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‘Selena: The Series’ and When Legend Meets Reality

Netflix’s show about the iconic Tejana singer hardly seems to be about her. That may be because it’s trying to capture a little-explored side of her.

Getty Images/Netflix/Ringer illustration

In 2020, 25 years after she was tragically killed at the age of 23, Selena is firmly entrenched in popular culture. You know her by that one, single name. Brands like MAC and Forever 21 have built collections around her. Even when it feels like we’re approaching a point of saturation, there’s always something on the horizon—the latest being Netflix’s Selena: The Series, a multi-season look at the singer’s rise to stardom. In a sense, this was what she wanted: to be embraced by both sides of her community, Americans and Mexicans, in Spanish and in English.

The series’ expanded approach to Selena’s story offers a new way of looking at the singer, one that’s less a myth-making portrait of Selena Quintanilla-Pérez and more of a collective scrapbook of her family’s experiences. This is a matter of necessity: For better or worse, much of Selena’s story has been covered elsewhere, namely in Gregory Nava’s 1997 film starring Jennifer Lopez. Thus, The Series often sidelines Christian Serratos’s meek version of Selena and looks elsewhere for narrative, as if she’s just along for the ride rather than in the driver’s seat. She spends plenty of time away from the stage, in casual clothes rather than concert-level costumes. It’s a humanizing effort on its face, yet the accessibility feels incomplete because there’s no explanation of what Selena wants and how she really feels. We may never know those things, but it’s strange for a series named after the singer to not even try to imagine them.

Instead, Selena delves into the roles her family and their band, Los Dinos, played in her ascendance. (Not coincidentally, Selena’s family members A.B. and Suzette Quintanilla are credited as producers on the show.) It highlights her dad’s strong will, her brother’s writing and producing skills, and her sister’s emotional support; it shines a light on some of the personalities that had a hand in her rise, like bandmates Pete Astudillo and Ricky Vela, and show host Johnny Canales, who gave Selena y Los Dinos one of their first big breaks. It’s a pure ensemble show—in a way, the framing demythologizes Selena, making her into just another member of the band. This is the way her family remembers her, or at least what memories of her they feel comfortable sharing. But it’s not one that lines up with the long-held vision of a strong Tejana who took center stage in a male-dominated musical genre. She broke records and sold out shows in her lifetime, how couldn’t she be the star in a show about her? Perhaps that’s the point: At its heart, the value of The Series is the way it will make fans come to terms with Selena the Legend and Selena the Person. She was a gifted singer with undeniable charisma; she was also the annoying little sister who ate her big sister’s chips and got on her brother’s nerves.

One explanation for Selena’s lasting fame is her relatability. Many fans see some part of themselves in her story and presence, whether it’s her family’s hardworking background, her struggle to learn Spanish, or the way she embraced her natural looks despite feeling out of place between cultures—one that didn’t see her as American enough and the other that didn’t see her as Mexican enough. There’s one great sequence in the TV series where Selena and her family lock horns with outside consultants who try to fashion Selena into—quite literally—an exoticized other. On set, Selena is frazzled by this forced image, at first joking about the awful pan-ethnic looks cooked up by the record label’s team before frustration devolves into demoralization. This is not who she is. Who she is is much closer to home, a mix of Mexican and American cultures, something outsiders couldn’t—or wouldn’t—understand.

Throughout the show, which cleverly includes the English-language songs Selena was listening to at the time, we see Selena live comfortably in that space between two cultures, free to pick and choose between listening to Jody Watley and crushing on Luis Miguel. Selena embraced the freedom of making one’s own identity through one’s disparate cultures. Her story gives those who identify with her some sense of comfort—she succeeded in the face of adversity and didn’t lose herself in the process. Many versions of Selena’s story fixate on her tragic end, keeping her in a fossilized state of potential, placing unimaginable importance on what she accomplished and what she meant as a star. But her status and purpose as an idol exist in relation to those who idolize her. The series—more focused on Suzette and Selena’s car shopping trips and the Quintanilla siblings’ dynamics—seeks to define her separate from her fans. Her greatness is almost always evident, but The Series posits that the personal, even mundane affects of her life were just as crucial in composing her persona.

Painting a full, vivid picture of Selena is an endeavor many have undertaken since her death. In Lourdes Portillo’s introspective documentaries, Corpus: A Home Movie for Selena and Conversations With Intellectuals About Selena, she explores the way Selena reverberated within popular culture. The films arrived just a few years after the singer’s death, when it was already evident that Selena meant more to many people than your average pop star. In Corpus: A Home Movie for Selena, we meet everyday admirers, people who knew her closely and in passing, her grief-stricken family, academics who examined her influence, and little girls who saw themselves in Selena. There’s a sense of the person she was from the people who knew her—as family and in passing—and a sense of what Selena meant to her fans. The documentary is both a loving tribute and proof of how one figure can mean so many things to so many different people.

Its companion film, Conversations With Intellectuals About Selena is just what it says it is. Over margaritas and a meal, experts discuss and debate whether Selena was a bad role model because she was taken out of school at an early age, the role her domineering father played in her life, and the shaping of her legacy. They even sift through some of the tabloid fodder that’s not always talked about when talking about Selena, exploring the queer subtext and framing of her relationship with Yolanda Saldivar and whether or not Selena had an extramarital affair. But what’s most striking about this film—and Corpus: A Home Movie for Selena—is that there is no clear-cut agreement on what the star represents. Not everyone understands her appeal or likes her music, but everyone at the table seems to acknowledge that deeper, almost personal, connection fans have with her.

With all of these deep-seated emotions tied up with the artist and the many things she represents, it seems obvious that Selena: The Series was never going to satisfy everyone. For fans who grew up singing her songs, refreshing shopping pages for the latest Selena merch, and faithfully quoting Nava’s biopic, a new TV series isn’t going to change what she already meant to us. Instead, the show turns its eye toward Selena’s family, and tries to do something that hasn’t yet been done: explain what she meant to them.