‘Selena: The Series,’ Dreaming of Her

A new Netflix series depicts the pop star from baby crooner to international idol, “sprinkled with a little bit of glitter,” her sister said.

Christian Serratos stars in a series that aims to reconstitute Selena, killed at 23, as a person instead of a tragic parable.
Christian Serratos stars in a series that aims to reconstitute Selena, killed at 23, as a person instead of a tragic parable.Credit…Natalia Mantini for The New York Times

The Grammy-winning singer Selena Quintanilla-Pérez died in 1995, at age 23, at a Days Inn in Corpus Christi, Tex., shot in the back by the president of her first fan club. Her unfinished fifth album, “Dreaming of You,” topped the Billboard 200 three months later.

An artist who recorded mostly Tejano music — a regional fusion of corrido, mariachi and polka rooted in South Texas — and who died on the verge of broader success, Selena is arguably as popular in 2020 as at any moment during her life. In her first hit song, “Como La Flor” (1992), she compares herself to a withering flower. But more than 25 years after her death, Selena fandom blooms and blooms and blooms.

Drake wears her airbrushed face on a T-shirt. Cardi B covers her songs. Beyoncé identifies as a fan. In downtown Corpus Christi stands a life-size bronze statue of Selena, dressed in bustier and motorcycle boots — an outfit much like the one the Smithsonian sometimes displays.

Selena’s signature style — long bangs, red lips, arched brows — has become as archetypical as the looks of other pop mononyms, like thin Elvis or “Purple Rain” Prince or “Blonde Ambition” Madonna. Earlier this year, MAC Cosmetics announced its second Selena-inspired collection. Pieces from the release sold out in one minute.

On Friday, Netflix will release the first part of “Selena: The Series,” nine episodes — of a planned 18 — that follow the singer’s tour bus-driven journey. A gentle show, tailored to the rhythms of a family dramedy, it takes Selena (Madison Taylor Baez as child Selena, Christian Serratos as the young adult) from baby crooner to bedazzled pop idol. Offering intimate details of her childhood and family life, the show portrays Selena as both a typical American girl and a born superstar.

“This is not a documentary,” Suzette Quintanilla, Selena’s sister and an executive producer, said cheerfully. “It’s sprinkled with a little bit of glitter.”

“Selena: The Series” portrays Selena as both a typical American girl and a born superstar.
“Selena: The Series” portrays Selena as both a typical American girl and a born superstar.Credit…Michael Lavine/Netflix

Selena’s career burned bright and brief, like a backyard sparkler. Born in Lake Jackson, Tex., in 1971, to second-generation Mexican-American parents (her mother, Marcella Quintanilla, also has Native American ancestry), Selena was the youngest of three children. In 1981, she and her siblings, Suzette and A.B. Quintanilla, began to perform at their parents’ restaurant as Selena y Los Dinos. Selena learned Spanish phonetically to sing Tejano music. The band released its first album in 1984, recording on small labels until signing with EMI Latin in 1989.

In 1992, Selena eloped with Chris Perez, a former guitarist in her band. They moved into an unassuming brick house next door to her parents and sister, two down from her brother, who wrote many of her songs. She booked a few acting roles, signed as a spokeswoman for soft drinks and shampoo, opened two boutiques that carried her rhinestone-studded designs. On March 31, 1995, in the midst of recording her “crossover” album, she was murdered by Yolanda Saldivar, a former nurse with a history of embezzlement. Tens of thousands of fans viewed her coffin during a 12-hour visitation at the Corpus Christi convention center.

“Her death and her tragedy helped Latinx communities in the 1990s really make sense of the tragedies that were affecting their own lives,” said Deborah Paredez, an ethnic studies scholar and the author of “Selenidad: Selena, Latinos, and the Performance of Memory.” “And the promise of her life also provided a way for many Latinx communities to articulate their dreams.”

Jaime Dávila, an executive producer on the series, spent his childhood in McAllen, Tex., listening to Selena’s songs at birthdays and weddings. “It’s been special my entire life, her story,” he said, in a phone interview. A few years ago, a colleague introduced him to Suzette Quintanilla, and they agreed to collaborate on Selena’s story.

Selena died in 1995 but is arguably as popular in 2020 as at any moment during her life.
Selena died in 1995 but is arguably as popular in 2020 as at any moment during her life.Credit…George Gongora/Corpus Christi Caller-times, via Associated Press

Dávila’s production company, Campanario, then pitched the series to Francisco Ramos, Netflix’s vice president of content for Latin America. “They had a very, very good pitch,” he recalled, “which was, let’s do it as a family series, like if she were a normal person. But it turns out that she’s Selena.”

Of course, Selena has already received the onscreen biographical treatment, in a beloved 1997 movie that launched the career of Jennifer Lopez, which the family also authorized. But this version — 18 episodes of about 40 minutes each — provides more detail and answers some of the fan questions that have accumulated over the years. “Like, ‘How did this happen?’ or “How did this song get created?’” Quintanilla said. She shared stories and memorabilia with the writers, creating a series — with its occasional scenes of financial hardship and shopping with food stamps — that feels less “sugarcoated” than the film, she said.

Still, the scripts never center any particular struggle for long. Tensions resolve. Obstacles crumble. The episodes underscore hard work, familial loyalty, the glittery gift of Selena’s talent. The show takes a few liberties with fact and timeline, Dávila admitted. “But I would say the emotions of it are 100 percent authentic — that’s what we were going for.”

The characters of Selena and the Quintanillas skew broader than in many streaming and cable dramas, which might suggest that “Selena” underestimates the audience’s ability to tolerate nuance. Or maybe this family really was uncomplicated in its mutual devotion.

There was a Selena biopic in 1997, but the series, pictured here, offers more details about both her family life and her music.
There was a Selena biopic in 1997, but the series, pictured here, offers more details about both her family life and her music.Credit…Netflix

Could Selena possibly have been as sunshiny, as generous, as self-possessed as she appears in Serratos’s performance? Aside from changing her hairstyle perhaps too often, was she really without flaws?

Pretty much, her sister said. “Unless you woke her up. That was probably the grouchiest you were ever going to get from her.”

That the current pop cultural taste champions rebel girls doesn’t mean that television should ignore girls as apparently dutiful as Selena. But of course, she was more than just dutiful.

“There might be a star quality that people have or don’t have,” Serratos said in a Zoom interview. “And if that is true, then Selena had it. Not only was she beautiful, she was authentically herself.”

“I’m just so happy, as a Mexican-American woman, that I get to play a Mexican-American woman who opened the door for me,” she added.

The series, which was shot at Baja Studios in Rosarito, Mexico, splits the biographical difference between extraordinary and ordinary. If the show makes the most of Serratos’s charisma and glow, episodes emphasize the day-to-day grind of gigging musicians: rehearsing, traveling, performing for crowds small and large, humping gear back to the bus.

“We were just a normal family,” Quintanilla said. “The only difference really is that we all came together to create music.”

“I’m just so happy, as a Mexican-American woman, that I get to play a Mexican-American woman who opened the door for me,” Serratos said.
“I’m just so happy, as a Mexican-American woman, that I get to play a Mexican-American woman who opened the door for me,” Serratos said.Credit…Natalia Mantini for The New York Times

The emphasis on the everyday has another purpose. Selena’s early death and her public mourning reduced her to a particular iconography — an airbrushed face, an empty jacket. Scenes of home perms and family dinners and tour bus goofing off reconstitute her as a person, not a tragic symbol.

“Selena: The Series” negotiates her identity as simultaneously Mexican-American and all-American. In one scene, Selena’s father, Abraham Quintanilla, objects to the exoticized image chosen for an album cover. “What is so exotic about Corpus Christi?” Abraham (Ricardo Chavira), complains to an EMI executive. “She is an American girl who just happens to be able to sing in Spanish.”

Still, her Tejana roots partially explain Netflix’s eagerness to market the English-language series heavily in Mexico. “She is a huge superstar in Mexico, as well as in large parts of Latin America, and a source of pride even today,” Ramos said. But she remains adored in the United States, too, and her story provides an opportunity to build a show around a Hispanic family, a rarity for American television, streaming or network.

“People don’t understand the Latino community in the United States,” Dávila said. “They don’t get us. One of the reasons is because you don’t see us onscreen.” He started Campanario and produced “Selena” to help change that.

Suzette Quintanilla understands her family’s cultural identity this way: “Our ancestors are from Mexico, but we are born and raised third-generation here in the U.S. and we are American,” she said. “It’s OK to embrace both sides.”

Every side embraces Selena. Artists like J Balvin and Luis Fonsi cite her music, and so do Katy Perry and Kacey Musgraves. A new generation of fans are discovering Selena — they see themselves reflected in her music, her style and her legacy, just as their mothers once did.

“It’s like an inheritance we pass down,” said Paredez, the ethnic studies scholar. “Whatever story Netflix is invested in telling, I will be much more curious to hear how fans themselves are going to interact with that series.”

One fan has already seen the first nine episodes. “I cried, I’m not going to lie,” Suzette Quintanilla said. “But I loved it.” She thinks that her sister, who used to joke about how she would still be wearing rhinestone bras at 50, would have loved it, too.

“I think she probably would have,” she said. “I mean, it’s the story of our lives.”

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