But Selena remains as much more than music royalty. What makes her stand out even today is the fact that her status as an icon is in large part because of, not despite, the richness of her identity as a Latina.
Like many US-born Latinos who grew up speaking English, Selena, who in Spanish-language interviews sometimes charmingly struggled to locate the correct words, learned to embrace a blend of cultures, a fact that the Netflix series underscores early on.
“Why do I need to sing in Spanish,” a young Selena (Madison Taylor Baez) protests after her imperious father, Abraham Quintanilla (Ricardo Chavira), switches off a Commodores song that was playing on the radio. “I’m American.”
“And Mexican,” her father says. “My family came from Mexico. You came from me. Like a thread, like a tree. You know, with the roots over there but growing here. Both countries, Selena. They come together in you.”
It’s this layered representation — the keen manner in which Selena forged a distinct identity and an iridescent persona from different cultural elements, from Mexico and the US, from Tejano and dance-pop and R&B — that sticks with superfan Laura Saiz, 32, who identifies as Chicana.
Andrea Robledo, 42, said that she didn’t grow up in a house with her father, who’s Mexican American, and that she didn’t learn Spanish until high school, when she began to explore her Latina identity.
Selena’s legacy continues to challenge US norms in other ways, too. While other Latina musicians have achieved widespread fame since the singer’s death, very few have done so like Selena did — that is, without appealing to broader music industry tastes.
Selena typified a different look: the dark hair, the brown skin, the wide hips in that legendary purple pantsuit, the full lips painted wine red.
Paredez also notes that “Selena and her subsequent phenomenon opened up a space for the representation of working-class, brown women and made visible traditionally ignored Latina/o histories and the ongoing Latina/o presence within US cultural, political and economic spheres.”
Still today, Selena’s celebrity speaks to a certain experience — one variety of the Mexican American experience — and welcomes in others.
Seldom does US society make room for Latinos along the spectrum of orientations and identities that go against the mainstream. You could say that Selena’s abiding star persona corrects that omission.
To Betancourt, who’s queer, Selena’s magic is specific.
“What makes Selena a gay icon is the element of self-fashioning she embodied,” he told CNN. “She wasn’t just self-made, in that she came from a working-class family. She also did her own makeup. She designed her own costumes. She was figuring out how she wanted to present herself to the world. That DIY aesthetic is important to queer people. They see that they can do things with their bodies, their clothes, their gender performance and be the person they want to be.”
That reading is as pure a distillation of Selena’s impact as might be imaginable.
To many of Selena’s Latino fans, the singer’s legacy is about possibility — about proffering what could be, about creating space, about making knottiness legible and OK.
Or as Rodriguez put it, “Selena symbolizes the fact that there’s no one way to be Latino. We’re all different. She reassures me that I’m doing it correctly, that I’m doing the whole Mexican American thing correctly for me.”