There’s a saying in Latino culture that’s taught to little girls at a young age: “Calladita te ves mas bonita”—“You look prettier when you shut your mouth.” The more I watched Netflix’s Selena: The Series, the more it felt like this toxic dicho was less a myth and more a rule of thumb for Selena Quintanilla. In life, her father Abraham orchestrated her every move. Twenty five after her death, it feels as though that grip on her legacy has only tightened.
Selena has held the hearts of Latinos for over three decades. Though she was proudly Mexican-American, the lack of representation for Latinx communities has allowed her story to connect to many who are not of Mexican descent. Hers is a fairy tale: a young brown girl who came from nothing and went on to become a superstar who defied borders. Those of us who identify as first- and second-generation Americans could relate to the feeling of carrying the dreams of our parents on our shoulders; as Edward James Olmos as Abraham put it in the 1997 film Selena, “be more American than the Americans and more Mexican than the Mexicans.”
For Latinx women in particular, Selena was an example of what a strong woman who believed in herself could achieve. But that Selena is non-existent in Selena: The Series, her voice muted and buried in order to preserve one of the most destructive elements in Latino culture: an unquestioning allegiance and devotion to machismo.
It’s no secret that toxic patriarchal traditions run throughout Latino cultures. Traditionally, Latina girls are raised to care for a family and her aging parents, whereas Latino boys are often allowed freedom, given a “boys will be boys” pass for transgressions against women, and are praised for acting “like a man.” In families where there is no father present, it’s usually the son, no matter his age, who controls the household. The Quintanillas depicted in this series are a prime example of this patriarchal tradition. One could argue that Selena herself was conservative, and was proud to uphold this tradition—she was deeply religious and fiercely pro-life—but conservative should never be confused for submissive.
Despite the show being named for the late singer, her character is a supporting role at best. Not once do we see the passionate entrepreneur who launched her own boutique, salon, and clothing store independent of her father’s overreaching hands. Nor do we see the woman who fell in love, defied her family, and stood her ground to marry Chris Pérez, the love of her life. It’s almost as if her defiance had to be erased from the Quintanilla legacy. The character is stripped of any personality whatsoever, and I’m not willing to place the blame entirely on Christian Serratos’ performance as the Tejano star. Every scene where Selena’s character should’ve had a moment of growth, whether as an artist or a young woman, was watered down to one thing: “Sing and smile pretty.” With that message injected into the veins of the series, what heart could Serratos have found? It’s impossible to bring to life the essence of a woman when all you have to work with is a paint-by-numbers Virgin Mary.
Episode after episode, the series sidelines its namesake in favor of “Abraham Quintanilla Knows Best” and “brother A.B. writes the greatest song while being the greatest dad and husband.” The character of Suzette is also a sad reminder that all these years later, she’s still fighting for her father’s attention by certifying her place as her sister’s chastity keeper. As for mom Marcella Quinatanilla, she’s nothing more than a smiling face, even when she can clearly see her children’s unhappiness. Are we to believe this is the woman who secretly helped Selena make a bustier for one of her shows?
In real life, Abraham Quintanilla made it clear that he’s a “strict” father and only he could manage his children’s contracts. It’s even an ongoing joke in the series; when the kids talk about a potential contract, they recite “in perpetuity” in unison. But Abraham went a step beyond after Selena’s murder. Two months after her death, he recruited an attorney to create an “estate properties agreement” that preserved the family band’s profit-sharing arrangement. The agreement would keep him in charge and completely remove Selena’s husband from participating in his own wife’s legacy. When Pérez attempted to create a TV show about his relationship with Selena, Abraham immediately sued, and the series fans were waiting for never came to be.
Selena was just shy of her 24th birthday when a fan violently murdered her in Corpus Christi, Texas in March 1995. The last time her story was told was 1997, when the film Selena catapulted Jennifer Lopez to stardom. But audiences are different now, and there is no such thing as unconditional fandom. The narrative the Quintanillas want to continue to tell demands an unfair fealty from Selena’s fans. Once again, the family assumes that simply because Selena is one of our very few icons, Latino audiences are willing to turn our heads at the exploitation of her name in order to obtain a scrap of Selena.
Mexican-American comedienne Cristela Alonzo has called Selena Quintanilla the closest thing Latinos have to a superhero, and for the most part, that’s true. In Hollywood, Latinos rarely get to tell their own stories, and we rarely get to be the hero. Selena: The Series was a chance to introduce an icon to a new generation. Instead, the show reduces her to her father’s forever chaste and obedient little girl. Calladita, forever.
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