‘Selena’ and the Nostalgia of Language

by Orlando Mendiola | December 12, 2020

My first experience with grief was when I was around six years old and my parents had to tell me that Selena, the Tejano singer, was dead. It wasn’t on the morning of her death on March 31, 1995. I was born in 1996. This happened after growing up listening to her music and playing the film Selena (1997) on repeat. One day I begged my parents for tickets to see her live and they finally had to break it to me. My child mind couldn’t comprehend the fact that the ending of the film was a tribute to the murdered star. 

With the new Selena: The Series on Netflix, I’ve been rewatching and reconnecting to the original 1997 film, Selena. Early reviews of the series indicated the show isn’t as impactful as the film when discussing Selena’s background as a Mexican-American, something I believe the film does exceptionally well. 

As a Mexican-American born in San Antonio, Texas into a post-Selena world, I connect to the film on a spiritual level. Especially how it portrays Mexican-American life and the inner struggle between owning your heritage while being raised in the United States and absorbing American culture. Early in the movie, Mr. Quintanilla (Edward James Olmos) tells Selena, “You can’t be anything if you don’t know who you are,” when he tells her she has to learn to speak and sing in Spanish to be successful as a singer. This is an important thing to remember when your family has roots in a different place. As a third-generation Mexican-American (Selena was also third-generation) my family is very Americanized. I’m proud of who I am and where we come from and my family embraces our culture, but I’ve struggled with not feeling “Mexican enough” because I cannot speak Spanish.

selena body image
From Right to Left: Jennifer Lopez, Constance Marie, Jackie Guerra, and Jacob Vargas in Selena (1997).

Spanish is something that didn’t come naturally to my parents when talking to me at home growing up and I’m assuming this was the case with Selena’s family. In the film, Selena’s Spanish is constantly questioned, especially when Mr. Quintanilla (Olmos) explains his worries about Selena not being accepted as an artist in Mexico because Spanish is not her first language. In the scene, he talks about how we are often not accepted by Americans as true Americans, and by Mexicans as true Mexicans because we are a blend of both cultures. This is a struggle that many people of color face and can relate to when living and adapting in the United States. Being Mexican-American is such a complex identity because it means something different to everyone. Even trying to figure out what to call myself was a challenge at first because Mexican-American, Tejano, Chicano, Tex-Mex, Latino, Latinx, or Hispanic were labels that seemed so intertwined and used to describe anyone with a family heritage south of the border. 

In the middle of the film, when Selena is about to do press in Mexico, her team is concerned the press will “eat her alive,” since she doesn’t speak Spanish well. Rather than avoiding the press conference and not try at all, she wins over the Mexican press with her humility. While the real Selena also made mistakes with her Spanish, she also embraced those mistakes and that’s something I’m doing on my journey with learning Spanish. 

Selena is a film that is nostalgic for me and reminds me of the San Antonio I grew up in since a lot of the movie was filmed there. It was a film that whenever I missed Texas, while I was studying in New York City for college, I’d put on or attend a screening and reminisce about my childhood. With the series now on Netflix, I hope it introduces a new generation to Selena while steering people towards watching the film because Selena greatly influenced the relationship I have with my cultural identity.

Orlando Mendiola is a Mexican-American writer originally from San Antonio, Texas. He is a graduate of The New School, where he studied Journalism + Design and Photography. You can catch him on Instagram @landomend.

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