Saturday, March 07, 2009


Selena posterThe biopic Selena (1997) begins with an excited Selena Quintanilla-Pérez (played by Jennifer Lopez) surrounded by supportive family and friends and getting prepared to sing in the Houston Astrodome, February 26, 1995, to what reporters say is the arena’s largest crowd ever. But how did she get here? What’s the story behind Selena’s rise to fame? And so the movie gives a flashback to Corpus Christi, Texas, 1961, with Selena’s father, Abraham (Edward James Olmos), singing 50s love songs in a Mexican barbershop trio.

This talented trio is called The Dinos, and they are continually turned down by owners of white clubs because they are Mexican, and also refused by Mexican clubs because the group only knows "gringo music." Caught between two competing worlds, Abraham is haunted by memories of rejection until 1981, in Lake Jackson, Texas, when his nine-year-old daughter Selena takes an interest in her father’s hobby of singing his old tunes. Her interest sparks an idea in Abraham to start a family band, although "family" means only his son and two daughters, not himself. He forces the children to practice the music and even opens up a Mexican restaurant (for all those gringos that like Mexican food) so that he can showcase "Selena y Los Dinos" playing songs like “Blue Moon” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” His wife fears that he is becoming obsessed with music again and living vicariously through his children, but Abraham insists that Selena has the talent to make it big and he continues to get publicity for the children, even after the restaurant goes broke due to "Reaganomics" and they have to leave their home. The children become depressed when they realize that their music isn’t as big a hit in the county fairs as it was in the restaurant because the Tejano audience enjoys only male performers. Then one day, in hopes of cheering up Selena, her mother teaches her the Cumbia dance moves of "the washing machine," which Selena uses to liven up the act. From here a star is born.

The film jumps to 1989 in El Paso, Texas, with the family band playing to huge crowds at the county fair and Selena slowly becoming a sensation. Her fame is shown in many amusing situations, such as when the tour bus becomes stuck off the side of the road and two very tough-looking Mexicans with tattoos and goatees almost trip over each other at the chance of helping "Selenas." Her father continues to push for the big time, and although Selena is just as driven as he is, she still finds herself yearning for a normal life, one which offers someone whom she can love. Enter Chris Pérez (Jon Seda), a wild, rebel guitarist with long hair and ripped jeans, brought into the band despite Abraham’s complaints. After the family cleans up Chris's image, sparks begin to fly between him and Selena. On their tour of California, Chris lets his punk friends trash his hotel room and as a result is almost fired by the enraged Abraham. Chris declares to Selena that acts like a punk because she’s too good for him, and she responds that he is simply trying to keep up an image that isn’t him. After this encounter, their love blooms though Abraham becomes suspicious of their romance. The band members also become apprehensive of what this will do to the performances, but everything appears to be going well with their new number one song and a promising tour in Mexico.

Abraham is hesitant to let his daughter perform in Mexico because although her songs are all in Spanish, it is not her native language. Still scarred from his own experiences as a singer, he exclaims that the Mexicans don’t accept Mexican-Americans; in fact, stuck in cultural limbo they constantly have to be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans! But Selena is persistent and shows her star quality when she charms the Mexican press which leads to an incredibly successful Mexican tour. Yet, despite all this good exposure, Abraham still can not tolerate Selena dating Chris and so he fires him, causing the two to take their relationship into hiding. Finally Selena is fed up with the situation and she and Chris marry without her father’s consent. Abraham is at first enraged, but then, when Selena returns home with her new husband, her father realizes that he had pushed her to do it and he is proud that she made the decision on her own. Selena’s family then welcomes Chris with open arms.

After this, success can not seem to stay away from the 20-year-old Selena. She opens clothing boutiques with her own designs, wins a Grammy, and starts to record an English cross-over album. She and Chris even talk about having kids. But Abraham comes to Selena with suspicions that her business and fan club manager, Yolanda Saldavar, has been swindling money and writing odd cheques. Selena is incredulous until they confront Yolanda and her pleas of innocence seem doubtful; yet they still allow Yolanda to work for them as long as she accounts for all the finances. This brings the film back to its beginning with the 1995 performance at the Houston Astrodome, Selena’s shining moment as a cross-over artist. Suddenly, we are confronted with images from a newscast and the reporter stating that the beloved singer Selena has been shot by her employee Yolanda Saldavar after they had met to go over some finances. The finale of the biopic of this admired human being flashes scenes of her family receiving the news of her death in the hospital, a solitary microphone in an empty arena, and thousands of fans, with pictures of the real Selena, holding a candlelight vigil for the untimely death of a star in her prime.

Selena contains compelling plot similarities to La Bamba, another biopic of a Mexican-American star cut down in his prime. Yet these two singers accepted their cultural backgrounds in a different ways, with Ritchie trying to be more white while Selena embraced her Mexican roots (although they were foreign to her) and attempted to cross over to English recordings from there. Her father, who was plagued with ambivalence about his own dual identity, made sure that Selena was able to sing in Spanish from a young age, even teaching her to trill a Spanish ‘r’ at age eight. He insists that as Mexican-Americans they need to speak English perfectly for the whites and they need to speak Spanish perfectly for the Mexicans, and therefore they “gotta be twice as perfect as everybody else!” The film displays the sentiment that in the 1950s, crossing over was simply not possible for either Abraham or Ritchie Valens, but that by the 1990s Selena could prove that such opinions had been changed. Not only did she achieve a cultural cross-over, but she became the top Mexican-American performer of her time, male or female, and ultimately was accepted on both sides of the border for who she was.

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