‘Selena: The Series,’ dreaming of her

By Alexis Soloski

Grammy-winning singer Selena Quintanilla-Pérez died in 1995, at 23, at a Days Inn in Corpus Christi, Texas, 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 released 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’s career burned bright and brief, like a backyard sparkler. Born in Lake Jackson, Texas, 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 spokesperson 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 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, Texas, listening to Selena’s songs at birthdays and weddings.

“It’s been special my entire life, her story,” he said. A few years ago, a colleague introduced him to Suzette Quintanilla and they agreed to collaborate on Selena’s story.

Dávila’s production company, Campanario, then pitched the series to Francisco Ramos, Netflix’s vice president for 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 on 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% authentic — that’s what we were going for.”

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’ 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.”

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.

“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. It’s OK to embrace both sides.”

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