20 Years Ago, Biopic Helped Give Pop Star Selena Life Beyond Her Tragic Death In the 1990s, Tejano music singer Selena Quintanilla Perez made a rare crossover to mainstream American audiences. The movie Selena debuted two years after her murder.

20 Years Ago, Biopic Helped Give Pop Star Selena Life Beyond Her Tragic Death

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"Selena" the movie debuted 20 years ago today.


JENNIFER LOPEZ: (As Selena) My dreams were the same as the dreams of all those people who were out there in the audience, like all their hopes were centered on me.

MCEVERS: That's Jennifer Lopez playing Selena Quintanilla Perez talking about what it was like to be onstage. Selena was the first Tejano performer to crossover to mainstream American audiences, and in the movie, we hear her singing voice, not J-Lo's.


SELENA QUINTANILLA PEREZ: (Singing) I could fall in love with you, baby.

MCEVERS: The movie came out just two years after Selena was killed by the president of her fan club. Here to talk about the film is Deborah Paredez. She's the author of "Selenidad: Selena, Latinos, And The Performance Of Memory" Welcome to the show.

DEBORAH PAREDEZ: Thank you. It's great to be here.

MCEVERS: So for people who either haven't seen the movie or maybe don't remember it because it has been 20 years, just remind us about this movie. I mean it's a biopic, right?

PAREDEZ: Absolutely. So as a biopic, it's absolutely invested in telling the story of the triumph of her life more than the tragedy of her death.


EDWARD JAMES OLMOS: (As Abraham) They can be mean, and they can tear us apart over there.

CONSTANCE MARIE: (As Marcella) Oh, why?

OLMOS: (As Abraham) Selena's Spanish is...

LOPEZ: (As Selena) What about my Spanish? I've been singing in Spanish for 10 years. It's perfect.

OLMOS: (As Abraham) Singing, yes. But when you speak it, you speak it a little funny.

JACOB VARGAS: (As A.B., Laughter).

OLMOS: (As Abraham) And down there, you've got to speak perfectly, or the press will eat you up and spit you out alive. I've seen them do it.

LOPEZ: (As Selena) Overreacting as usual.

PAREDEZ: We learn about how she ascended to fame as both a Tejano superstar but also as an international superstar. And only at the very end do we have the tragic end of her life. But even in that ending, we get a sense of what her promise was.

MCEVERS: And how popular was she when she was alive?

PAREDEZ: She was tremendously popular not just within Texas. She sang regional music. But because of her particular sound and her style and her particular talent and because of the kind of global reach of the recording industry, she became truly a kind of international sensation.


SELENA: (Singing in Spanish).

MCEVERS: When you first saw the movie - again, it was two years after she was killed - what did you think of the film? Did you feel like it accurately depicted her?

PAREDEZ: I think that the film absolutely depicted an important aspect of Selena. I think that as the official narrative, certainly there's a lot that gets left out.

MCEVERS: Like what?

PAREDEZ: You know, Warner Brothers held these very sort of highly publicized open auditions. And over 24,000 young girls and women from across the United States auditioned for "Selena."


PAREDEZ: Yeah, it's a huge amount. And girls and young women traveled from all over the country. Auditioning for Selena was for so many young Latinas a way of just asserting their own sense of their own specific Latina identity. And I really think it's so important - and it doesn't get often talked about - is how important she was to queer Latino communities.

You know, for some of the drag performers I talked to, she finally provided a model for them to be able - someone they could inhabit who they could also assert their own cultural identity. And I think often that particular part of the story gets left out of many of the kind of more mainstream stories that get told about her.

MCEVERS: What do you think now looking back has been kind of the long-term impact of this film?

PAREDEZ: I think that many people who were born, you know, either in the era when Selena died or after have come to know about her through the film, and so which means they've come to know about her through Jennifer Lopez performing her. And I think it shows what Selena did not just for those young women auditioning but for Jennifer Lopez, right? To become Selena means, like, you can also catapult your career. But it also means that there are so many people who've understood who Selena was through identifying with her as not just a Tejano but as a Latina - right? - because it's about a Puerto Rican then performing this...


PAREDEZ: ...Texas-Mexican woman. I think that it's helped kind of create a particular kind of understanding of Latina identity or Latina identification. I mean I do think that unfortunately times for Latinos aren't much better at this moment. And so, you know, to have this kind of aspirational tale, you know, as those of us who are trying to still aspire to be acknowledged as citizens I think is really an important reason why that film continues to hold sway.

MCEVERS: Deborah Paredez, thank you very much.


MCEVERS: Deborah Paredez's book is called "Selenidad: Selena, Latinos, And The Performance Of Memory." The movie "Selena" premiered 20 years ago today.


SELENA: (Singing) Bidi bidi bom bom, bidi bidi bom bom, bidi, bidi, bidi, bidi, bidi, bom, bidi, bidi, bidi, bidi, hey, yeah. (Singing in Spanish).

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