By Carlos Morales
The cultural influence of the late Selena Quintanilla Perez has only grown since her untimely death twenty-five years ago. Over the idol’s career, the Queen of Tejano Music sold millions of albums and earned a Grammy. Today, she’s the focus of an upcoming Netflix series, a cosmetics line and continued devotion from South Texas and beyond.
That legacy is nearly impossible to escape, says Cat Cardenas, an Associate Editor at Texas Monthly. “She’s a huge, huge cultural icon and just a very important figure for us, especially growing up as a Latina.”
Cardenas spoke to Marfa Public Radio about the life and legacy of Selena.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Listen to the complete interview by pressing play on the above audio player.
Carlos Morales: Cat, you’ve written about Selena and I think you’ve even dubbed yourself, at least on Twitter, the unofficial Selena correspondent at Texas Monthly. What’s she mean for you?
Cat Cardenas: I grew up in San Antonio, born and raised in San Antonio. And, not just in Texas, but especially in South Texas, she’s a huge, huge cultural icon and just a very important figure for us, especially growing up as a Latina. It’s kind of just hard to escape her legacy, her music. Because of that, I just grew up with a really big awareness and appreciation for all of the visibility that she had for Latinas in Texas.
CM: What did she mean for Texas Latinos at the time? How do we see that now, 25 years after her death?
CC: I think Selena was one of the first Tejana artist, Mexican-American artist, Latina artist that kind of kicked off the entire Latin wave that we eventually saw with J.Lo, Ricky Martin, Menudo—all of those artists who eventually did make it huge in America and for American audiences. But Selena, without her I don’t know we would have had them or would have had them as quickly as we did in the late 90s and early 2000s.
CM: Why do you imagine we continue to see that legacy grow?
CC: I think it was kind of a confluence of things. There are artists who are incredible vocalists, but may not be incredible dancers—they don’t have the whole package. And Selena was a rare artist who kind of had it all. She had a personality that could really draw you in. She had the backstory that made her feel relatable and real to a lot of people. She didn’t shy away from her Mexican-American heritage at all. She didn’t try and sacrifice that and create a kind of a sanitized image to try and pass herself off as something that she wasn’t. She poured her heart and soul into designing the costumes that she wore. It kind of made her seem like someone who desperately wanted to be famous, but you desperately wanted her to be famous, too. Everyone was rooting for her.
CM: In the 1997 movie about Selena’s life, there’s a moment where Edward James Olmos, the actor portraying Selena’s father, turns to his children and says being a Mexican-American is exhausting and that nobody knows how tough it is. It’s a pretty iconic moment that I think helps us understand the world and space Selena found herself in.
CC: Growing up after this movie was already very popular, it’s a sentiment that I heard fairly frequently in my own household. It perfectly encapsulated something that we all felt and that they grew up feeling and that I even felt.
Being Mexican-American, being Latins, it’s a very complicated experience, because a lot of people don’t understand that it’s not just about race or ethnicity, it’s about culture. It’s very easy growing up kind of between two worlds, not feeling like you entirely belong to one of them or the other and always feeling a little bit left out of each of them.
CM: What’s the world where Selena was able to find that sense of belonging?
CC: Well, I think that because she did such a good job of just being very upfront with who she was, she wasn’t afraid to speak Spanglish when she was in Mexico. She wasn’t afraid to trip up on her words and admit that she couldn’t remember the right Spanish word for something. All of that honesty kind of endeared people to her.
CM: Selena had a certain flair and style that seemed to grate on some of the more socially conservative Mexican-Americans and fans of Tejano music. Which makes me think it was still a challenge for her to carve out this place of comfort for herself?
CC: It’s not really a secret how patriarchal and how machista the Mexican-American culture can be. And, you know, growing up as a Latina, especially in Selena’s time and coming from a very religious family, I’m sure that, you know, that was very difficult. But that is part of the reason that she definitely got a lot of younger fans on her side. Because for young women to see her not being afraid of her sexuality and not being afraid of her curves in her body and things that Latinas are typically made to be afraid of or ashamed of, she kind of took those things and made them part of her image and her brand and took back the power from those things. I think that was very empowering for a lot of young women to see.