I remember when Selena died. I had just come home from school and every news station was covering the tragedy that was still unfolding in Corpus Christi, Texas. Twenty-three-year-old Selena was confirmed dead and her murderer was threatening suicide and refusing to surrender. Like Latinos across the country, I sat frozen in disbelief. How could this be happening? She was too young and talented to die, too loved to be murdered. The dramatic ten-hour standoff between the murderer and police made Selena’s death even more surreal. Conversations fluctuated between “I can’t believe Selena is dead” to “Did la loca surrender yet?”
It’s been 20 years since that day, and Selena’s musical and cultural legacy remains as strong as ever. What makes Selena such an immortal cultural icon?
Selena was a rebel in the music industry. She conquered audiences on both sides of the border, trampling through cultural frictions between Mexicans and Mexican-Americans and selling out arenas across both nations. She learned to speak Spanish well enough to sing as fluidly as in her native English. She became the first woman to break through the machista Tejano music industry, proving naysayers wrong by going on to become the first Tejano artist ever to win a Grammy. She was the first female Mexican-American crossover artist, representing to Mexicans what Rita Moreno did to Puerto Ricans and Gloria Estefan to Cubans. But Selena was so much more than that.
Selena embodied the cultural fluidity of U.S.-born Latinos. She fiercely loved her cultures and family but didn’t hesitate to rebel against any confining traditions and expectations. She believed her audience would love cumbia infused with American disco, R&B, and rock. She believed Mexicans would embrace her as much as “gringos.” She believed she could marry the man she loved despite her family’s objections. She believed there was nothing wrong with embracing her Latina curves and sensuality. And Selena was right.
Selena was a Latina rebel, annihilating cultural, gender, and language barriers with grace and an impeccable smile. Twenty years ago, she gave young U.S. Latinas like me the hope that we could be who we are–young women who dreamt in English, loved in Spanish, embraced both sides of the border, and defied traditions that hampered our dreams–all while displaying our natural curves with pride. She was the proof that we could be who we are and our families and the world would still love us for it.
Selena’s legacy lives on because, as her character reveals in her biopic: “I just had this feeling like my dreams were the same as the dreams of all those people in the audience… like all their hopes were centered on me.” They were and they continue to be for new generations of Latinas she continues to inspire.