Every Mexican-American in America has seen the 1997 biopic about slain Tejano music singer, Selena Quintanilla. I say that with confidence but any Mexican-American who has not seen Selena needs to watch it NOW. And even if you aren’t Mexican-American it’s still an amazing movie to watch that tells the story of a remarkable family. I would like to draw attention to one scene in particular before I go into what a hero Selena has been for all Mexican-Americans. Here’s how it goes down:
- Abraham: They don’t accept us over there. They never have.
- Selena: Hello, we’re Mexican.
- Abraham: No, we are Mexican-American, and they don’t like Mexican-Americans. And they can be mean. And they can tear us apart over there. And Selena’s Spanish is …
- Selena: What about my Spanish? I’ve been singing in Spanish for 10 years. It’s perfect.
- Abraham: Singing, yes. But when you speak it, you speak it a little funny. And down there you gotta speak perfectly or the press will eat you up and spit you out alive. I’ve seen them do it.
- Selena: Overreacting as usual.
- A.B.: Dad, the music will speak for itself, Dad.
- Abraham: Listen, being Mexican-American is tough. Anglos jump all over you if you don’t speak English perfectly. Mexicans jump all over you if you don’t speak Spanish perfectly. We gotta be twice as perfect as anybody else.
- A.B.: [Laughs]
- Abraham: Why’re you laughing? What’s so funny?
- Selena: Nothing.
- A.B.: Nothing.
- Abraham: I’m serious.
- A.B.: I know you’re serious, Dad.
- Abraham: Our family has been here for centuries. And yet they treat us as if we just swam across the Rio Grande. I mean, we gotta know about John Wayne and Pedro Infante. We gotta know about Frank Sinatra and Agustín Lara. We gotta know about Oprah and Cristina. Anglo food is too bland. And yet when we go to Mexico, we get the runs. Now that, to me, is embarrassing.
- Selena: Oh, Dad!
- Abraham: Japanese-Americans, Italian-Americans, German-Americans, their homeland is on the other side of the ocean. Ours … is right next door. Right over there. And we gotta prove to the Mexicans how Mexican we are. And we gotta prove to the Americans how American we are. We gotta be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans both at the same time. It’s exhausting. Damn! Nobody knows how tough it is to be a Mexican-American.
I tried shortening that quote down to fewer lines, but I couldn’t because each line serves an important purpose so thank you for bearing with me. That is one of the most iconic scenes in Mexican-American cinema history. I’m sure most Mexican Americans can recite each line of that scene perfectly, I know I can. What Abraham says speaks to me, speaks to all of us. And you don’t just have to be Mexican-American to get it. Colombian-Americans, Cuban-Americans, El Salvadorian-Americans all get the treatment we get, often because they are confused for Mexicans. Anyone who has been asked: “When did you come to this country?” or “Do you have a green card?” or “Why don’t you speak Spanish, aren’t you Mexican?” (that last one pains me the most) shares this unique bond that Abraham validates in this scene.
Beyond that very amazing scene, the movie Selena portrays the story of a woman who broke down gender and ethnic barriers. While her dream was to sing songs like Donna Summer, she had to find success in Tajano (Spanish language) music before she could cross over to Anglo (English language) pop. And success in Tejano music she found. The first woman to do so, as the genre was very sexist before Selena. Selena was born and raised in the United States, just like her parents and grandparents. Many young Mexican-Americans can relate to her lineage. She grew up speaking English, but learned Spanish to pursue a career in music.
Although she was murdered 20 years ago, her legacy lives on. A hologram tour is in development for young fans who have grown up inspired by Selena but never got to see her live. It’s hard to put into words just what Selena means to Hispanics in America. She tells us (through her success) that anything is possible and that you should never let anybody stop you from dreaming big.