20 Years Later, Selena Rare Example of Hollywood Getting Latinos Right
By Gabriela Resto-Montero
The casting call was announced on Noticiero Univision: Producers for a new film about the life and death of superstar Selena Quintanilla-Pérez would hold open auditions across the country in a search of girls and women to play the singer across different ages. I was 9 years old and knew all the words to “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom,” “Amor Prohibido,” and parts of “Como La Flor.” I felt in my soul that I would make the perfect young Selena. Thousands of women reportedly turned up at the auditions held in Texas, New York, and California dressed as her, dancing and singing in what looked more like a tribute than a casting. Alas, the open call never got to my hometown of Denver and I didn’t get my chance to dazzle directors with my ace hairbrush lip-syncing.
For a Latina girl growing up in the U.S. like me, Selena was it. She spoke Spanish and could sing Tejano music and traditional boleros, but she also had an R&B sound and cool outfits that looked like MTV. She was a new phenomenon in our pop cultural terrain — both Mexican and American, with one foot in each culture trying to steady her balance, not unlike my own Puerto Rican family. Her murder at the hands of the president of her fan club felt impossible. She was only 23.
When Warner Bros. decided to turn her story into a movie (released 20 years ago today) it was a rare instance where Latino and mainstream American cultures coincided. Before Selena, I’d never seen a film where a Latina actress played a multifaceted lead rather than a caricature of a sexpot or a maid. With the success of the film, one of the top-grossing biopics of all time, there was a sense that maybe from now on Latinos on film would be portrayed differently, that perhaps we’d finally arrived. But hopes that Selena, which featured an all-Latino cast, would usher in a new era of inclusion in Hollywood never materialized. The movie remains relevant two decades later not only because it was a first of its kind, but because it remains one of a few of its kind.
In Hollywood, nuanced depictions of Latinos remain the exception, not the norm. A 2016 study from the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism found that, although Latinos are the most likely to go to the movies and make up 17.4 percent of the American population only 5.8 percent of all speaking roles in television and film go to Hispanics or Latinos; of those roles, fewer than 38 percent go to women. What’s more: “When Latinos are represented, they just play stereotypes,” Felix Sánchez, who co-founded the National Hispanics Foundation for the Arts told NBC Latino in 2016. “If the casting continues to portray a very singular look for Latinos, then that means women continue to be overly sexualized and [men] equally have to be the dominant, macho role.”
If the state of Latino representation is dire now, in 1997, when Selena was released, the authentic portrayal of a contemporary Latino-American family was nothing short of a revelation. We saw the actor Jacob Vargas, now known as Domingo Colon on Luke Cage, escape the thug type to play A. B. Quintanilla, Selena’s producer brother and bandmate who bonds with her about Janet Jackson and their dad’s corny taste in music. We saw Edward James Olmos take on the role of their dad, who early in the movie explains the central conflict facing Mexicans and other Latinos living in the United States: “[W]e gotta prove to the Mexicans how Mexican we are and we gotta prove to the Americans how American we are,” he says. “We gotta be more Mexicans than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans both at the same time!” It was and still is rare for a film to affirm such a specific experience with humor and compassion.
In many ways, Selena is a universal coming-of-age story about an artist struggling to meet her family’s expectations while forging her own path. But Selena deviates from the genre in that it shows that coming of age from a non-white woman’s perspective. Selena is fighting to reconcile her traditional Tejano roots with her hopes of pop stardom in the U.S., and the film doesn’t shy away from showing the racial and class politics at play in that transition. In a supremely satisfying scene, Selena and her friend head to the mall to shop for Grammy dresses and a white saleswoman patronizingly discourages them from even considering a dress, claiming it’s not really their style and, anyway, it costs $800. After Selena and her friend insist, a stock boy recognizes Selena in the dressing room and soon the store is mobbed. As she signs autographs, a calm Selena informs the attendant she won’t be needing the dress after all.
It’s impossible to imagine the political power of that scene working without a Latina actress like Jennifer Lopez playing Selena. Yet writer-director Gregory Nava had to fight to even cast her as the lead, saying Warner Bros. had other “types” in mind but he insisted on an all-Latino cast. (He did face criticism for having Lopez, a Puerto Rican woman, play Selena.) At the time Selena went into production, the couple of prominent films being made that were nominally about Latinos had featured white casts playing those Latino characters. The House of the Spirits, based on Isabel Allende’s novel set during the military dictatorship of Chile, starred Jeremy Irons, Glenn Close, and Meryl Streep as members of the aristocratic Trueba family. The Perez Family, about Cuban refugees in Florida, featured Marisa Tomei, Anjelica Huston, and Alfred Molina as the leads. The message from Hollywood was that even stories rooted in the Latino community didn’t have to feature Latino actors. Given that cultural context, Selena felt like a film not just about us but for us.
Growing up, Selena was someone to imitate (sometimes badly but always with heart). The fact that a movie would be produced about her life, about one of ours, was a recognition from the broader culture that the pain over Selena’s murder was universal. And calling for her fans to audition for Selena was a stroke of genius from the film’s producers. It extended our sense of identification with Selena, our pop avatar, to the film that would establish her legacy. Because while her story was universal, it was also very specific. For those of us who grew up trying to navigate what being a Latina in this country is about, her story was also a celebration and recognition of a particular life experience — and a sign of what might be possible. For once, the hero and the genius of the movie was not a punchline or a trope. She was unapologetically Latina.