Como La Flor: Selena as Latina Feminist Icon
To name Selena is to create an unending mental list of descriptors. Strong, brilliant, sweet, carefree, humble, talented and savvy, she was a magnetic young Latina-Americana woman fighting the oppressive misogyny of Latin culture. She actively fought to make her own mark in society -not only as a singer, fashion designer and voice for young mujeres like her- but most importantly, independent from the reach of her strong-willed father.
Selena embodied everything that was missing from our lives as young Latinas. We were parched and starving for cultural and societal representation (and still are, mind you) amidst such white culture and old school Latinx values.
How many of us saw ourselves reflected in her? In her curves, her features, her hair type, her skin color, her tenacity, in her kindness, in her unapologetic way of expression. How many of us looked at her sometimes visibly blownout hair, with its little halo of frizz and saw our own fight with the hairdryer? Colonial culture taught us to flatten and tame our curly hair as a means of taming our wilderness, our lushness, our indigenous beauty. When we saw her flaunting her curls in ornate fashions, we saw our own roots, which white society ridiculed and deemed gaudy, garish, hood. To be unapologetically curly as a Latina was to fight the ideas of domesticity, of submission under Eurocentric standards. Urban 90’s counterculture started to overturn these ideals with the afro and latine reclamation of pre-colonial identity.
Who else did we have to look up to then? Gloria Estefan was more like an older, less connected proto-feminist tia than role model, and certainly not her precursor, Iris Chacón, who came way before many of us were born. Who did we have as a cultural compass that exemplified the first-generation blossoming of self, independent of our marianista mothers and our severe fathers?
Yet it must be noted without the imposing and loving Abraham Quintanilla, Selena wouldn’t have become the icon that she is today. He was necessary and quintessential in catapulting Selena into the brand she grew to become, in both life and legacy. His industriousness and unrelenting force in putting her at the forefront of a very whitewashed industry rivaled her natural given talent. His own personal, crushed dreams of megastardom in racist America helped fuel his fervor for representation and grandiosity. Many of us modern Latina feministas recognize the invaluable footprint this man had in elevating Selena to the stardom she gained. In Selena he saw the future. His overprotectiveness and old school domineering mentality was both the reason for her fame and the fuel for her own eventual fight for autonomy.
The contrasts in male figures in Selena’s life are what make her story all the more powerful. Chris Pérez, a sharp contrast to Abraham, was the type of modern male partner we all hoped would be by our side one day. In our blossoming minds, as we were formulating our own notions of romantic relationships, we grudgingly saw the only thing we knew – male dominance and female submission. Many of us rebelled against this; we wanted equality. We were internally/externally challenging the mores set by our own misogynistic culture. Although some of us had mothers in the workforce, who in themselves were the modern versions of their housewife mothers, some of us didn’t just want marriage and children. We wanted to solely throw ourselves into our careers, we were curious for higher education, cultural representation of the fierceness that was in our DNA. Everything our foremothers endured pre- and post-colonialization, even their marianista submission, was a reflection of their ferocious strength. We were manifesting that tenacity aloud. We asked uncomfortable questions, made bold declarations that scared our mothers and got us grounded or slapped by the very fathers we were challenging.
Pérez exemplified traits we’d not historically seen in Latino men. He confidently elevated and exalted Selena in ways we hadn’t ever imagined a partner could. A partner who wasn’t threatened by a woman’s bountiful success. Someone not emasculated or intimidated by her power. A man who saw the ascension of his female counterpart as a gift, not a burden or threat. A man who yes, was shy and introverted, but didn’t shirk or shrink in the glow of her mounting stardom. The adulation he exuded blew us away.
True, Pérez had the stereotypical Latino badboy past. However, upon careful observation, his badboy act was clearly dictated by his own volatile experiences under the crushing, unforgiving foot of machismo, self-hatred and the expectations set on Latino male youth. When allowed to blossom under Selena’s staunch individualism, love and encouragement, he showed his true colors as the pure antithesis of the machista Latino. Soft, quiet and encouraging, he exemplified qualities that were expected of women in our culture. This inversion in my mind always translated as Selena’s vision of a more egalitarian future -away from the antiquated mores of female submission- into a life where she could continue to grow into her mounting, unrivaled power, alongside someone who was equally as powerful in his own right. In this then-progressive union, he grew into his own sense of self alongside a phenomenally powerful woman. Many of us wonder whether their young romance would have survived the many pitfalls that come with international success. Unfortunately, we will never know.
Selena is a social marker for everything we wanted from our lives, and still want. We have yet to have any other modern cultural icon to date that embodies the very foundational tenets of Latina rebelliousness: kindness, intelligence, sensuality, joy, creativity, boldness and industriousness, all qualities Selena naturally exuded. And please don’t @me with your suggestions of JLo (who very lovingly portrayed her in the 1997 film) porque she’s a good entertainer (at best) but can’t sing or generally act very convincingly. Le falta dedos para piano en ciertas cosas que hace, and although has made incredible strides for the Latina community as a shrewd business woman, creator and entertainer, is not the leading feminist force some of us seek. Her white-adjacent fluidity has granted her access to spheres many of us will never gain admission to, and depending on who you ask, this is either worthy of praise or criticism. Some of the things she’s done have been in direct contradiction to the community she claims to come from. The Latina queens many of us seek to represent us are unrepentantly brown/black/indigenous without caving to whiteness, Eurocentric standards or selling out under the weight of their own ambition.
In Selena, we saw a young woman emboldened and inspired by her own pursuit of happiness. Her humble power, her bountiful energy, her refreshing confidence, her choices with her body, her love life, her talent. Many of us were taught to play small, to mold ourselves around our men. Yet so many of us knew we were stalwart and unmovable, true to the shape of our own spirits. We didn’t want to bend to the will of any man, and we simply couldn’t. We wanted to illuminate our lives with the brightness of our own dreams, not someone else’s. We saw in her someone paving the way for a new Latinahood: fully enforcing her autonomy, using her voice for acts of kindness and compassion, confident in her curvaceous body, fiercely independent and warm, all while keeping the beautiful parts of our Latina culture that bring us joy and poder.
And so, just at the precipice of what would have been, without a doubt, a meteoric explosion of crossover stardom, Selena was tragically snipped from the vine. With it, we lost the role model who showed us that autonomy, unrepentant strength and success were possible. That we could aspire and achieve something beyond the roles assigned to us by our complicated culture. A role model comparable in power never surfaced. As we bloomed, we became liberators in our own households and in our culture as proof that we could lead our lives under our own terms as well.
Como la flor, Selena was cruelly and horrifically silenced, y su vida, su vida se marchito. Pero con tanto amor, we will eternally hold her as our undeniable queen of modern latinahood.
This piece was originally published on December 8, 2020.