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

Jennifer Lopez plays singer Selena Quintanilla Perez in the 1997 film <em>Selena</em>.
Rico Torres
AFP/Getty Images
Jennifer Lopez plays singer Selena Quintanilla Perez in the 1997 film Selena.

The biopic Selena tells the story of Mexican-American pop star SelenaQuintanilla Perez, a Tejano music singer who made a rare crossover to mainstream American audiences. The movie debuted 20 years ago Tuesday, two years after the singer was killed by the former president of her fan club.

Deborah Paredez, author of Selenidad: Selena, Latinos, and the Performance of Memory, says the film is more concerned with the triumph of Selena's life than the tragedy of her death. "We learn about how she ascended to fame as both a Tejana superstar, but also as an international superstar," she says. "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."

Selena started her career singing Tejano music, which is popular in Texas and among Mexican-Americans. But her music also drew from a range of Latin genres as well as American pop music. "Because of her particular sound and her style and her particular talent," Paredez says, "and because of the kind of global reach of the recording industry, she became truly a kind of international sensation."

Even after her death, the singer was so popular that when Warner Bros. held highly publicized open auditions for the film, more than 20,000 young girls and women showed up to be considered. According to Paredez, who interview some of them for her book, they traveled from all over the country. "So many of them talked about going to audition not so much because they were aspiring to be stars necessarily, or even be connected to Hollywood, but auditioning for Selena was, for so many young Latinas, a way of just asserting their own sense of their own specific Latina identity."

That may also be why the film has endured. "Times for Latinos aren't much better at this moment," Paredez says. There aren't a lot of other inspirational films for Latinos to turn to, and Selena, after all, represents two success stories: that of its subject and that of its Puerto Rican star, Jennifer Lopez, whose career the film helped catapult.

Paredez also points to another Selena legacy that doesn't often get talked about — one with queer Latino communities. "She provided a kind of a drag icon, for some," she says. "... Also, talking with queer communities who were deeply affected by the AIDS crisis, as Latino communities were, Selena's death and her legacy really was something that resonated for them as someone who died too young and yet who also had a life beyond death. ... And I think often that particular part of the story gets left out."

Editor Melissa Gray, producer Jordan-Marie Smith and intern Esteban Bustillos contributed to this story.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nicole Cohen is an education editor at NPR. Prior to joining the Education Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Arts Desk, where she produced and edited arts features and interviews for NPR.org. She was part of the team that created NPR's annual Book Concierge, a collection of the year's best books as chosen by NPR staff and critics. Her other arts features include This Is Color and the podcast recommendation site Earbud.fm. She also coordinated the Web presence for Fresh Air.
Kelly McEvers is a two-time Peabody Award-winning journalist and former host of NPR's flagship newsmagazine, All Things Considered. She spent much of her career as an international correspondent, reporting from Asia, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East. She is the creator and host of the acclaimed Embedded podcast, a documentary show that goes to hard places to make sense of the news. She began her career as a newspaper reporter in Chicago.