“Being Mexican American is tough. … We’ve gotta be twice as perfect as anybody else,” Abraham Quintanilla Jr. (Edward James Olmos) grumbles to his daughter Selena (Jennifer Lopez) halfway through “Selena,” the 1997 biopic of the iconic Tejano singer.
“I mean, we gotta know about John Wayne and Pedro Infante. We gotta know about Frank Sinatra and Agustín Lara. We gotta know about Oprah and Cristina. … Japanese-Americans, Italian-Americans, German-Americans. Their homeland is on the other side of the ocean. Ours is right here … We gotta be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans, both at the same time. It’s exhausting!”
Abraham is talking specifically about the risks he sees in an offer Selena has received to perform a major concert in Mexico. Will her spoken Spanish go over well with the tough Mexican press corps and concert promoters? Can she manage the huge crowds? Ultimately, the concert is a triumph and a sign that Selena is poised for genuine superstardom; she even manages to quiet a burgeoning riot with a commanding performance.
Taking the longer view, though, especially since this month marked the 20th anniversary of the debut of “Selena” in theaters, Abraham’s diagnosis feels like a portent. Selena herself may have been poised to become a huge crossover artist at the time of her 1995 murder, and “Selena” helped make Lopez a huge star. But especially when it comes to film and television, the entertainment industry still doesn’t seem to know what to do not merely with Mexican-Americans but with Hispanics and Latinos, and Hispanic and Latino culture, more generally.
“Selena” gave Lopez a highly unusual role: She got to play a woman whose girlish softness and attention to domestic life were in no way in conflict with her will and ambition. And Lopez gave “Selena” precisely what it needed: a hugely compelling musical and acting performance that meant director and writer Gregory Nava never had to stop and explain why Selena Quintanilla was such a remarkable artist and important cultural figure.
Every time Lopez is on screen, whether she’s wearing the heck out of a Holstein-print bolero jacket or blowing off a racist saleswoman at an upscale Los Angeles dress shop, Quintanilla’s appeal and fame are obvious, incandescent. And the chemistry between Lopez and Jon Seda, who plays Chris Pérez, the lead guitarist in Quintanilla’s band and eventually her husband, is terrific.
The movie is a deft cultural study, too, putting Quintanilla in cultural context. “Selena” takes us through Abraham Quintanilla’s early experiences being rejected as a performer by white club owners and harassed by Mexican-American crowds who didn’t want to dance to music by a white pop trio. It’s clear about the point at which natural talent leaves off and perceptive engineering and style choices take over in the rise to superstardom.
“Selena” isn’t a perfect movie. Nava sometimes uses cheesy effects during concert scenes. And from a dramatic perspective, it’s a mistake that Yolanda Saldívar (Lupe Ontiveros), the president of Selena’s fan club and, eventually her murderer, arrives in the movie only when it’s three-quarters over, and the relationship between the two women doesn’t have room to gel on screen.
Still, looking back on “Selena” 20 years later, I’m still struck by how unique it feels: Other than “La Bamba,” which was released in 1987, I can’t think of another major Hollywood movie that treats a Hispanic or Latino pop-culture figure as worthy of feature-length examination, and “La Bamba” didn’t come out until 28 years after Ritchie Valens died in the plane crash that came to be known as “The Day the Music Died.”
Frankly, great starring roles for Hispanic and Latino actors are rare no matter the subject material. In an examination of 800 movies released between 2007 and 2015, researchers at the Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative found that the percentage of speaking characters who were Latino was between 2.8 percent and 5.3 percent, even though as of 2015, 17.6 percent of the U.S. population was of Hispanic or Latino origin.
Selena herself and “Selena” helped to demonstrate that Latinas could be crossover stars, and that they could draw audiences and acclaim while performing in Spanish and performing songs or telling stories specifically about their cultural heritage. Hollywood listened only intermittently, and we’re poorer for it.