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Theatre Journal 54.1 (2002) 63-83

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Remembering Selena, Re-membering Latinidad

Deborah Paredez


During the 1990s, both mainstream and marginal communities in the United States took part in conspicuously celebrating the Latina celebrity. This (re)emergence of the highly visible, hyper-sexualized Latina performer coincided with numerous legislative and discursive attacks on Latina/os and with shifting and renewed assertions of Latina/o identity, or latinidad. 1 More precisely, the Latina body was often and [End Page 63] variously celebrated both as the means through which hegemonic forces sought to occlude and thereby to ignore the political economic plights of Latina/os and as the site upon which Latina/o communities attempted to stage their presence within the nation. One of the most visible Latinas during this time was Selena Quintanilla Perez, whose popularity and eventual posthumous iconization enabled the visibility of other Latinas throughout the decade and set into motion the most recent Latin Music Boom that exploded in the 1990s. 2

Selena initially achieved phenomenal success within and ultimately took part in transforming Tejano music, a popular Latina/o performance genre that emerged from the dynamic Texas-Mexico border region. Within the rhythms of Tejano music, one can trace the legacy of power occupations and negotiations that have marked South Texas; Mexican rancheras and cumbias collide with German polkas, Afro-Caribbean rhythms and mainstream US pop, hip hop, and country western influences often all within the same song. 3 Selena mastered traditional Tejano musical conventions with a repetoire that included Spanish-language Mariachi ballads, English-language pop love songs, and code-switching cumbias, even while she reinvented the male-dominated genre with performances that highlighted the racialized and sexualized Tejana body. And yet, despite her regional Tejana markings, which traditionally connote a decisively un-hip, non-urban, blue-collar sensibility within the larger Latina/o imaginary, 4 Selena gained overwhelming popularity among diverse and often divided Latina/o communities across the US during a historical moment characterized by emergent and often competing articulations of political and cultural identity among Latina/os. That is, Selena represented and ultimately redefined Texas-Mexico border culture, while simultaneously succeeding in crossing over aesthetic, cultural, and national borders. 5 [End Page 64]

Selena's popularity gained tremendous momentum after she was murdered at age 23 by the former president of her fan club in 1995. Following her death, a staggering number of memorial tributes, public performances of grief, and a proliferation of Selena impersonations were enacted in her honor. 6 Mainstream representational and corporate forces capitalized on Selena's posthumous iconization, invoking her as a means for increasing profits by tapping into the Latina/o market and for reinforcing the borders of America. 7 Thus, while for many Latina/o communities Selena's tragedy offered a site upon which to render visible their own tragic plights resulting from concurrent xenophobic legislation, numerous corporate forces acknowledged Selena's tragedy as a way to inform Latina/os that they could become American only by becoming consumers. Undeniably, the Selena tragedy has emerged as both a significant site of (counter)cultural affirmation and as a lucrative industry. This essay, informed by the productive convergence between theatre studies and Latina/o studies, investigates the role of the tragic narrative within the makings of latinidad by exploring the question: "What does it mean to mourn Selena?" This line of inquiry follows the lead of other Latina/o performance scholars who have focused critical attention on the ways in which Latina/o celebrity has functioned as a significant and dynamic cultural force throughout the nation's history. 8 As such, this essay takes part in the tradition of [End Page 65] enriching Latina/o Studies with a nuanced understanding of performance and of encouraging the continued re-mapping of the traditional borders circumscribing American theatre studies.

Selena Latina/os Forever: Tragedy and Latinidad

A year following our initial meeting at the San Antonio premiere of the musical Selena Forever, sixteen year-old Francisco Vara-Orta and I continue to discuss the political implications of remembering Selena. Vara-Orta asserts:

If I could...


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