Rigoberto Hernandez is a 29 year old radio producer and writer living in Philadelphia. He has done a variety of work, from producing a podcast about the history of science, to writing articles about legendary Tejano singer Selena Quintanilla Perez on the 20th anniversary of her death. Perez, known in pop culture as Selena, was killed in March of 1995 by the manager of her fan club. Two years later, on March 21st, 1997, a biopic starring Jennifer Lopez as the famous singer, was released. It was a big movie of my childhood, and one I wanted to pay tribute to on its twentieth anniversary. I caught up with Rigo to talk about the film, and see what it meant to both of us- particularly to him as a Mexican American who grew up with Selena’s music.
Andy: Hey Rigo! Before we begin talking about the legacy of the fantastic 90’s biopic Selena, can you tell us a little about what Selena (the singer) means to you?
Rigo: I was born in Mexico but grew up most of my life in America. That means that Spanish was my first language but over the years my dominant language has become English. This is relevant within the context of Selena, of course. I am currently a radio producer making a podcast about the history of science, but I’ve been studying to be a journalist for about a decade now (which, whoa, I feel old now). My relationship with the music of Selena started at a very early age, when I would listen to the radio in Mexico and her songs would come on. “Carcacha” was a stand out for me. Once I was in the states, her music really started to resonate with me, shortly after watching Selena (on VHS!). I even like Jennifer Lopez’ rendition of “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom” more than Selena’s version, but shhhh. Her music has just always been part of my life, even 20 years after watching the movie. My 14-year-old niece recently watched the movie and she only knew one Selena: Selena Gomez (who was coincidentally named after Selena Quintanilla).
I identify with Selena’s Mexican-American identity more than with her music. I produced a segment for NPR’s Alt. Latino for the 20th year anniversary of her death. As an adult I’ve been known to sing Selena songs at Karaoke every Thursday at Win Win Coffee Bar.
Andy: I can recall growing up in Silver Spring, MD, and the days after Selena died many of my Latina classmates were in tears. I was told that Selena had been killed, but didn’t know much about her until this movie came out. So as a kid I don’t think it fully registered with me that Jennifer Lopez WASN’T Selena. What do you think about her performance? Did she do Selena justice?
Rigo: I was about to turn 8 when she was killed. I remember waking up to the news that Selena Quintanilla had died and it was a big deal, even in Mexico. The thing is that Selena existed as this amorphous figure in pop culture, but as a young kid you don’t really put faces on what you hear on the radio. So, much like you, Jennifer Lopez was Selena as far as I was concerned. My friends and I often joke that we conflate reality with the movie, because the movie was our first real exposure to how big she truly was. It immortalized her. For example, we get together and talk about how she gave that concert in Texas where the stage almost collapsed — that happened in the movie- but it is very easy to conflate what happened in the movie with reality because the movie was for many of us the first time we really understood what she meant, and it made us proud. I remember crying during the scene in which she is shopping for clothing, and the white clerk didn’t recognize her but the staff at the mall did and came rushing. Or the scene in which her father (played by Edward James Olmos) says Mexican Americans have to work twice as hard. I’ve always been aware of our struggles as Mexican Americans, but it wasn’t until the movie put it that way, that I felt like I wasn’t alone. So yeah, Jennifer Lopez was the face of Selena for me.
Andy: That’s quite powerful, Rigo! You say that the film really solidified for you a powerful sense of Mexican American identity. I imagine that conflation with reality also was influenced by how soon the movie was made after her death. The film was released only two years later. Of course many other films have been made in close proximity to their real life events- Zero Dark Thirty comes to mind, released less than two years after the death of Bin Laden. I read that Salma Hayek was originally supposed to play Selena, but turned it down because she felt it was too soon. I wonder how different the film would have been if it was made, say five years later?
Rigo: You know, it’s really hard to say what difference it would’ve made if I had seen the movie five years later instead of two years later. By then I would’ve probably been a pubescent kid — into Emo music and dismissed her entirely. Who knows? Maybe she caught me at the right moment. It’s hard to say. My niece seems to like her just the same, but maybe it’s because she sees how much her mother and her two uncles really like her.
Andy: have you seen director Gregory Nava’s other films (Mi Familia, El Norte, Frida)? If so, what are your thoughts on his work? Where do you think Selena stands in the legacy of films about the Mexican American experience? And lastly, are there other significant films about the Mexican American experience that you enjoy?
Rigo: I’ve only ever seen El Norte by Nava — And I watched it because it was part of school curriculum. I remember it hitting to close to home and being kind of embarrassed by it, because in San Diego you’re taught to be embarrassed by your Mexican roots. I am honestly not that interested in Frida, because I see how she’s been co-opted, but that’s another story entirely I am a huge fan of Salma Hayek — everyone knows about Hayek -especially in Mexico- and she is definitely a source of pride. Especially because she represents the diversity that is Mexico– she is of Lebanese descent, and Mexico has a huge population of Lebanese (for example Carlos Slim is of Lebanese descent, and Tacos Al Pastor — that is a technique borrowed from Lebanese cuisine). I would be interested in watching Mi Familia. I was more into Blood in Blood Out, or Born in East L.A. or Stand and Deliver. Nava is a relatively new name in my lexicon.
I’ve been trying really hard to think of other movies or TV shows that capture some of this Mexican-American identity, and I am honestly drawing blanks. The closest I can see myself on the screen these days is with Cristela, but they cancelled her show. Or Mozart in the Jungle, but that seems to be less about identity and more on universal themes. You could argue that maybe we are beyond matters of identity, but I don’t think so. I know a lot of consumers like myself who are hungry for this kind of content. It’s sad that in a lot of ways we actually regressed on showing Mexican American identity in the big screen.
I really enjoy what Gael Garcia Bernal is doing with his movies. And I also enjoy Diego Luna’s projects on big budgets like Rogue One. There is a key difference of course, in that while no one is denying they are Mexican-American, they are exports from Mexico telling very important stories and –I hate this word– transcending in roles. However, I am still waiting for another movie like Selena, to give me the feels that movie gave me as a child.
Andy: You said your niece had recently seen it for the first time. Do you think this movie will live on for future generations?
Rigo: I sure hope it does. I can see myself telling my children about this movie and what it meant to me. Of course they could just as easily dismiss it as I dismissed my parents’ music. But then I came back to appreciate it as an adult, so maybe they will do the same (like Los Tigres del Norte)
Andy: Is there anything final you would like to say about the film Selena or anything else we discussed?
Rigo: I would invite anyone to come and sing Selena songs at Win Win on Thursdays!