line and tell her that beauty, despite what she might see on television, doesn’t just resemble the blonde Barbie. It has other shades, like the one she and Selena share.

I hope that the story inspires her in ways the others can’t. There’s something incredible about seeing someone like you in iconic status.

There’s something sadder about not.

I think about the story in the inverse too. I think about the Quintanilla family not doing anything with Selena’s legacy — being really careful, timid and conservative. Maybe not profiting at all.

Then I think about how we need more influential, powerful Hispanic families that know how to build wealth and play the damn game, and how I wouldn’t want the financial prosperity the Quintanilla family worked so hard for as a collective to die with Selena.

And I know they’re not cashing in on every opportunity. I know this, because I presented an opportunity they didn’t take.

As a consultant with clients with reasonable budgets, I tried to get the rights to host a Selena commemoration party to introduce the good work a major association is doing for the Hispanic community. Part of what I do is help companies and nonprofit groups instill cultural relevance into the work they do and the products and services they offer. And I was unsuccessful in this particular attempt.

I know my request got to the right people at the Quintanilla camp, or at least I hope it did, but I didn’t get a call back with interest.

I respected that. It told me they are selective in how they use their daughter’s image and this wasn’t the right opportunity.

In the end, there are a lot of ways to inspire a community. I know there are many successful Hispanic nonprofit and corporate executives, business owners, teachers, lawyers and doctors, but you wouldn’t know it by consuming the news.

Because let’s be honest: people didn’t break attendance records at the Astrodome to see someone conduct a science experiment. They did it to see Selena. But that’s not enough for her dedicated faithful. They want the story to continue for all the reasons outlined and Selena’s family is going to answer the call.

I’m a long way from wearing clothes from garage sales and my music taste is much more diverse than in 1996, but I’m not done reading the Selena story, so my advice to the Quintanilla family is to keep writing.

Don’t stop until a bunch of Selena Gomezes and Snow the Products you’ve inspired fill up the void of a good community narrative that exists, but largely remains untold.


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