Tejano star Selena represented the cultural promise of a more open U.S. Mexico border. Her death presaged the ultimate fate of that dream.
Twenty years ago, in January 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect, promising to perforate the social-commericial membrane between the U.S. and its neighbors. Just months before, Tex-Mex superstar Selena had begun recording on her English-language crossover, Dreaming of You, an album meant to catapult her to a new level of cross-border (and cross-cultural) fame. Neither of these worked out as planned.
At first, NAFTA’s ratification held tentative promise: Some policymakers anticipated that the income gap between the two countries would shrink as the treaty expanded trade, gradually eliminating tariffs between Mexico and the U.S. Logistically, a strengthened Mexican economy might temper the impetus for ongoing economic migration from Mexico into the U.S.; culturally, it could make for a more level playing field, with the potential to usher in an age of North American unification. It could even help mitigate Anglo-American cultural hegemony. Selena, a Texas-born Latina with a geographically scattered and primarily Spanish-speaking fan base, forecasted what that might look like.
Selena’s full name was Selena Quintanilla but, like Ciccone before her, she took to stage on a first-name-only basis. By the time she began work on Dreaming of You, the luminescent young songstress had been poised as “the Mexican Madonna” for a new and English-speaking audience that wouldn’t necessarily catch how she wasn’t Mexican but Chicana—an American-born citizen of Mexican descent, the daughter of a second-generation Mexican American father and half-Cherokee, half-Tejana mother. That distinction—that she was neither one thing nor another but several—matters.
Growing up in Corpus Christi, Texas, roughly a three-hour drive from the Mexican border, Selena was indelibly shaped by what Gloria Anzaldúa, in her influential 1987 book Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, calls “una herida abierta where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds.”
This herida abierta—the open wound of a permeable boundary—also gave shape to the distinctly border-hugging genre Selena performed in: Tejano is a frontera soundtrack encompassing a history of invasions and migrations, blood and betrayal. As Anzaldúa writes, Europeans and Anglo-Americans made their uninvited debut in Texas territory—then still a part of Mexico—in the 1800s. After the Battle of the Alamo and eventual capture of Santa Ana in 1836, Texas became Texas and Tejanos became outsiders in their own terrain. With the new Texas came European influx. Poles, Germans, and Czechs entered the region to work as ranchers. They brought their music: waltzes and polkas and the accordions on which those were played. These would fuse with Mexican ranchera music—an early 20th century descendent of the older mariachi tradition—and give rise to norteño music and its slightly slower (but otherwise almost identical) sibling, conjunto. Conjunto became associated with Tejano culture, adding in soupçons of rock and roll and R&B as the century progressed.
These overlapping influences are especially present in Selena’s wrong-side-of-the-tracks love ballad “Amor Prohibido” (“forbidden love”), the title track of Selena’s final, chart-topping Spanish album. Layering dance-pop synths over traditional cumbia instrumentation, the song’s first-person narrator laments a society that tsk-tsks her dalliance with an upper-class suitor, declaring: “Money doesn’t matter in you or in me, or in our hearts.” The Tejana writes her own rules, follows her heart, and risks everything.
This spirit of defiance is pivotal to the way Selena’s life story gets told. In Gregory Nava’s biopic Selena (1997) the young idol-in-waiting (played by Chicana child actress Rebecca Lee Meza) gets coached on the finer points of Spanish pronunciation by her father, Abraham (Edward James Olmos). Selena and her siblings had been playing together in a 2.0 version of their dad’s former doo-wop band (he hadn’t sung in Spanish, either) with mixed success, and it dawns on Abraham that by taking up regionally beloved classics, his offspring might play more favorably to their local demographic. “But I don’t know Spanish!” yelps young Selena, baffled. This prompts a pointed (and a tad heavy-handed) lecture on the importance of knowing her identity: She’s American, but she’s also Mexican. In order to sing from the heart, the artist needs to know what exactly that means.
Going back to English, as an adult, could be seen as the full-circle celebration of this fused identity. In a 1994 interview with Spanish-language talk-show host Cristina Saralegui during the early stages of recording Dreaming of You, Selena says that “Tejano music is a [cultural] mix,” explaining that the genre’s mutability made an English-language album transition not only a realized “dream” for herself and bandmates but an inevitability.
This inevitability is that of the mestiza, who grapples with white, indigenous, and Mexican cultural inputs. “Cradled in one culture, sandwiched between two cultures, straddling all three cultures and their value systems, la mestiza undergoes a struggle of flesh, a struggle of borders, an inner war,” writes Anzaldúa. “Like others having or living in more than one culture, we get multiple, often opposing messages. The coming together of two self-consistent but habitually incompatible frames of reference causes un choque, a cultural collision.” In a context of Chicanismo, those factions are muddled further by citizenship—the legal designation of belonging. On paper, the Chicana isn’t Mexican at all. Yet despite her passport status, she’s American in the “wrong” ways. Her surname evokes a legacy of Spanish conquest of indigenous lands and bodies; maybe her English is inflected with a suspiciously hispanicized cadence. She betrays origins beyond the border.
Selena, a glass-half-full public persona, tended to downplay the reality of prejudice. “Anywhere in the world you go, you find racism, discrimination,” she told the magazine Entérese!. “Not just in the United States, or in Texas. It’s very sad for me, but that’s the way it is. I can’t change the world by myself.”
Still, Selena’s early decision to switch to Spanish paid off. By the time she hit her teens, she had graduated from the quinceañera and state-fair circuit to the Tejano Music Awards, where she was anointed Best Female Vocalist at 16. When she made the decision to cross back into English in 1994, she’d released five albums and amassed 14 additional Tejano Music Awards among a bevy of others, including a Grammy. She’d also launched a successful line of Texas clothing boutiques and even had a cameo on Dos Mujeres, Un Camino (“two women, one road”) the NAFTA-anticipatory telenovela about a Mexican trucker (played by Erik Estrada, the Puerto Rican actor best known for the 1970s motorcycle cop procedural CHiPs) who two-times his wife with a hot young thing he meets across the Tijuana border. The time had come to stake new frontiers.
Boundaries are also islands. Discussing a recent multipart NPR feature exploring the span of the Mexico-U.S. border, reporter Steve Inskeep noted that “The two sides of the border, for all the security and fear there, are more similar to each other than the country on either side.” The reinforced legal boundary is an artificial one. Inhabitants on both sides are marked by frontierism, psychically imprinted by the constant code-switching that comes with being the embodied site of a cultural back-and-forth. But there are limits to the parallels. El Paso, Texas, one of the least crime-ridden cities in America, sits just on the other side from the Rio Grande as Ciudad Juárez.
NAFTA didn’t correct for these disparities, but neither was it all disappointment for everyone south of the border. “We went from being a country where things were assembled to a country where things are manufactured,” Mexican soft-drink distributor Juan Gallardo Thurlow told U-T San Diego newspaper in March, exactly a year after being added to Forbes’ ranking of billionaires. But not everyone can count themselves among the Gallardo Thurlows of the world. One of the most criticized facets of NAFTA’s fallout has been the absurdly uneven distribution of the wealth it promised to generate for the Mexican economy. Few got a slice of the pie; many more, shit sandwich. If only the hopeful, class-transcending chorus of “Amor Prohibido” rang true in life.
Meanwhile, American immigration policy made clear that ostensible trade equals do not actual equals make. Consider: the Mexican Madonna would sell one-fifth of the total albums as her American counterpart. Since 1994, the Mexico-U.S. Border has become ludicrously fortified to guard against undocumented northern crossing. Over the past two decades, roughly a third of the nearly-2,000-mile-long border has been splintered by a wall or fence.
The trend has continued: Just this March, the Israeli company Elbit Systems Ltd. announced that it would be producing surveillance systems for la frontera not unlike those it already makes for the Israeli West Bank barrier. Obama has deported nearly 2 million people since taking office, many Mexican immigrants among these.
Selena didn’t live to see any of this. Two weeks shy of her 24th birthday, in February 1995, the singer was shot dead by her fan club president over a financial dispute. She had been notoriously low-key about her own boundaries; a former neighbor would point out that, in lieu of bodyguards, a fence was all that protected Selena’s home. Selena’s crossover album peaked at No. 22 on the Billboard charts shortly after its release, five months after her death. It’s sentimental and dated adult contemporary—track-for-track, weaker than her dynamic, cross-referential Tejano output—but a couple of standout singles (“I Could Fall in Love” and “Dreaming of You,” which both received their share “mainstream” English-language radio airplay) proved memorable. Selena’s nimble, uncompromising vocals make them work.
About 3,000 mourners attended her closed-coffin viewing, moved from a Corpus Christi funeral home to a downtown convention center. Then-governor George W. Bush declared the slain star’s April 16 birthday as “Selena Day” in Texas. The loss reverberated beyond the border. In the wake of her death, People magazine released two commemorative issues, which together sold more than a million copies. In 2011, the United States Post Office included Selena in a “Latin Legends” memorial stamp series alongside the likes of Tito Puente and Celia Cruz, luminaries whose careers spanned several of Selena’s lifetimes.
No Chicana musician since has succeeded in disrupting the cultural narrative of unequal distribution fostered in NAFTA’s wake. Selena herself never managed to fulfill her promise as a dual-language, tricultural—Mexican, American, South Texan—star. The cultural-economic gap between Mexico and the U.S. continues, its bridges unrealized.