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As Selena’s 50th birthday approaches, her legacy continues to transcend generations

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With the late Tejano music superstar’s 50th birthday approaching, San Diegans celebrate the life and impact of the Mexican American cultural icon.

From college lectures to drag shows, San Diegans celebrate the life and impact of the Mexican American cultural icon

The few words Nathian Rodriguez could say in Spanish as a kid were those he learned from listening to Selena Quintanilla on the radio.

Rodriguez remembers feeling a special connection to the Tejano artist — a cultural icon and beloved role model for the Latino community.

“Selena to me was that cultural anchor,” Rodriguez said. “She showed me that there’s not one correct way to be Mexican American. ... She was really that cultural template that I could craft my identity around because I was missing that in the media.”

More than 25 years since her death, Selena continues to be larger than life.

The Grammy Award-winning singer broke barriers in what was a male-dominated genre, and she appealed to both Mexican and American audiences. She had an infectious laugh and, despite her fame, fans described the late singer as a humble person they could relate to.

Now, as her 50th birthday approaches on April 16, fans in San Diego are looking to honor the “Queen of Tejano music” in their own ways.

‘Ni de aquí, ni de allá'

Rodriguez grew up in a Spanish-speaking household in Texas but was encouraged to speak only English so he would do well in school. He often felt he wasn’t Mexican enough for other members of his family, and because he was Mexican American, he didn’t feel American enough for his friends at school.

Rodriguez was about 8 years old when he heard Selena on the radio. And while he was a fan of her music, it was what she represented that truly resonated with him.

“She’s somebody who represents being Mexican American ... she’s ‘ni de aqui ni de alla’ (not from here nor from there),” Rodriguez said.

Selena was born in Texas but her family roots were in Mexico. She learned Spanish by singing in Spanish because her father insisted it would help her career, but similar to many teens at the time, she loved to listen to Jody Watley, Paula Abdul and Madonna.

Selena could sing in Spanish, spoke perfect English, sometimes mixed both languages and often mispronounced Spanish words in TV interviews. That resonated with many Mexican Americans.

The class hopes to explore the singer’s identity and Latino representation in media

Rodriguez is now a journalism professor at San Diego State University. He launched a course on Selena in 2020 (though the class was not offered last semester because of COVID-19) that will be part of the school’s permanent curriculum starting spring 2022.

The class explores Latino representation in media, using Selena as a point of reference because of her dual popularity with English- and Spanish-speaking fans.

“Selena has become this icon for the Latinx/o community because she is someone who was able to transcend genres, transcend generations,” Rodriguez said. “She was able to exude this type of music that people still listen to today.”

Christian Serratos (in white) stars as singer Selena Quintanilla in "Selena: The Series," which debuted Dec. 4 on Netflix.
(Netflix)

A star beloved by different generations

When Selena rose to stardom in the ‘90s, Tejano music had been mostly sung by male artists. But Selena bridged that gap through her albums, including “Selena Live!,” which sold more than 500,000 copies and earned a Grammy for Best Mexican American Album.

Selena was also a fashion and beauty icon thanks to her signature looks that included bedazzled bralettes, high-waisted bell-bottoms, cowboy boots and bright red lipstick.

Her unique style launched her into also becoming a successful business woman who designed and manufactured a clothing brand. She opened two boutiques, Selena Etc., in San Antonio and Corpus Christi, Texas.

Sisters Danielle Cisneros and Lizzie Rodriguez, who are from Texas, saw themselves reflected in Selena during the 1990s because there were few singers they could relate to.

“The fact that she was a woman and that she was brown like me, and she was beautiful and she had so much style, so for me that really made an impact,” Cisneros said.

Like Selena, the sisters own a Latin-inspired clothing brand, Chicanista Boutique. They are honoring Selena’s upcoming 50th birthday with a celebration on Saturday, April 17.

The event is scheduled from 1 to 3 p.m. at Back From Tomboctou Gallery in Normal Heights, and the organizers encourage people to dress in Selena-inspired costumes or outfits.

One of the guests will be Nathian Rodriguez, who will speak about the singer at the celebration.

The sisters wanted to celebrate Selena — especially on this milestone birthday — because, as Cisneros said, Selena was unapologetically herself and that makes her relatable to people.

“She loved pizza, I love pizza,” said Lizzie Rodriguez, laughing, as Cisneros added, “She liked sparkles, I love sparkles.

“Even though she was super successful, there was just a constant humanity that ran through everything that she did that I think really makes people feel connected to her,” Lizzie Rodriguez said.

The sisters, who along with selling clothing and jewelry also organize craft workshops, had to put their business on hold during the pandemic. But as they prepare to relaunch their business, Lizzie Rodriguez said Selena’s tenacity to push forward as a businesswoman inspires her.

“I think we take solace and inspiration from her to keep on pushing, to keep on moving forward, and as we do, to be role models and mentors for other girls,” Lizzie Rodriguez said.

Cisneros and Lizzie Rodriguez grew up watching Selena’s rise to stardom, but there are also fans who only heard about her from their parents, or from watching the 1997 film, “Selena,” starring Jennifer Lopez.

Actress Jennifer Lopez, who plays Selena in the movie "Selena," performs in one of the scenes from the movie.
Actress Jennifer Lopez, who plays Selena in the movie “Selena,” performs in one of the scenes from the movie.
(SCOTT DEL AMO/AFP/Getty Images)

This was the case with Lady Blanca, a drag queen in San Diego.

Lady Blanca was born years after Selena died but grew up dancing to Selena’s “Baila Esta Cumbia” with tías at family parties.

“She’s been my muse since I was a kid,” Lady Blanca said. “She has always been someone that I’ve always looked up to.”

Lady Blanca, a psychology student at SDSU, created an act inspired by Selena after dressing up like the artist on Halloween two years ago. Lady Blanca has since performed as Selena during a drag show at the university, and at a family party.

Now, Lady Blanca is working on a Selena-inspired virtual drag show for later this year.

Selena impersonator Lady Blanca, who is working on a Selena-inspired virtual drag show for later this year.
“Her charisma, authenticity, generosity, especially her big, bright smile with the big red lips, I think people are drawn to that,” says Selena impersonator Lady Blanca, who is working on a Selena-inspired virtual drag show for later this year.
(Alejandro Tamayo/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Lady Blanca’s favorite song to perform is “Si Una Vez,” a song Selena sang at the Houston Astrodome in front of more than 60,000 people. She wore an iconic purple wide-leg glitter pantsuit — the outfit that inspired what Lady Blanca wears on stage.

“Her charisma, authenticity, generosity, especially her big, bright smile with the big red lips, I think people are drawn to that,” Lady Blanca said.

There are other Selena tributes planned, including one at Lips San Diego — a restaurant and drag show venue — which will feature a Selena impersonator on April 22.

Selena’s legacy continues to inspire

Though she was so beloved, Selena’s success was short-lived.

On March 31, 1995, she was murdered by former fan club president Yolanda Saldívar in Selena’s hometown of Corpus Christi. She was 23.

The singer has since inspired movies, documentaries, clothing and makeup lines, impersonators, drag shows, tribute bands and artwork. There was a short-lived musical called “Selena Forever” that toured through Texas. You can even find Selena-inspired air fresheners and pastries.

Even now, as more women have become Tejano stars, Selena is still being honored.

In December 2020, Netflix released “Selena: The Series,” with Christian Serratos playing Selena. And during the 2021 Grammy Awards in March, Selena was one of several artists celebrated with a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award.

Artist Soni López-Chávez, whose first memory of Selena was the day she died, continues drawing inspiration from the artist’s iconic looks. She is painting a 20-foot mural of Selena in Barrio Logan — it will be San Diego’s first Selena mural.

“She taught me to embrace my culture,” López-Chávez said.

López-Chávez often uses Selena’s images in her art because of her influence on the Latino community.

“To me, she seemed so humble and so kind and she cared about her fans and the people that listened to her music,” she said.

López-Chávez was 13 years old when the singer died. She remembers the day vividly because it was the first time she saw her parents cry.

“My mom ... she yelled ... I ran over and I saw both my mom and my dad on the couch staring at the news,” she said. “I could see on their faces that they were shocked, they were sad, they were hurt and in pain.”

López-Chávez recently visited Los Angeles, where there are dozens of Selena murals. She said she feels it’s her responsibility as an artist to pay tribute to Selena and hopes to finish her own mural in May.

“My inspiration to do this is to have an image of her where people can come and visit,” López-Chávez said. “I’m impacted by her story and music. I traveled to go see other murals. I would love to see something here.”

A few favorite Selena songs

“El Chico del Apartamento 512" is from Selena’s fourth album “Amor Prohibido,” released in 1994. It’s an upbeat song about young love and describes having a crush on a guy who lives in the same apartment building.

“Dreaming of You” was posthumously released in 1995. The ballad became one of Selena’s most popular songs. It’s a heartbreaking reminder that she is gone.

“Amor Prohibido” describes a love between two people who are tested by differences in socioeconomic status and their parents’ disapproval. It was released in 1994.

“Qué Creías” was released in 1992. Selena often brought a male guest onstage when performing the song to play out the lyrics that describe a woman who rejects a man who broke her heart.

“Bidi Bidi Bom Bom” is arguably one of Selena’s most recognizable songs. It’s an instant pick-me-up song that describes having a crush on someone.

Singer Selena at the 36th Annual Grammy Awards on March 1, 1994, in New York, New York at Radio City Music Hall.
Singer Selena at the 36th Annual Grammy Awards on March 1, 1994, in New York, New York at Radio City Music Hall.
(L. Busacca/Getty Images)


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