I think we can all agree that Selena Quintanilla is and always will be one of the most influential Latinas in music. Despite having left us far too soon 27 years ago at just 23 years old, the Queen of Tejano music’s impact has remained, not just because of her music, charm and beauty, but of course because of the 1997 biopic Selena starring a then-unknown Jennifer Lopez as the young singer. In honor of what would have been Selena’s 51st birthday this month, Jessica Montalvo and Juan Ayala take a look back at the now classic film 25 years after its release.
JESSICA: I was 16 years old when Selena first came out. Back then, Coventry 13 Regal Cinema was the place to see movies. It was newly renovated to house 13 screens, which was pretty big at that time. That evening, I left the movie theater in tears, still processing the finale of the inevitable story of Selena’s life being taken away too soon. I walked out trying to avoid making eye contact with the annoyingly large groups of people hanging out in the lobby. It was a moment I didn’t realize I wanted to be alone for until I saw those people looking at my crying face. Yeah, Selena was and still is a big deal to me.
Once you’ve seen the movie, there are certain moments from it that just make random appearances into your conversations. “Anything for Salinas!” “Me siento muy…excited!” “Excuse me miss…we don’t need the dress,” and “Es un bra!” seem to come up during those occasions when you are with your people who always understand your movie references.
There are so many things that I resonate with, which is why Selena was and still is such a significant influence in my life. Abraham’s real talk about how we have to be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans always hit home.
Despite all the great performances, the one that stood out to me was of course the incomparable Edward James Olmos. I had been following his work for a very long time, not just for his movies but for his activism. I was fortunate enough to meet him in the early 90’s and then was reacquainted with him again in 2000.
By the time the movie made its debut, I knew every song on the soundtrack. Iconic songs like “Como La Flor” when A.B. and Pete were writing the lyrics, “Dreaming of You” when Selena didn’t catch the white rose, “Baila Está Cumbia” when Selena wore her bustier with little sprinkly things on it all became an integral part of the beautiful storytelling that was done to give the world insight on the life of our Queen of Tejano music.
JUAN: The movie came out when I was just four years old and I don’t think I saw it until I was maybe 7 or 8 years old. I remember that Selena was one of the first DVDs we ever bought in the early 2000s and, lord did my sister and I play it over and over again. As 90s kids, we grew up surrounded by TV shows with iconic theme songs and Disney musicals, and this movie was filled with Latin music? Of course we’d love it! I remember my sister crying at the end of the movie almost every time we saw it, knowing that this was a real person, someone who meant so much to so many people, was taken from the world way too soon for no good reason at all. I remember my mom also had a VHS tape (remember those?) of Selena LIVE! The Last Concert, at the Astrodome with that iconic sparkly purple outfit, which they recreated perfectly for the opening scene of the movie. Who doesn’t love that Disco medley?
It’s crazy to think that if this movie was made today, it’d probably be accused of being ‘woke’ because of how many social issues it touched on, despite being a 25+ year-old story. There was the racism Abraham and the other Dinos experienced at that beachside restaurant where they were supposed to perform, the impact of President Reagan administration’s “Reaganomics” which made a lot of small businesses go broke, including the Quintanilla’s restaurant, and the discrimination Selena faced while shopping for a Grammy’s dress. I even remember a deleted scene that was sometimes included in the TV version where kids at school would make fun of Selena for her name. Those are just a few examples, and writer/director Gregory Nava did not hold back.
This movie’s impact remains as powerful today as it did 25 years ago. There were breakout performances from Jennifer Lopez, Jon Seda, and Jacob Vargas who shared Selena Quintanilla’s life and story with the masses who may not have known her because her music didn’t break into the mainstream until her last album Dreaming Of You. The singer, songwriter, activist, actress and fashion designer remains in our hearts today just as much as she did in the 90s and the movie was a perfect tribute to her legacy.
You can stream Selena now on HBO Max.