In Entertainment/ Life

Fotos y Recuerdos: The Story of My First Diva

Diva Wednesday - the story of my first diva, Selena.

No quiero saber de más problemas ya

There I was, a first grader in Eagle Pass, Texas. Riding in my dad’s pick up truck, living dangerously without the safety of a seatbelt, listening to his soundtrack of Tejano hits. Grupo Mazz. La Mafia. And my favorite, the reigning queen of cumbia, Selena y los Dinos. At this age, I obviously had no concept of the latest trends but Ven Conmigo was my everything. My number one track was No Quiero Saber with its dance-pop vibes, a departure from the polkas and cumbias on the rest of the album. “No quiero saber de mas problemas ya.” “Play the song where she says ‘ja’!” I would demand, impersonating the hard j sound she sang on the track. It amused me since I pronounced the word with a y, as it’s spelled.

Not growing up fully bilingual, I was often out of place in my hometown where Spanish was the dominant language. And in my own home, we listened to Spanish language music and watched Spanish language TV. My Spanish was terrible and my vocabulary was so minimal, it often felt like these pop cultural treasures were not my own. Because I couldn’t understand, I often wanted to listen to anything other than Tejano or cumbia. Selena y los Dinos was the sole exception.

This is how my identity split in two and never the two should meet. A concept every queer person comes to know too well. My Mexican-self watched telenovelas, listened to cumbia, and ate tacos. My American-self dominated my conversation and my thinking. And here was Selena, casually dropping contemporary English language pop tracks on traditional Spanish language LPs. A female icon in a male-dominated genre. Singing in Spanish when she mostly spoke English. A fellow Texan piecing together her Mexican and American identities. And that’s how the universe introduced me to my very first diva.

Selena y los Dinos hat

¿Tú que creías, tú que creías?

Que te ibas a encontrar

Un amor mejor que el mío

When I heard that my parents were going to the Selena dance, I was ecstatic. For the uninitiated, the Tejano scene doesn’t do concerts. They do dances. You don’t go to a theater to sit and watch a show. You go to a dance hall or nightclub to baila sin parar while the band performs. Cumbias are danced in a circle, almost in a follow the leader formation. It’s a beautiful experience that seems to be missing from most music scenes, especially in the world of celebrity DJs where too often the crowd idly watches a barely-there performance rather than experiencing the music.

You can guess that a smoky dance hall is clearly no place for a child. And despite my pleading, my parents wouldn’t entertain the idea of me coming to the Selena dance. I refused to back down from my demands. My diva was on my turf and I deserved to go. I begged. I pleaded. I threw my own things in anger. I had already picked out my outfit. Dark wranglers, my best western shirt, and cowboy boots. My dad could buy me a new cowboy hat in Mexico, anything for Selenas.

Spoiler alert: I spent the night at my grandparents’ house watching black and white Disney films and eating delivery pizza until I passed out. The next morning my mom gifted me a button with a picture of the Entre Mi Mundo album cover. At the end of the night, my parents were standing at the front of the crowd when Selena, who had been wearing a denim jacket with a few pieces of flare, took off the pin from her jacket and threw it into the crowd. My mom reached out and caught it. I cherished that pin for my entire childhood. Never questioning my mom’s version of events and relaying it every chance I had. Because it happened. Just. Like. That.

Y es todo lo que me queda de tu amor

Solo fotos y recuerdos

By the time Amor Prohibido was released, Selena mania was everywhere. Bidi Bidi Bom Bom was played to death and I’m not always sure I can listen to it to this day. Selena y los Dinos had become the soundtrack of every backyard BBQ and school dance. I had my own copy of Amor Prohibido on cassette tape and played it over and over again on my walkman. Walking through the playground, I imagined myself in a white ruffled shirt, leather jacket, and hoop earrings. What? I was a budding homosexual and this was my dream.

It was the middle of the afternoon when our school’s secretary burst into our classroom. She was hysterical and sobbing incoherently. “They killed Selena!” she ran down the hallway to the next room to make the announcement. We looked around at each other in confusion. “What?” After our lesson was over, we were allowed to listen to the radio. Selena Quintanilla Perez had died.

I’d never lost someone I cared so much for in such a violent way. But Selena was a celebrity and just an image in photos and a voice on cassettes. It was a numbing feeling that I didn’t understand. Our entire community was at a loss. My sister and I collected every memento to mark the occasion. The commemorative issue of People magazine. The rapidly published biographies. The t-shirts memorializing la reina. We made a pilgrimage to the Selena boutique in San Antonio and bought baseball caps with Selena’s logo. I took in all things Selena. Spending my afternoons reading the countless articles written about her life and impact. As I learned that Selena herself spoke very little Spanish, I felt an even deeper connection to the diva.

To this day there’s a story from a young fan that I carry with me as her experience seemed to reflect mine so well. In memorializing Selena, she said that Selena gave her pride in her culture. Before discovering Selena’s music, she felt ashamed of speaking Spanish and being Mexican. It was Selena and her music that helped her appreciate her own culture.

Even though I grew up in a community that just so happens to be split by an international border, that is overwhelmingly Mexican, a sense of self-shame still exists. To live on the American side meant you were better than your neighbors. Getting into the identity crisis of being culturally and physically Mexican while trying to feel superior to the Mexican citizen is a topic for another day but Selena brought Mexican-American culture to the brink of the mainstream. Unapologetically straddling two worlds in cowboy boots and a bustier while modernizing traditional Tejano music with 90s dance pop. Never had I felt so allowed to be so Mexican in America. Yes, you can have two cultures.

Como la flor

Con tanto amor

Me diste tú

Se marchitó

The filming of the Selena movie was so hotly anticipated in south Texas. We counted down the days until its release. Finally, not only would our queen be given the silver screen treatment she deserved, but the world would know her just as we had. For me, the movie itself exists as its own marker in my personal history. Aside from the story, I’m deeply attached to the rural south Texas landscape and cultural spaces of my home that are etched in cinematic glory for the outside world.

Edward James Olmos lamenting that Mexican-Americans have to work twice as hard. To be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans. Never had someone vocalized my own frustrations so perfectly. A sentiment that rings true to this day. “Me siento muy…excited!” and “Anything for Selenas!” are deeply embedded into pop culture at a time when her music has come back in vogue and numerous artists have paid their homage.

Over the years, many other divas have entered my life and made their mark, but never again would I have an icon like Selena. Representation can truly affect the place you see for yourself in the world. Had Selena’s foray into the mainstream pop world been realized, I can’t help but wonder the deeper implications for Mexican-Americans and other Latinx groups. To have a pop culture icon that validates your bi-cultural experience and your background, to prove that your existence isn’t exotic. That yes, you can speak two languages, embrace multiple customs, and be celebrated for it. And more importantly for me, you can be Mexican and American and unapologetically Texan.

Es el mas dulce recuerdo de mi vida.

Selena y los Dinos vintage baseball cap

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