How Selena the Movie Shaped Selena the Legend

Twenty-five years later, the beloved biopic is both a gift and a gut punch for a new generation of fans.

by Mekita Rivas

HOLLYWOOD, CA - MARCH 23:  Actress Jennifer Lopez, who plays Selena in the movie "Selena," performs ...
Jennifer Lopez as Selena. SCOTT DEL AMO/AFP/Getty Images

One of my clearest memories from childhood is being in the car outside of my mom’s friend’s trailer and listening to “Dreaming Of You” by Selena on the radio. It was some time after her death, maybe a year or so. I recall a voice talking about the Shakespearean manner in which she died—at age 23, killed by her obsessive fan club president. I can’t remember who, exactly, was speaking. It could’ve been my mother, or possibly the radio host. The parts that I can hear most vividly are words like tragic and untimely. And from that point forward, my earliest understanding of who Selena was—both in life and in death—was rooted in what might have been.

I didn’t grow up with Selena. I grew up with Selena the legend. She died when I was 5 years old, too young to have many memories of her from when she was alive. It wasn’t until after that day in the car, listening to the radio, that I began to immerse myself in all things Selena. I had every CD, every cassette tape. My Filipina mother, ever the karaoke queen, queued up her greatest hits whenever it was my turn to sing. For a fleeting moment in time, I think she wondered if I could become a powerhouse performer like Selena, who was—and is still considered to be—the queen of Tejano music. But when I ran off “stage” at a holiday party that she’d volunteered me to perform at—singing “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom,” because of course—it became quite clear that I didn’t possess the traits necessary to be a beloved superstar.

Selena, as we all know, did.

Much has been said and written about what made Selena such a force. She was charismatic, funny, talented, stunningly beautiful. She had an uncanny ability to make fans feel like friends and family. You felt like you knew her: the girl next door, toeing the line between two cultures that have been simultaneously clashing and intertwining for centuries. Selena’s heritage as a Mexican American is another reason that I had such a strong connection to her and her music. Growing up in Nebraska, I was so distant from my own Mexican roots, geographically and otherwise—I didn’t speak Spanish, didn’t have the traditions. Listening to Selena to become more connected with my culture became a tradition all its own. She filled a void for so many first- and second-generation Latinos, specifically Mexican Americans, who have long struggled to embrace the two cultures when they are so often at odds with one another.

The singer Selena at her last performance before her untimely death.

Arlene Richie/The Chronicle Collection/Getty Images

Selena the movie brought that struggle to the forefront. One of the most frequently referenced quotes from the film is said by Abraham Quintanilla, Selena’s well-meaning but overprotective father, who’s lamenting the unique plight of Mexican Americans: “We have to be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans, both at the same time! It’s exhausting!”

But beyond bringing our cultura to the masses, the movie was—at its core—a vehicle for propelling the myth of Selena forward at a rapid clip. Produced in close collaboration with the Quintanilla family, the biopic was released on March 21, 1997, just 10 days shy of the second anniversary of her death. Because the film came out when it did, Selena the legend could live on immortal: Through the movie, and a breakthrough performance by then little-known Jennifer Lopez, the myth of Selena never really faded away.

On the one hand, the film is a gift that fans can always revisit, a source of assured comfort that although she died so young and so horrifically, Selena the person was, in fact, mortal. And she had a real life beyond her perfect stage presence. She had flaws, worries, insecurities. The movie illuminated the fullness of who she was and what she aspired to do: to record an English crossover album, to go to Disney World, to start a family. Even 25 years later, the essence of Selena feels so present when I watch the movie.

Yet for all the film manages to achieve—namely bestowing Selena, posthumously, the global fame she was on track to attain before she was killed—her story remains, fundamentally, a tragedy. The end of the movie, when Selena’s family learns that she’s died at the hospital, still hits like a punch to every major organ all at once. With each rewatch, the loss is as palpable as ever. And the only explanation for why it hurts so profoundly, even after all this time, is that Selena’s legacy will always be marked by unrealized potential.

Perhaps that’s what makes Selena the rare biopic that does what the genre, at its best, should do: deliver an authentic tribute to the person that leaves you wanting more, even if you already know how the story ends.