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Selena and the pop-cultural border crossover of identity / by Patrick Garcia

It is commonly accepted, or at least known, that musicians on the upstart often embrace and put into practice DIY or punk ideals. However, when the glowing arc of opportunity creeps from the horizon, such as a record deal or landing a strong booking agent, many of these artists tend to sacrifice, if not totally trash, elements of these ideologies for a deeper or stronger taste of success. We know this story. A young, promising band of punks with DIY ideals glares at a pdf that, once digitally signed, may very well end their preference of playing sticker plastered punk venues in favor of well-lit concert halls with well-stocked 21+ bars.

Given, this is relative to an artist’s intention - what the artist genuinely wants and how each defines success is unique. But for the artists in between, those conflicted, what these artists may sacrifice - perhaps moving from the preferences of playing DIY and all ages spaces, to getting signed to a major label and playing corporately sponsored fests, etc - are ultimately ideological. But what happens when an artist wants to achieve success, but is told, encouraged, or expected to sacrifice not just an attitude or ideology, but their language and identity all together?

As a pop-star, the late Selena Quintanilla-Pérez, or simply, Selena, or, La Reina, provokes this discussion with regards to the Chican@ pop-cultural identity. In 1994, after the release of the critically acclaimed genre warping masterpiece, Amor Prohibido, which was sung predominantly in the Spanish and Tex-Mex tongue, Selena was being publicly christened as the next ‘crossover’ artist. The crossover is a well known path in the music industry that Latin, or non-English singing artists, strive, or are expected to take to achieve the ultimate in industry success - conquering the American market by singing in English. Plenty of Latin artists since Selena have experienced major success with this concept, including Shakira, Ricky Martin, Enrique Iglesias, and more.

The crossover, then, for the Latin artist, is now seen as, arguably, a brightly illuminated, necessary path, one directly correlated with monetary success. But not perhaps, in all situations.

I am reminded of an interview with Makthaverskan, a Swedish punk band who’s front-woman, Maja Milner, slings out powerful vocals - in English - a tongue only partially native to her upbringing, via her father. In the interview, Milner’s growing prowess with the language is discussed, not as inhibiting, nor as a way to reach larger monetary success, but as a device that can launch simpler, but more bruising and rawer ideas across a broader emotional spectrum. Milner too recounts how her decision to sing in English was to reach more people outside of Sweden. That interests me. Selena, on the other side of the equator, twenty years prior to all of this too would find herself in a similar situation, although as a person of color, Selena, within the concept of the crossover, demands more discussion.

The prism of the crossover idea should also be tilted to shine a different view. Another way to view the ‘crossover’ is as such: what essentially happens for pop-stars who are not white, but persons of color who did not initially perform in English, is that the crossover translates to cultural assimilation from a pop-cultural identity in a Latin community into an anglicized identity, with the artists’ native language being snipped out and an English tongue being implanted. The crossover is expected.

For latin artists like Selena, the path to mainstream success extends beyond the standard narrative of an English speaking artist having to bite their tongue as they leave DIY attitudes at the door and ‘sell out’ on a corporate level. No. For a latin artist who sings in Spanish, the ‘crossover’, or pop-cultural border crossing, demands having the Spanish speaking artist having their tongues figuratively clipped.

Even the genre the latin artist represents - Cumbia, Tejano, Norteno, Salsa, can too be expected to become assimilated and diluted in the pool of the mainstream crossover - genrefication becomes gentrification.

These ideas on a mainstream concept are not typically discussed, for the gesture of ‘crossing over’ is correlated with success, and there is no doubt there are plenty of modern artists who exemplify great happiness for this decision.

But the crossover is also a direct narrative to submerge the language of the pop-star’s region and to thus elevate the English language, which is often not the language of the Latin pop-star, or, in Selena’s dynamic situation, the language of her fan base.

In the early 1990s, the image of a confident, light skinned brunette with rose colored lips and a sparkling purple body suit glowed across the imaginations of thousands of Texas based Hispanic children. This image of Selena plumed out of a now legendary performance in Houston in 1995, a concert noted for not only breaking attendance records at the Houston stadium, but for holding a performance by Selena y los Dinos, her band, that jived and arced across the genres of Tejano, disco, rock and roll, cumbia, techno, and more. It was a pre-crossover situation, and the band’s decision to embrace multiple genres was on the band’s will - not the will of EMI, their major label.

Soon after this moment, though, Selena, then publicly known amongst her predominantly Hispanic and latin fan base for singing in Spanish, was being discussed and set up for what was supposed to be a crossover under the taming and execution of EMI. A major label debut of what was supposed to be an album recorded entirely in English, Dreaming of You, would eventually spring in to work to be released to an English speaking, ‘American’ audience. The album, posthumously released months after her death in the summer of 1995, though, would ultimately feature a track listing with half of the songs sung in English, and the latter half of the album featuring hits from her previous albums, all sung in Spanish, to compensate for the album being unfinished.

As a result, to many a Hispanic and Mexican-American youth during this time, Selena’s pop-cultural identity, would be sonically preserved as one of a multi-cultural identity, making her an exception, perhaps by fate, to the pattern of crossover assimilation.

Selena as then, to her fan bases in Hispanic and Latin communities, immortalized in myth as pop-cultural prism ethnic and racial identities and colors -- and especially those in Mexican border towns such as my hometown, the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, where both the English and Spanish languages collide and scab.

This idea was perhaps more articulately defined in Amor Prohibido, her penultimate, revolutionary album that fused the genres of Cumbia, Tejano, and Techno, and pre-meditated her anticipated crossover to the anglo markets. The album’s vocals were predominantly sung in Spanish, but aesthetically, the tracks feature nods to R&B and rock and roll, particularly in the track “Fotos y Recuerdos," a song melodically face-lifted from "Back on the Chain-Gang” by the English-American rock band, the Pretenders. This idea of taking an English song and not only covering it, but re-imaging it as a Spanish sung Tejano song with a totally different narrative, was, at the time, revolutionary. But the pop-cultural identity of Selena was also beyond the productions of her songs.

Like many of the Hispanics of today, Selena not only embraced a multi-cultural aesthetic with her outfits that blended hip-hop and Chican@ fashion, but she was also a bilingual soul; she spoke in a hybrid Spanish and English tongue, and she embraced it. For example, while the majority of Selena’s canon is predominantly in Spanish, it is well known amongst fans, and even romanticized in her movie, that Spanish was not her best language. This is reflected in her tongue (language), forked, to communicate in a hybrid language embodied by her labeling - Tex Mex.

A confident Spanish speaker, or even a moderately entry level Spanish speaker (like myself) may recognize Selena’s cautionary, wobbly Spanish in interviews she gave on Spanish television. In various interviews in Spanish, Selena breaks, or speed bumps her responses with pauses, ‘uhms’, and occasional breaks before apologizing, smiling, and answering in English. Mexican populations who adorn Spanish chastised her for this, however, border community Hispanics and others in communities where the Spanish and English language have embraced her for this, and yet perhaps did not know why.

Her Tex-Mex tongue, a language unique to South Texas border communities for being a blend of both Spanish and American English, was her natural language. This well known language characteristic may be veiled upon the entirety of her canon - a Tex-Mex soul singing songs in Spanish, but adorned aesthetically with multi-cultural genres. More importantly, though, is this language characteristic of Selena would internally revolutionize Hispanic and Mexican border-town youth during this time who were also suffering (and some still are suffering) with identity issues as a result of not feeling confident with their own abilities to communicate proficiently in both Spanish and English. If you’re reading this, and identify as Chican@, or Latin, or Hispanic, or of any identity in which a language outside of English was spoken, imposed, or expected of you to learn in your household, as well as English, than you know.

The ethos of the Mexican-American, for example, is always one of conflict, whether the individual knows it or not, for the Mexican American is neither viewed as ‘Mexican enough’ or as ‘American’ / anglicized enough to be either / or.

Some Mexican-Americans are, at best, aware of this clash of cultures resonating around and within. However, a sad reality for most is the dismissal of their racial first name, the dismissal of the cultural identity of what it is to be “Mexican." So much of this has to do with the idea that all people of color born in the United States are born into a cultural atmosphere of assimilation.

One’s look, taste in music, food, mannerisms, movies, etc, are all correlated with the non-Hispanic narrative. The young American Chican@, for example, sometimes finds emotional solace in dismissing the Cumbia, Tejano, or Norteno music of their parents and embracing the sounds of 1970s British punk. This is normal, but where perhaps real conflict lies is when the American Chican@ elevates the rock and roll or British punk as being better, or of a finer class, than the latin music that wafted out of their parents speakers as children. But on this idea, who may blame the young Chican@, when even many of their parents’ musical icons were conditioned and slated to move down a crossover path that eventually diluted, disregarded, and eventually erased the cultural identity, and language, of their culture? This atmosphere that non-English, or Spanish speaking Americans are born into, is perpetually taught that it does not exist. But it does, and it is also relative to language.

Gloria Anzaldúa, a Chicana feminist, scholar, and activist, argued in her quintessential essay, “How to Tame a Wild Tongue”, that language is identity. For the border town raised Hispanic, or Mexican, who was expected to learn Spanish, and English, proficiently, but was chastised from the Mexican side for having an anglicized tongue (a pocho), and penalized on an SAT exam for not having proficient English skills, Anzaldúa’s ideas resonate. Again, we are all born into an atmosphere of assimilation, but for the Mexican-American in border town communities, or any Hispanic in the U.S., the atmosphere is twice as thick. For example, the bordertown Mexican-American who embraces their hybrid Tex-Mex speaking tongue is neither Mexican enough, via quality of Spanish, nor American enough, via quality of English, let alone dress, mannerism, musical tastes, etc.

Anzaldúa’s essay liberated these ideas, though. As Anzaldúa states, “so, if you want to really hurt me, talk badly about my language. Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity-I am my language” (81).

To many, Anzaldúa’s ideas filled holes, opened eyes inwards, and freed the suppressed, the confused, and those suffering from internalized racism as a result of being a multi-cultural identity born or raised within a country that demands anglicization.

Selena, the Selena who was taken in the midst of her English crossover album, the Selena romanticized in a hollywood production for adoring a Madonna inspired, glittery bustier, and the Spanish singing, but English speaking Selena seen by many a Hispanic youth on Spanish television shows, to us, embodies Anzaldúa’s ideas.

Border communities, and those who speak and live as a cultural border identity within Mexican and ‘American’ cultural spheres know this about Selena, which is what makes Selena so important, not only to us, but to all.

Selena is the embodiment of a cultural identity. It is an identity colored and soiled with the hybrid Spanish-English tongue, one that, up until the 1980s, and even up until the passing of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1995 (which devastated smaller Mexican farming communities) was politically mute, ethnically invisible, but is now, on a sociopolitical realm, a language being spoken with a very powerful, glowing voice - one of the growing Hispanic identity. For many who identify with this, that is what Selena was and what she still is - a symbol, an idea grown out of diversity that extends beyond the climate of pop culture.

To embrace the idea of Selena Quintanilla-Pérez is to embrace this very conflict, merger, or growth, of various cultures, languages, and identities, embodied in what has become the narrative of Selena - a pop-star immortalized in the crossing of pop-cultural borders, a Mexican-American pop-star.

Selena was killed when I was nine years old. I remember how it went down. I was in a hotel room with pastel blue carpet, and Selena’s song, “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom," trotted out the television speaker. I jumped on coral pink cushions of the hotel sofa, and I started to dance, when the music faded out almost as quickly as it sunk in, and plastered on a red bar on the bottom of a screen were the words, “Selena murdered,” in English.

Back then, I was young enough to understand a language, to learn one, like a sponge, but not old enough to understand what her language would mean. Selena’s preserved recordings, life, and narrative, have bloomed into an idea beyond her movie, her online gossip pages, and her corporately sponsored festival.

Selena lives as an idea of cautionary hope, of a cultural identity so many are desperately combatting, or are nurturing. Here music, in inglés, in Spanish, her language, is, for many of us, a cultural blanket and a representation of all who have ever wrestled with their own identity, their language, and have learned to embrace themselves for it, amidst a national culture that tells our tongue to stay silent, to stay tamed.

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