The Never-Ending Exploitation of Selena Quintanilla
Credit: Netflix
Entertainment

The Never-Ending Exploitation of Selena Quintanilla

Netflix's new biopic 'Selena: The Series' rehashes the same story for the umpteenth time—and sends a clear message about which stories Hollywood is willing to tell.
Alex Zaragoza
Brooklyn, US
December 1, 2020, 8:07pm

This week, Netflix will premiere Selena: The Series, which over nine episodes will once again tell the tale of Selena Quintanilla, the Tejano music icon who was infamously murdered by the president of her fan club in 1995. The story of the talented young Mexican American singer, who was killed when she was on the cusp of breaking into the mainstream English-language market, is one many know well—in particular the Latinx community, which has raised the slain singer into a deity. Which begs the question: do we really need another Selena story?

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The series stars The Walking Dead's Christian Serratos as the beloved "Bidi Bidi Bom Bom" singer, and the LA Times heralded it as part of a revolution towards greater Latinx representation in Hollywood. Rico Martinez, head of content and digital at Campanario, the production company behind the show, told the LA Times the series will "tell this complete story from her birth until the end…we’re telling the complete story of the entire band and viewpoints that we’ve never seen before.” Producer Jaime Dávila explained the purpose of the series is to "show Hollywood that there’s this huge market of Latinx/Latino people; that our stories are American stories; that our stories are global stories. Being able to point to a story like Selena: The Series, which is all of those things, is really great. I would love for more doors to open up."

This is all good in theory, but when it really means rehashing the same story for the umpteenth time, it sends a clear message about which stories get to be told, and which ones Hollywood is willing to tell. Selena's story is territory that has been thoroughly and properly covered, particularly in the 1997 film Selena starring Jennifer Lopez and Edward James Olmos. Unfortunately, Selena: The Series doesn't bring anything new to the table. It's also concerning that the story repeated to us most is that of a woman who was violently murdered. That's part of Selena's myth, but it inevitably fuels her exploitation.

The series is a Disney-fied retelling of Selena's life that focuses more on her father, Abraham Quintanilla, and his iron-like grip on the family, which borders on abusive. It’s clear it’s meant to be a story about passion and sacrifice, but what comes through more loudly is Abraham’s claustrophobic control of his family. The trauma he may be creating for them by acting more as a strict, unfeeling manager than concerned father intent on fulfilling his own musical dreams is never interrogated—not when he takes Selena out of school to focus on touring, bars her and her siblings from hanging with friends, prevents them from taking a break from touring even when it's affecting their health, and eventually fires the band's guitarist when he and Selena fall in love. 

Also unexplored is the family's bicultural identity and lack of connection to their Mexican heritage despite playing music for the Mexican market, depicted as a business move forced by Abraham rather than an attempt to connect to their roots. In effect, we see a story of a Mexican American family being pushed to fake an attachment to their heritage to gain musical success, which I assume wasn't intentional. But by treating this split in their cultural identity in such a passive manner, there's no room to discuss what it's like being raised Mexican in Texas, how generational assimilation leads to a disconnection from your native home, and how Selena's life was a prime example of this complex issue. Delving into both of those subjects could have given us a deeper understanding of Selena's character and explored conversations around identity within the Latinx community.

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The series does give some of the side characters in Tejano music history their flowers, including singers Pete Astudillo (a member of her band Los Dinos) and Laura Canales, and legendary television presenter Johnny Canales. However, most of what we get are more factoids (how Selena got her name, how her family ended up in the U.S.), and a sweet, meek portrayal of Selena, with little consideration to what fueled her, how a life chasing stardom (as ordained by her impossible-to-please dadager) may have impacted her emotionally and led to her elopement, or even what made her special as an artist. When we think of Selena, we think of the strength of her talent; her voice, her dancing, her stage presence. Aside from her voice, which is dubbed into songs in the series, there's a meh quality to the performance scenes, and to a script that only gives us the story of a nice girl who doesn't argue with her overbearing dad.

Many are understandably hyped for the series, as Selena superfans and Latinx people clamoring to see themselves on screen. Others have expressed their doubts. Mala Muñoz, co-producer and co-host of the popular Latinx podcast Locatora Radio, called out the costuming of the series ("I’ve been to Selena tribute events in LA with better costuming than this," she tweeted) and the "gradual whitewashing" of the singer in the casting choices of both Lopez and Serratos. She told VICE there's "a history of Selena's features being slimmed down and made to look more European," with the casting of Serratos just another example of this. When watching the series, it was impossible to ignore how much Serratos looks like Lopez playing Selena, and not Selena herself. 

"It's with these little things that I feel the colorism and the white supremacy within Latinx media, within Latinx communities, is so severe that we are fighting for ounces of melanin,"  Muñoz told VICE. "[Selena] was already technically a light-skinned woman. And we couldn't even keep that integrity? Like we're gonna further water down, as subtle as it seems…We should have so much more color variation in our representation to begin with, that we're not fighting for scraps of skin color representation like I find myself doing here with Selena and these casting choices."

Undoubtedly, Selena Quintanilla, who was just 23 when she was killed by Yolanda Saldívar at a Days Inn in Selena's hometown of Corpus Christi, Texas, is a treasure within the Latinx community and far beyond. Her music formed an important part of my own upbringing, and I see her impact on generations that were born long after died. My seven-year-old niece, for example, screamed excitedly last Christmas when she got her very own "Selena bra," a little tank training bra on which my sister glued plastic jewels to look just like the bras the singer famously wore. Selena holds special meaning for everyone in different ways, whether it's through the passion in her music, the power in her performance, the curves of her face and body, the kindness of her spirit, the reflection of her bicultural identity, or all of the above.  

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It's not even the first time the Quintanillas and Campanario shopped a Selena-related series. In 2018, ABC ordered a pilot from Dávila and Co., along with SB Projects (headed by Scooter Braun), and A.B. and Suzette Quintanilla, for a series deeply inspired by the singer. It's not publicly reported where that pilot stands, though it's still listed on SB Projects' website. SB Projects did not respond to VICE's request for comment on the status of the series. Even so, this makes me wonder how many times Campanario tried to sell a Selena story, and for how long they'll continue to do so.

It's not that I believe we've had enough of Selena, or that we shouldn't continue idolizing her. We desperately need more nuanced Latinx representation on screen and stories about us. We just don't need the same old shit recalentado and fed to us again when we need to focus on treading new ground and widening the understanding of Latinx identity. When there is a semblance of representation in Hollywood, white and mestizo Latinx people dominate screens (and not coincidentally, behind the scenes). If white or mestizo Latinxs are getting scraps, everyone else is getting nothing. 

"I think it's about expanding the funding and the opportunities," said Muñoz. "So we have more films and shows made instead of fighting over one slot. And if it's her, then it can't be someone else; or if it's someone else, then it can't be the other person. If we have 100 slots, then we have 100 slots with stories to fill."

According to UCLA's 2020 Hollywood Diversity Report, the 2018-2019 TV season only saw 6.6% of broadcast TV leading roles and just 5.5% of lead roles on cable series played by Latinx actors. In digital series, Latinx folks encompassed 4.0% of leading roles. The film industry is not much better; in 2019 only 4.6% of film roles went to Latinx actors. The numbers are just as dismal behind the scenes. Just 2.8% of writing credits and  2.7% of directing credits went to Latinx people in the 145 highest-grossing films in the same year. It's even more disconcerting when we look at the types of roles Latinx people are given. Hollywood already shows little to no interest in telling Latinx stories, and the stories that do get told far too rely on stereotypes, inspiration porn, telenovela-esque camp, and crime. They're also painfully beige. A 2019 study by University of Southern California's Annenberg Inclusion Initiative shows that Latinx characters are frequently light-to-olive skinned, leading to the erasure of Afro-Latinx, Indigenous, Asian, and other Latinx peoples within the intersections of the culture; 35.5% of Latinx women are depicted in sexualized ways; 13% of characters are shown living in poverty; and 61.9% of all Latinx characters are portrayed as engaging in illegal activities.

Just like politicians, Hollywood believes we're a monolith, and struggles to capture the depth and complexity of the Latinx experience, but also makes little attempt to rectify this. Latinx creators are then forced to contend with gaming a system set up to fail us, but also must reflect on how they reinforce white supremacy and a lack of representation by addressing their own biases and blind spots, then push themselves to do better. In re-telling the Selena story, and in making it more bland, there is no push for meaningful change.

"I want us to remember that Selena is but one example of how talented Latinas and Latin American women, brown women, Black women, Native descended women are and have been and can be," Muñoz said.

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Until recently, One Day at a Time was the only Latinx-centered series on network television. The sitcom focused on a Cuban American family and starred Justina Machado and Rita Moreno. It was canceled after three seasons at Netflix, but then picked up by Pop TV (a cable channel owned by CBS) following fan outcry on social media. The deal allowed for the show to air on CBS in primetime, but struggled in ratings. Last week, CBS pulled the plug on the sitcom, and showrunners are now attempting to find a new home for a show that long struggled with investment from networks. To me and others, it felt as though the sitcom was filling a quota. Here is your Latinx show, now stop whining. Choice is not really an option for Latinx viewers.

"Our stories are universal. But if One Day at a Time doesn’t represent me, it still is a VALUABLE show. It has UNIVERSAL stories," tweeted TV writer and actor Dani Fernandez. "We need MORE. We need more Afro and Indigenous stories. We need more stories that aren’t the same Latinx lens they keep pushing. We need more."

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"Studios clearly have a SPECIFIC lens through which they want our stories to be told," she continued in a thread. "We do not all fit that. The answer is we need MORE free will to play in this space. Allowed to take risks. Have the FUNDING and MARKETING to take risks."

Creators are caught in a dilemma: Do you create a show that you know will sell to white Hollywood executives in the hopes of opening the door for others, even though the people you're trying to speak to and for are tired of the same old stories, and as a result may not feel inclined to watch, and that means your ratings are low, which in turn means studios may not renew your show? Or do you push back to create something fresh, only to find that studios don't give you nearly the same support they give white-fronted series? Shows centering white experiences and stories simply don't have to carry this burden.

Latinx media fuels the vicious, repetitive cycle too often because it's what sells, and it doesn't help that Hollywood gives us so few chances to try to prove otherwise. Latinx-centered outlets like Latina, We Are Mitú (my former employer), Remezcla, HipLatina, and countless others have dedicated many a listicle to detailing factoids about Selena's life or projects that concern her. I've sat in meetings where a Venn diagram showing clicks on Selena, abuelas, chanclas, and Flaming Hot Cheetos was used to explore the possibilities of Selena/Cheeto crossover content to garner more clicks.

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"If the only person [Hollywood creators] can produce is Selena, part of the reason is because a lot of our Latinx media or outlets are driven by clicks; are driven by consumption," added Muñoz. "Conchas get clicks; Hot Cheetos get clicks; Selena gets clicks. The audience catches on, and people are sick of it. They're sick of the repetition."

In an environment where digital media is beholden to constantly changing algorithms, all companies are guilty of chasing clicks in some way. But we need to reflect on how she’s being sold to us, and where we add to her exploitation.

Like Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, The Beatles, 2Pac, and others, Selena's image is prolific in merchandise and memorabilia ranging from coffee mugs to t-shirts and beauty products. But at a certain point, the overexposure of her image has led to a flattening of her as a person. She had dimensions, some we might not like about her (for example, she was raised conservative and staunchly pro-life), but the fullness of her identity is in danger of becoming a faded carbon copy of its original self. The ubiquity of her image and story is running into exploitative and even boring territory. Unfortunately, Selena: The Series does nothing to upend this. 

I was far from shocked to see that the series failed to give us anything deeper. Her father kept a tight hold on all things Selena her whole life, as the series clearly depicts, and also in death. Abraham owns the rights to her estate and likeness. Selena's brother A.B. and sister Suzette, who were also her bandmates, have also partnered with various companies on Selena memorabilia. Suzette is an executive producer on Selena: The Series, and Abraham was a producer on the 1997 film. The Quintanillas have done exclusive collaborations and collections with Funko Pop!, Forever 21, MAC, and others for products bearing her signature and image. In 2015, the Quintanillas attempted to crowdfund for a fully-functioning Selena hologram to perform live in concert, which raised eyebrows from some critics

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In 2017, Abraham won a lawsuit against Selena’s husband, Chris Pérez, blocking the production of a series based on his book, To Selena with Love. The book and series, Quintanilla argued, breached a contract Perez signed two months after his wife's murder that granted Abraham exclusive rights to Selena's name, voice, photographs, her story, and other rights in perpetuity (the series makes a joke about the term "in perpetuity" in contracts, which feels like a dig at Pérez). Perez and Quintanilla are due in court in February 2021 in the continuing legal battle over the contract. The family also threatened to sue an artist who painted a mural and created a community event in Corpus Christi to pay homage to the singer, and has come after independent artists and businesses for selling Selena-related items. Moctezuma Esparza, producer of the 1997 Selena movie, is currently suing Abraham, Suzette, and Netflix for breach of contract, alleging that he and Abraham had an agreement to produce a miniseries on Selena's younger years. Indeed, Selena is big business, and the Quintanilla family controls who gets to profit off her, lining their pockets by what often feels like them taking advantage of our devotion. 

In October, a group of 270 (and counting) Latinx creators signed an open letter to Hollywood demanding better representation, greater opportunities, and more attention to Latinx storytelling.

But if we're charging forward with Selena: The Series, well, that's a problem. It's clear that Selena sells—she’s a figure so revered within the Latinx community, the series can't lose. The people will stream. But it's hard not to feel pandered to, especially when the series isn't doing anything major to further Latinx representation aside from being…available? Others may feel differently and that's more than their right. Still, the tacit threat hanging over Latinx viewers' heads is that if we don't watch a film or series, or god forbid we don't like it and want to watch, then we'll never get anything else for years. That sucks.

I refuse to be held hostage because Hollywood won't do right by us. I demand more options so I can freely love and hate, watch or not watch, and I demand more opportunities for Latinx creators so they can take big creative swings that lead to a richer kaleidoscope of stories about our wide and varied cultures. Hollywood is failing Latinx people miserably, but we should try harder not to fail ourselves and each other.

When the Walter Mercado documentary Mucho, Mucho Amor premiered, it was a breath of fresh air, and allowed us to learn more about the rich life led by the legendary astrologer. HBO's charmingly bizarre comedy Los Espookys is not only mostly in Spanish, but is based on a completely batshit premise (a team of goths create haunted house-like scares for paying clients). What We Do in the Shadows has a Latinx vampire "familiar" as its lead character, living among a ragtag group of bloodsuckers and doing their bidding as a servant, and it's the funniest shit ever. Vida attempted to tell a gentrification story that explored the many issues facing Mexican Americans caught between two cultures. These are creative gambles that express other sides to Latinx identity without pandering or relying on tired tropes (Abuela throws a chancla! Flaming Hot Cheetos!), and still have heart

If Selena: The Series needs to exist (and be a monster hit) to open doors for more such nuanced, creative, and wide-ranging storytelling for Latinx people, by all means, I'll take it. But that doesn't mean we should stop pushing for new stories to be told, other heroes to be amplified, and different experiences within Latinx culture to be explored. We deserve better, and Hollywood needs to wise up to our exhaustion. I want a world where Selena is one story, not the only story.

Alex Zaragoza is a senior staff writer at VICE.