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I arrive to Fiesta de la Flor, the Selena tribute festival, right before the Tejano artist and Corpus Christi native Megan Chapa takes the stage. Chapa wears a pink and purple sequined onesie, flesh-colored fishnets, and the silver rhinestone heels of a diva. Her voice has deep emotional range, and she calls out, “This one is dedicated to the angel of Tejana,” before she begins a Selena cover.
For Selena fans everywhere, the late artist is not only an angel; she has been canonized like a saint. Selena’s image, meaning, and significance to Latinas is of the highest importance. She appears on murals, statues, and on paintings throughout South Texas, Los Angeles, and even crosses the border to Mexico. Her significance to Latina identity is that of a literal icon.
Selena represents the first time working-class Latinas saw themselves in someone who took the American stage. And she was the embodiment of what the Selena historian Deborah Paredez has described as "brown, working-class glamour." Just like the women who struggled before her, Selena self-designed her outfits to create her own style. Whether Selena was wearing a cow-print bolero and matching skirt or high-waisted pants with a fringe leather jacket, she made being Tejano cool for the first time, and on her own terms. Selena penciled in her dramatic eyebrows, played up her large lips, accentuated her curves, and was proud of her morena complexion; by being a loud, proud Latina, she instilled pride in the women who saw themselves in her.
The cult of Selena is strong at Fiesta de la Flor. Even at Chapa's lightly attended set in Corpus Christi, several young girls wear Selena T-shirts or Selena's most iconic outfits. They hold posters of Chapa or CDs to their hearts and sing along to Chapa's rendition of “Si Una Vez,” decades after Selena opened doors to the Tejano genre.
“It’s so hard to get support from Corpus,” Chapa tells me when we talk later in her trailer. “Now that we’re starting to get it, it felt like God, so good to finally get the support from your own hometown... It’s hard being a female artist. Everyone wants to compare you to Selena — and if someone would really listen to your music or the way that you sing, they would know you’re literally just trying to be yourself.”
Chapa speaks with humility, and whenever she says Selena’s name, it’s with reverence. From her vocal style to her aesthetic style, she is totally different from Selena, though pop glamour unites the two. Though Chapa sounds nothing like the Tejano icon, she hopes to one day have the same effect on her own audience.
“My favorite part of playing the festival is when I get the response back from the crowd. It’s always been a day I’ve dreamed of — for them to sing back with me,” Chapa says. “As soon as we sang a Selena song, they were responding so beautifully — I was crying up there, because I can imagine how she felt having so many people sing back to her with her own lyrics.”
The next day, the all-women Tejana group Las Fenix arrives in their tour bus with their band’s name loudly engraved across it. They land in a glitzy storm of bustiers, glitter, leather, and sequins. Like Selena y Los Dinos, the group comprises family members, and they’re also managed by their father.
“What we try to do is give the crowd a good show and make them feel like they’re our friends, the way she [Selena] did,” Nadia Rodriguez, the bass player in Las Fenix, says when I ask about Selena’s influence on the band. “The way she spoke, the way she danced, the way she treated our crowd, I know we want to do the same as well.”
As soon as Las Fenix start their set, you can see aspects of Selena in their performance, from their onstage bravado and choreography to how they show off their curves in their native Tejano aesthetics: cowboy boots and fringe belts. While Selena mixed elements of R&B in her singing, dancing, and sense of fashion, Las Fenix incorporates rock ’n’ roll, with several members sporting streaks of color or beet-red hair. In their way of mixing, interpreting, and reinventing Tejano style, you can see how Selena's legacy is still alive.
The feelings of Las Fenix seem to echo the words of Isabel Marie Sanchez, a 14-year-old singer described as “the next Selena” by mainstream media. Sanchez first popped into the spotlight two years ago when she sang on the former Univision staple Sabado Gigante when she was just 11 years old. She went on to star in Mexico’s youth-focused version of The Voice, La Voz Kids, and soon after signed with Q Productions, the record label founded by Selena’s father, Abraham Quintanilla.
“Selena gave inspiration for young girls like myself to continue to do whatever we want to do,” Sanchez, in her modesty and dialed-back, Selenesque girl-next-door style, says. “She was a young Latina going into music, and there weren’t a lot of women going into the industry because it was male-dominated at the time. So seeing her pursue her dream and getting far in it was really something that inspired me.”
And yet the door to mainstream success seems half open for women. Each day of the festival, Chapa, Sanchez, and Las Fenix put on strong shows, yet the headliners were always men. Why isn’t a festival that embraces the legacy of Selena giving women their fair shot?
Why do the doors seem closed to any Tejana after Selena?
In her book Selenidad: Selena, Latinos, and the Performance of Memory, Deborah Paredez traces Selena's legacy for Latinos. Paredez grew up in south Texas, where she experienced the cult of Selena firsthand. Her book extensively covers the ways that Selena's dead body was sold to the masses, and even draws parallels between how Eva Perón, Frida Kahlo, and Selena were marketed as fashion icons after their deaths. From fashion and makeup lines to mainstream films and theater productions, these icons and their styles became consumable.
But Selena's story, just like Kahlo's and Perón's, transcends the commodification of her image.
As Paredez explains, “I think that perhaps part of the reason that Selena’s story continues to resonate is that — even though she grew up in the United States and her family had been here for many generations — it embodied the ways that Latinos don’t find an easy home either in the United States or in other countries of origin where they might find themselves,” says Paredez, “whether it was learning Spanish or getting recognition within the English-language market.”
Paredez’s book looks beyond the official narrative of Selena as a good daughter and an exceptional, hardworking Latina who becomes the embodiment of the American dream. Instead, she examines the culture surrounding Selena, and her work reveals the ways in which her death became a way for Latinos to mourn their lack of opportunities and experience of otherness. Ultimately, it inspired a strong sense of collective mourning for the women of color in their lives who have been lost to suicide, violence, and tragedy. In death, Selena has shouldered both the aspirations and dreams of this community and the intense, hidden pain carried by many Latinos.
“The situation [of Latinos in America] hasn’t gotten any better,” Pardez says, “and I think her story continues to mean something. Despite the kinds of inroads that she made in enabling other women of color to be pop stars, there haven’t been many Latinas to replace her, or who have the same kind of impact that she had.”
On our way to view the Selena wax figure, my photographer and I walked past the equivalent of five city blocks’ worth of fans patiently standing in line in the humid Texas heat. Every 10th person was dressed in a brilliant Selena costume that could not be missed. And everyone in line had a story.
After spotting Riella Garza, a girl no more than 4 years old, wearing what Edward James Olmos refers to as a “bustica” in the Selena film, I asked her parents if they’d mind if we photographed their daughter by the waterfront. Both of them nodded proudly, and as I walked with Riella and her dad, he told me that he’d flown in from Arizona with his entire family. The night before, his wife hand-stitched the rhinestones on Riella’s bustica. The smile on Riella’s face told me she felt como la flor. I thanked her dad for this moment.
As we got closer to the wax figure, there were more little girls — and adults — wearing every variation of Selena costumes. One woman informed me that her mother’s most prized possession is a picture of Selena holding her as a baby. We eventually got to the front of the line, where a guard told me that the wait time to see this wax figure averaged three hours. Over 5,000 people had come the night before to “see her.”
I found the wax figure underwhelming — the true stars of this tribute were the fans. While the figure was trapped in time, emulating Selena's signature look, Selena's fans were making their own fashion statements. From denim jackets with hand-stenciled Selena graffiti art to acrylic nails featuring white roses and Selena's face, each fan found her own special way to pay tribute to the reina de Tejano's style.
Though it’s 2017, I feel like I am back in the ’90s as I’m surrounded by Selena superfans. Among women wearing high-waisted pants, dramatic belt buckles, door-knocker earrings, leather mini skirts, knee-high boots, and crop tops, you can see the immense influence that Selena’s looks have on fashion today.
Soon after leaving the wax museum, I came across two women dressed in their finest Selena gear. Amanda Solís was from Texas City, Texas, and drove five hours to get to the festival. She wore a Selena outfit modeled after her Odessa, Texas, performance, and all of Solís’s details, from the gold-colored accessories to her purple-hued red lipstick, matched Selena’s original outfit. When I asked her why she was at the festival, she told me that she had gone every year; her parents are from Mexico and played Selena for her when she was very young. They passed away when she was 7 years old, and with their passing, her connection to the Spanish also faded away. Now she’s a singer, and said, “When I sing Selena songs, I feel like I’m bringing back my parents.”
The cult of Selena has given women of color, Latinos, and the LGBTQ community a way of writing themselves into the American narrative. The memory of Selena allows us to project ourselves onto a world that otherwise does not wish not to have us.
“Part of Selena’s legacy is for those who didn’t find themselves in official stories,” Paredez says, “or in those official venues. They continued to create their own memorial through their own relationship to her, and those are the places that are, for me, the most interesting to explore... for instance, talking to the transgender community about [tribute shows and] why they perform as her. Why do they do it?” Performer Honey Andrews, a transgender woman, is Selena's most famous impersonator.
“It allows a space for them within both a [tribute and] a drag community, which is historically quite racialized as white, [to exist] in terms of its projections of glamour,” Paredez says. “She certainly provides a brown way to assert a very particular, brown, working-class type of glamour.”
When Selena first came up, in the ’90s, Latinos often sought to assimilate themselves to white culture, in effect becoming invisible to avoid being disparaged as “’hood,” “country,” or “ghetto.” But Selena never sought to erase aspects of her cultural upbringing that weren’t considered “white.” Instead, she wore makeup that emphasized her Latina features, sported dark acrylic nails, and flaunted her brown skin in crop tops and miniskirts in a way that inspired Latinas to no longer hide.
Selena made it possible to believe that being brown is glamorous. Selena made it possible to believe in a brown self.
At the Selena tribute show, I feel like I am home. It’s held at a gay club called the Sanctuary, and the small venue holds true to its name. The walls are crammed with audience members who happily cheering on each queen — and, seemingly, each other.
Each impersonator interprets a different Selena number while flirting, taunting, and roughing up the audience. Their costumes feature fake eyelashes, elaborate makeup, and glitter everywhere. In this space, Selena’s future doesn’t seem trapped in the past.
As soon as Honey Andrews takes the stage, I know that I am in the presence of a diva.
Honey is wearing the same outfit as the wax figure from earlier in the day. She gives the crowd a coquettish look before throwing her head back and nailing Selena's 360 turns one after another. Effortlessly, she wrings her hands in a studied, Selena flamenco style while smiling the size of Texas during her beautiful rendition of “Como la Flor.” Watching her is like finally seeing the spirit of Selena freed.
It’s at the Sanctuary that I can see the joy of interpreting Selena and her style in the spotlight. We are in Corpus Christi, her hometown, and the audience isn’t made up of tourists, but of locals who grew up with her spirit all around them. Each impersonator is a representation of Selena and a manifestation of how her style has affected the present.
“I try to give my best performance each and every time,” Honey tells me after her performance. “Doing her justice, replicating her costumes, and getting her dance moves down exactly — to me, it makes the crowd go as wild as if she were there. If you’re going to impersonate someone as big as Selena, you’ve got to get everything right, from the moves to the hair to the makeup. Everything. It has to be exactly on point.”
Honey was invited to perform at a Selena tribute festival, but when the festival manager discovered that she was transgender, he messaged her on Facebook and told her "Nobody wants to see a male person dress up like a girl.” She was removed from the show’s lineup. Instead of accepting the festival organizer’s anti-trans sentiments, Honey went public with her story, and the LGBTQ community rallied around her. Eventually, her horrific treatment received national news. The festival organizer issued a public apology and invited Honey to perform at Fiesta de la Flor, bu she no longer wanted to be a part of the festival. Every year since the festival’s inception, she has chosen instead to star in tribute shows the weekend of the festival.
I see in Honey a person who deeply loves Selena, but who has the courage to remake her image in her own way — and without seeking anyone else’s sanction. Selena has given her the bravery not to need anyone’s approval to believe in herself.
“The biggest gift Selena gave to me was to believe that the impossible is always possible,” Honey says. “She opened the doors for a lot of people, especially Latinos in the industry. So to me, she was the door for everyone in the Latino community to enter, to be accepted for being Latinos.”
Honey is an example of what the legacy of Selena could become. And in this way, Selena’s legacy is beyond Fiesta de la Flor, and Corpus Christi, and every official boundary. She is that door, asking to be remodeled.