Selena was an intricate part of my multicultural upbringing because it was such a profound cinematic masterpiece in my neighborhood. The girls wanted to be Selena and the guys wanted to be with Selena. I was nine-years-old when Selena debuted in theaters, but it was not until the film came out on DVD that its influence spread like wildfire. This significantly new medium, mixed with the allure of Selena and her sudden passing, made the movie an instant classic and an impulse purchase. Everyone in my Barrio Hollywood neighborhood had a copy of the film and after several screenings; they wanted to duplicate the film. Her clothes, hairstyles, mannerisms, dances; all were fair game with my peers after watching Selena. But what made the film so magnetic was the fact that the lead actress was just as captivating as Selena herself. The Jennifer Lopez doppelgangers were in full force, and there was nothing that could stop this phenomenon.
In this essay, Selena will be the focus of my critique of multiculturalism in film and whether an accurate representation of Chicano culture is necessary if the myth, art, and personal projections of a particular film are what truly make it a timeless effort.
JLo: Impersonator or Actress?
Jennifer Lopez is not Chicano. She is Puerto Rican, raised in New York, and had little-to-no connections to the American Southwest. The controversy surrounding the casting of a Puerto Rican actress to portray a Tejano legend was widespread in the Southwest, especially before the movie was released. I think JLo articulated the disconnect best during this interview with Latino film critic Henri Behar from Film Scouts: “…A few days went by and I said, ‘This is going to interfere with my performance. I can’t get wrapped up in this. I can’t read papers. I can’t watch news. I have to do this part (Lopez 1).’” Many individuals thought this was a mockery of Chicano and/or Tejano culture because Ms. Lopez did not possess those cultural ties. But is that not what acting is all about? The opportunity to portray a character that is drastically different from oneself, whether it be through time, culture, race, nationality, etc?
The multicultural aspect of the casting of Selena makes too much sense to me because at the time there was a fountain of talent flooding out of the New York area. Many Latin/Latino/Nuyorican actors and actresses were at the open auditions for the role of Selena, and director Gregory Nava settled on a relatively unknown actress from the Bronx. Jennifer Lopez’s hybrid culture that is Nuyorican is in prime correlation to Selena and her Chicano background. Selena, according to the Mexican press, spoke terrible Spanish. One of the shots against Jennifer’s casting was the fact that she could barely speak Spanish! Their similarities go hand-in-hand, which makes for a more truthful characterization, rather than an ignorant impersonation. Falsity is obvious to the audience, and Nava did not want his portrayal of Selena to be in vain. He selected the best actress for the role, regardless of heritage.
Now that is not to say that Selena is an accurate representation of Chicano culture. The fact that Lopez is not Chicano does bring into question Ms. Lopez’s full understanding of Texas and the Southwest. Did she really delve into the history of Selena or was she just reciting lines? I think this plays into the mythical aspect of the film because Jennifer created something of her own here. Many people who had been raised with Selena knew how she moved, how she looked, how she carried herself onstage, so their prior schema regarding the singer was set before the movie premiered. But those who knew Selena through more indirect means, such as the radio, never had that personal projection of who she truly was. Jennifer Lopez became that projection by not only being accurate with her choreography, her costumes, and her lip-syncing, but by those scenes that she personalized Selena. For instance, the situation between Selena’s father and her future husband Chris Perez. I personally knew nothing about Selena’s marital affairs before the film. All I knew was that her music was constantly played on every station in Tucson. But what the film provided for me was that personal background that was lost in the idolatry of Selena. She was an angelic figure that the Southwest claimed as one of their own, but she was never a personal part of our home. Selena made no mistakes. However, Jennifer Lopez as Selena made many mistakes. She clung to love regardless of the consequences, and that vulnerability is what made her so loved. Following the film, Selena became more than just a voice on the radio.
Selena begins with the singer’s famous performance at the Astrodome. Clad in a purple, skintight suit designed by her mother and herself, Selena graced the stage with such beauty and presence that no one would ever forget that evening. But there were many that were not in attendance that night, and many more would not have even known about that particular concert if it was not for Nava’s insistence for its inclusion. The artistic decision to make the concert the establishing scene for the film makes for an interesting discussion. For one, Jennifer Lopez, as Selena, begins the concert by singing Donna Summer. Given a critical look, this scene is astounding: a Nuyorican actress, portraying a Tejano icon, singing a disco song recorded by an African American. Multicultural cannot even define what this is, but Nava knew exactly what he was doing. Selena loved Donna Summer and Summer’s influence on her ad –libs, her stage presence, and even some of her costumes was mightily apparent.
Let’s take a look at Nava’s montage during Selena’s “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom (Q” The jump cuts to the various concerts seamlessly draw attention to a variety of exposition. Tejano culture is blatantly showcased through the instruments being played and music resonating in the score. Selena’s outfits could also be attributed to her Chicano and Tejano background by just taking a denotative look at the costuming: the bustier she wears is a tribute to her American idols Janet Jackson and Madonna. The additional frills added to said bustier plays into the Tejano culture, since they are often seen on costumes for Tejano concerts and dance events. In a connotative sense, the colors shown in her various outfits (white, purple, orange, red) represent her vibrancy, purity, and diverse upbringing as a hybrid entertainer. She learned about stage presence from her favorite artists, her songs were written by her brother, and her voice was trained by her Mexican American father who was proficient in doo-wop.
Another fantastic sequence takes place close to the third act of the film, concluding with Selena winning a Latin Grammy award. Nava’s attention to detail is so precise during Selena’s clothing line montage; many of the young girls in my neighborhood donned the same dresses for each and every celebratory event. And that is not to say they purchased said dresses from Selena’s boutique. They knew her style and the patterns that she used, so that was articulated to the various seamstresses littered throughout Tucson. Selena’s name became synonymous with a very particular type of dress. Before the film, her clothing line was not that well known outside of Corpus Christi, where one of her initial boutiques was opened. But due to the artful showcase by Nava, her dresses became more than a costume for a film. They became a trend that resonated deeply in the Southwest.
Selena and Jennifer Lopez are both very attractive women in their own right. Young, talented, and physically well-endowed women are often overtly sexualized in order to market their product. Selena the artist could have easily wore provocative clothing and sang songs about all the things she could do with men and sold millions of records. This was not the direction her father/manager wanted her career to go, so she was protected by her collective team in order to keep her dignity as a legitimate artist intact. Nava, as a male director, with the lovely Jennifer Lopez in the lead role, could have easily shot this film from the obligatory male gaze of sexual glorification. But the art and beauty of Selena is that Nava did not need to stoop to those notions in order to honor the beauty of the singer. His medium shots were respectable, even when she was only wearing a “bra.” Even though Selena’s body has always been a lively topic of discussion, it is not really the focus of the film. Obviously that accounted for some of her popularity, but it never overshadowed her talent. She could sing, dance, and dress; her personality was beyond compare. Jennifer Lopez, as mentioned in the previous section, allowed the audience to see the personable side of the mythical Selena. JLo’s physicality was never an issue either. It simply amazes me that Nava was able to capture the superficial gorgeousness of Selena without being superficial.
What Selena Means To Me
Personal projections towards any manifestation allows for true remembrance. Selena is no different. She lives in my heart because of her cultural significance in my hometown. Alicia Gaspar de Alba mentions something similar in his essay “The Chicana/Latina Dyad, or Identity and Perception.”
The way some people ‘find religion’, I found Selena the day she died.
Not that I did not already know who she was; I owned two of her
CDs and knew all 10 words to the lyrics of ‘Bidi Bidi Bom Bom.’ It is
just that the day she died, the day she became ‘Saint Selena’ as Ilan
Stavans calls her, was the day I discovered the mythic significance of
this iconic figure in the popular Chicano/a imagination (de Alba 1).
This “mythic significance” de Alba is referring to was Selena’s music on our radios post-mortem; or Jennifer Lopez’s eerily similar portrayal in Nava’s masterpiece, or even Selena’s designs being resurrected by Latina dressmakers and worn by teenage Latinas all over the US. She has lived on because of the personal projections of her audience. Her fans connected with her on a personal level, and for many, it was because of Gregory Nava’s film Selena. Aside from box office performance, and instead focusing primary on the ancillary success of the DVD, there was nothing more that could have been done to make this project an even bigger success. I still own and cherish my Selena DVD and I am comfortable saying that I am sure everyone else I know still cherishes their copy as well. That is what makes this Tejana, Chicana, Mexican, American, Latina, movie such a timeless effort.
Gaspar de Alba, Alicia (2003) The Chicana/Latina Dyad, Or Identity And Perception. Latino Studies. 2003. 1. (106-114). Palgrave Macmillan Ltd.
Lopez, Jennifer. Interview by Henri Behar. “Jennifer Lopez on Selena.” Film Scouts. Film Scouts, 1997. Web. 1 Oct. 2012.
Selena. Dir Gregory Nava. Perf. Jennifer Lopez, Edward James Olmos, Constance Marie, Jon Seda, and Jacob Vargas. Q Productions, 1997. Film.