The legacy of Selena Quintanilla-Pérez—the Tejana pop star who died tragically 20 years ago this month—is studied in classrooms across the U.S. everyday. About a dozen scholars have published essays on the late singer in peer-reviewed journals.
In fact, some PhDs have dedicated portions of their career to unpacking the cultural influence of the late star, who gained crossover success in the early 1990s and was immortalized by Jennifer Lopez in the 1997 film Selena.
Selena’s Spanish-language Tex-Mex songs rose to the top of the charts during a time when Latinos were beginning to see laws that singled them out as burdens to the United States. It was also when gay groups were fighting for LGBT rights.
In 1994, a year before Selena was killed, Californian voters approved proposition 187, an anti-immigrant measure that was ultimately killed in the courts but the damage was done during the campaign ahead of voting day. The proposition would have been banned undocumented immigrants from accessing any public services, including health care, public schools and other social services.
And in this climate Selena, a third generation Chicana, was reaching cross-over success from Spanish to English but also from North to South, her music was also being celebrated in Latin America.
Here are three scholars that have explored Selena’s legacy in their work.
Selena designed and often created her outfits herself. But she didn’t wear bustiers covered in rhinestones, silver spandex pants, bright colors and multiple accessories just to attract a male audience, according to Dr. Deborah R. Vargas, an associate professor of ethnic studies at the University of California at Riverside.
Dr. Vargas argues Selena’s style choices, combined with many of her disco-infused cumbias, were to publicly claim her groove: she was a diva on the stage in ways other queens and disenfranchised groups have had to command attention before.
Dr. Vargas’ 2007 essay “Selena: Sounding a Queer Transnational Latino/a Queer Imaginary” explores the appropriation of Selena's persona by the queer community. Vargas argues Selena's integration of disco and freestyle elements into her music made her almost an instant icon with the gay community.
UT Austin professor Dr. Deborah Paredez’s work explores how people remember and celebrate Selena.
Dr. Paredez refers to fan websites, murals and other performances in honor of Selena’s memory as what she labels “Selenidad.” The professor that studies race, feminism and memory published a book called “Selenidad” in 2009.
Dr. Paredez found that in many instances grieving Selena was a way for people to grieve their own tragedies.
University of Notre Dame professor José E. Limón has explored Selena’s rise to “quasi-folk saint status” amongst her fans in Mexico and the U.S.
In “Selena: Sexuality, Greater Mexico and the Song-and-Dance with Hegemony,” ”Limón argues Selena’s popularity was created by her sexuality presented through song but more importantly on stage where her costumes and dance moves were seen by fans that almost always came with their own traditions of sexual repression.
Limon’s research also points out Selena became a national figure at the same time a number of Latino political leaders in Texas were being elected or appointed to high level city and state positions. The high level positions were seen as great hope for Latinos but by the mid-1990s each of those newly appointed officials’ roles were compromised by ethical, legal or political decisions. When all other local Latino figures ended up in the center of controversies, Selena was still there.