Abraham is talking specifically about the risks he sees in an offer Selena has received to perform a major concert in Mexico. Will her spoken Spanish go over well with the tough Mexican press corps and concert promoters? Can she manage the huge crowds? Ultimately, the concert is a triumph and a sign that Selena is poised for genuine superstardom; she even manages to quiet a burgeoning riot with a commanding performance.
Taking the longer view, though, especially since today is the 20th anniversary of the day “Selena” arrived in theaters, Abraham’s diagnosis feels like a portent. Selena herself may have been poised to become a huge crossover artist at the time of her 1995 murder, and “Selena” helped make Jennifer Lopez a huge star. But especially when it comes to film and television, the entertainment industry still doesn’t seem to know what to do not merely with Mexican Americans, but with Hispanics and Latinos, and Hispanic and Latino culture, more generally.
I first saw “Selena” in high school, when one of my Spanish teachers left it for a substitute to play for the class; it became a staple, and not merely because teenagers would rather watch movies than do work.
“Selena” gave Lopez a highly unusual role: She got to play a woman whose girlish softness and attention to domestic life were in no way in conflict with her will and ambition. And Lopez gave “Selena” precisely what it needed: a hugely compelling musical and acting performance that meant director and writer Gregory Nava never had to stop and explain why Selena Quintanilla was such a remarkable artist and important cultural figure. Every time Lopez is on screen, whether she’s wearing the heck out of a Holstein-print bolero jacket or blowing off a racist saleswoman at an upscale Los Angeles dress shop, Quintanilla’s appeal and fame are obvious, incandescent. And the chemistry between Lopez and Jon Seda, who plays Chris Pérez, the lead guitarist in Quintanilla’s band and eventually her husband, is terrific.
The movie is a deft cultural study, too, putting Quintanilla in cultural context. “Selena” takes us through Abraham Quintanilla’s early experiences being rejected as a performer by white club owners and harassed by Mexican American crowds who didn’t want to dance to music by a white pop trio. It’s clear about the point at which natural talent leaves off and perceptive engineering and style choices take over in the rise to superstardom. Nava gets at the range of Selena Quintanilla’s cultural influences; in one scene, she dismisses a hat as “very Minnie Pearl,” in reference to the country comedian. And a number of scenes make clear just how bifurcated stardom in the United States can be. In the mall scene in Los Angeles, the white saleswomen have no idea who Quintanilla is, even though she’s so famous her elopement was radio-worthy news, and a Latino clerk is so thrilled to see her that he spreads the news, leading mall staff and patrons to swarm the store in hopes of autographs.
“Selena” isn’t a perfect movie. Nava sometimes uses cheesy effects during concert scenes, even though they’re totally unnecessary to highlight the impact of Quintanilla’s performances. And from a dramatic perspective, it’s a mistake that Yolanda Saldívar (Lupe Ontiveros), the president of Selena’s fan club and, eventually her murderer, arrives in the movie only when it’s three-quarters over, and the relationship between the two women doesn’t have room to gel on screen.
Still, looking back on “Selena” 20 years later, I’m still struck by how unique it feels: Other than “La Bamba,” which was released in 1987, I can’t think of another major Hollywood movie that treats a Hispanic or Latino pop-culture figure as worthy of feature-length examination, and “La Bamba” didn’t come out until 28 years after Ritchie Valens died in the plane crash that came to be known as “The Day the Music Died.” “Selena,” by contrast, hit theaters two years after Quintanilla’s death.
Frankly, great starring roles for Hispanic and Latino actors are rare no matter the subject material. In an examination of 800 movies released between 2007 and 2015, researchers at the Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative found that the percentage of speaking characters who were Latino was between 2.8 percent and 5.3 percent, even though as of 2015, 17.6 percent of the U.S. population was of Hispanic or Latino origin. Selena herself and “Selena” helped to demonstrate that Latinas could be crossover stars, and that they could draw audiences and acclaim while performing in Spanish and performing songs or telling stories specifically about their cultural heritage. Hollywood listened only intermittently — with exceptions such as Netflix’s terrific “One Day At A Time” — and we’re poorer for it.