Directed by Gregory Nava
A Warner Bros. release
We've had Mexican and Mexican-American stars before, but who would know it? If they've been allowed to be ethnic at all, they've usually played people from somewhere outside of Mexico (think of Anthony Quinn shouting "oompah" in Zorba the Greek) or exotics of unspecified origin (Ricardo Montalban's urbane, absurd Mr. Roarke). Most of the time, they've toned down their Mexicanness, like Raquel Welch, or they've just plain covered it up--like Rita Hayworth, nee Margarita Cansino, who foundered in B movies until the chief hairstylist at Columbia suggested that she dye her hair red and undergo a painful, two-year course of electrolysis to lift up her hairline.
Pop music has been more hospitable, but only slightly. Richie Valens scored with "La Bamba" and Carlos Santana with "Oye Como Va"; Freddie Fender and Little Joe had brief blips on the charts, and Linda Ronstadt periodically takes up Spanish ballads. But no singer or band who looks or sounds too recognizably Mexican has risen to the level of a superstar with staying power. You don't have to be a zealot for multiculturalism to wonder if some talent isn't going to waste, and if audiences, by failing to be the least bit curious about millions of their fellow Americans, aren't passing up a badly needed transfusion of fresh cultural blood.
But is the career strategy of the late Selena Quintanilla Perez the best way to break down doors? When she died two years ago, Selena was set to launch her first English-language album, and record executives confidently predicted she would be the first Mexican-American to break through to a mass audience. We'll never know, of course, because a frumpy, taciturn employee named Yolanda Saldivar shot and killed Selena, aged 23, at a motel on the outskirts of Corpus Christi, Texas. In her absence, Selena's fans have erected a heartbreaking myth: She was a tireless but cheerful hard worker, always reaching higher, conquering hearts wherever she went. The final "crossing over" is the Holy Grail that she was just about to snag. The myth is appealingly clean-cut, a far cry from, say, that of a drug-popping Elvis. But it obscures the fact that "crossing over" is essentially a sales term, and that Selena was essentially a marketing package. And all the pain surrounding her murder has made it much harder to think clearly about whether a marketing package is a good thing for an artist, or a human being, to be.
The new movie of Selena's life ponderously carves each element of the myth in stone, as if this 23-year-old were a bust to be included on Mount Rushmore. The movie is written and directed by Gregory Nava, with Selena's father and manager, Abraham Quintanilla, as executive producer. The choice of Nava to direct makes sense, since two of his previous features, El Norte (about the trials of brother-and-sister Guatemalan refugees in the United States) and My Family, Mi Familia (a multigenerational saga set in East L.A.), put him at the top of the very short list of directors tackling Hispanic themes. Each of Nava's earlier films had the merit of exploring absolutely fresh territory, and a fearless sentimental streak that worked well when it didn't fly over the top. Each film also had an agenda, a justifiable anger at Anglo racism, which it expressed with a muffled indirectness by making the Mexican-American and Central-American characters unbelievably sympathetic--so innocent and damn likable that to harbor prejudice toward them would be like kicking and slapping a kitten.
I n the new film, the term "crossing over" pops up like a mantra. Selena uses it to mean staying true to herself--never pretending to be anything other than Mexican-American, but at the same time reaching out to everyone. This sounds like a decent if contradictory goal, and it's definitely to Selena's credit that she never tried to play down her heritage. But aesthetically speaking, Nava's attempt to "cross over" is disastrous. It leads to a kind of schizophrenia, a back-and-forth appeal to each side of the fence. In one scene Selena sings a medley of Donna Summer and Gloria Gaynor disco hits, and you almost expect a subtitle to appear across the bottom of the screen reading, "See, she likes the same music you do!" A few minutes later Selena sings a song in Spanish and the screen splits in three, with Selena surrounded on either side by a giant, rapidly unfolding rose. To someone unfamiliar with the Selena myth, this is incomprehensible corn. But it speaks in code to her most avid fans--the song was about suffering for love like a flower, and the rose was her favorite--and invites them to private tears.
As a philosophy, "crossing over" is fundamentally self-defeating. It tries to satisfy too many different groups at once and ends up watering down the art so much it satisfies no one. Nava is fatally divided between doing justice to the grief of Selena's fans and introducing her to people who have no more than a vague memory of the headlines announcing her murder. Meanwhile, the world that Selena actually lived in is all but invisible. Nava had a wealth of unexplored material at his disposal, but he seems afraid that no one will be interested in it. It's the story of shark international record companies sweeping into South Texas, buying up little acts, and making millions off music that began with impoverished farm workers. It's the story of Spanish-language TV networks exploding across America during the 1980s. It's the story of Mexican-American singers and country stars circling each other with suspicion but slowly beginning to cooperate. It's the story of corporate America's discovery of Mexican-Americans, and of the hopes that this new attention inspired, to the point where thousands of little girls began to put on makeup and wear sequined bustiers just like Selena, their role model--the example of what any of them could be, or so they were told.
To say that Selena was the product of well-managed hype doesn't mean that record executives manufactured her appeal from scratch. Selena's connection to her audience was palpable--and, strangely, the movie does capture that. Jennifer Lopez, who is Puerto Rican and from the Bronx, sometimes lets an urban twang into her speech, but otherwise her impersonation is close to flawless. All the evidence indicates that Selena was a likable if rather banal person--that rare popular girl who's not especially rich, cool, or perfect looking but is bubbly and warm and genuinely at ease.
All this likability doesn't make Selena a good movie character; a little complexity, a few inner demons would make her more compelling. But her personal appeal does make what happened to her that much more tragic. For while Selena had a highly competent voice, she was never an artist. It was an ineffable quality, her willingness and ability to embody the desires of others, that was being packaged and sold--a fact that Nava seems to see but refrains from passing comment on. There's something horrifying about the scenes of the family back in 1981, when Abraham Quintanilla glimpsed his daughter singing and suddenly decided to turn his three children into a band against their will; there's a sense in which she gave herself up at the age of 9. (Not to mention Selena's glum, chubby older sister Suzette, whose pathetic, sobbing objections didn't stop the father from screaming that she had no choice but to learn to play drums.)
There's something equally horrifying--shades of JonBenet Ramsey--in the spectacle of little girls singing in pageants to fetishize her memory. As saccharine and evasive as this movie is, there's a scene near the end that rings true. Selena is having a hard time, but she says that she has to go on singing because she feels like "my dreams were the same as the dreams of all those people in the audience, like all their dreams were centered on me." This line is supposed to show Selena's one-of-a-kind sincerity, but it also shows the way in which she was used by her fans as well as the people who stood to profit by her.
Abraham Quintanilla (Edward James Olmos), teaches Spanish to a reluctant young Selena (Becky Lee Meza) (55 seconds):