Selena Quintanilla: Queen of the People
Selena Quintanilla’s trajectory throughout the early 1990’s was surprising for a number of reasons — she was a brown-skinned, working class singer in the male-dominated Tejano genre. Tejano translates to “Texans” and is a term that describes both the musical genre and the community that created it. More specifically, Tejano describes Texans of Mexican heritage.
Selena Quintanilla was third-generation American. There is a sense of familiarity around her story — many of her fans connected with her struggle of not being “Mexican-enough” for Mexicans or “American-enough” for Americans. In fact, English was her native language and she didn’t learn Spanish until she was older. This is part of the cultural balancing act that resonates with many people of colour, especially with the anti-immigrant sentiment that existed during her rise. Not only did she dominate the regional Tejano music scene, she navigated her way through the multinational Latin music market. By the time of her murder in 1995, she had already won a Grammy, launched a clothing line, and was working on an album that would take her to a new musical space: English-language pop music.
Fans often refer to the star as “La Reina del Puebla” which translates to “The Queen Of The People”. She was known to be very family-oriented — she continued to live in her hometown of Corpus Christi well after her music career took form. She remained close with her family, with her parents and brother living in the same neighbourhood. When news of her murder broke, many English-speaking media outlets were faced with public displays of mourning for a celebrity that was unknown to them. In an attempt to piece together the mystery of Selena Quintanilla, they focused on things like her stage outfits and their similarities to Madonna’s — labelling her as an overnight sensation. They continued by dubbing her the “Tex-Mex Madonna”, when in fact Selena’s style was much more reflective of her own identity rather than a carbon and racialized copy of Madonna’s.
Her Legacy is More than her Posthumous Success
The idea that she was an overnight success erases the fact that Selena spent years perfecting her craft. English-speaking America may have discovered her in 1995, but Selena was much more of a veteran in the music scene than we were originally led to believe. She had been performing from an early age and spent years developing her sound. To limit Selena’s impact on the music industry to the posthumous success of her first English records doesn’t tell her entire story.
The concept “Tex-Mex Madonna” also contributes to the problematic “Hot Tamale” narrative that many Latinas face — hyper-sexualization and exoticization. This is especially upsetting because Selena was actually known for reinventing the sexualized Tejana body. To label her as “Spicy” and “Hot Tamale” discredits the ways that she created a more positive representation for Latinas and fails to capture her true essence — this is one of the reasons that she ignited such pride and hope among Latinx communities. She was wholesome, down-to-earth, and caring — not exactly a larger than life popstar like Madonna as some outlets led the public to believe. Her image was her own in a way that’s often seems lost in the grand scheme of the music industry.
The Gendered Reality of Tejano Music
Selena’s outfits and her dancing made her performances revolutionary. The norm for female Spanish singers was to stand still and dress in full-length outfits. Selena, however, was known for designing her own clothing, regularly showing her mid-drift and highlighting her curves. Her stage presence was also unique, matching her charisma. Selena Quintanilla carved out another way to exist as an artist. She represented the duality of being a down-to-earth personality while sporting revealing clothing. When Selena combined this aesthetic with the visual style and musical influences of Disco, she began to make waves in the LGBTQ+ community. Negotiating her sexuality and sexual agency resonated deeply with the queer community, causing her to become a prominent figure.
The fact that Selena was a female Tejano musician is an incredibly important distinction. At the time, most Tejano musicians were overwhelmingly males and Selena forged a precedent for the female Tejano musicians that followed. Further, Selena’s male counterparts failed to bring Tejano music to the international stage with the same strength and impact. In fact, Tejano music was ignored by many Latinx communities prior to her success.
Tejano music has always been a fusion of regional sounds — it is a reflection of the people that exist at la Frontera, the 2,000 mile Mexico-U.S. border. In its early days, Tejano could be described as a mix of Czech and German accordions, Mexican conjunto, and American big band. Eventually, modern artists like Selena created music that also incorporated genres like Pop, Rock, and other popular styles. By doing so, her raw, unfiltered voice and musical experimentation captured the attention of her older generations as well as her own.
Selena has Made Musical Contributions, Not Just Cultural Ones
Many people credit Selena’s mainstream success to the simultaneous murder — while her untimely death changed the conversation, it’s important to remember that she made musical contributions, not just cultural ones. Selena built cross-generational connections through her unique sound. After all, Selena’s music has influenced Beyoncé, Solange, Wyclef Jean and many more of today’s hitmakers. Her accomplishments are impressive on their own, but the fact that she navigated the male-dominated space to get there is also important to highlight and share for years to follow.