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Why 'Selena' as a re-release isn't doing Latino representation any favors

Selena’s death made historically invisible U.S. Latinos visible to mass media.
Image: Jennifer Lopez as Selena in the movie \"Selena\".
Jennifer Lopez as Selena in the 1997 movie "Selena."Warner Bros. / Courtesy Everett Collection

The 1997 film "Selena" is perhaps the most iconic U.S. Latino movie ever made, and a quote from Selena Quintanilla’s father, played by Edward James Olmos, illustrates why.

“We've got to be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans, both at the same time,” he says. “It’s exhausting!”

Twenty-five years later, that line still gives me chills.

I watched that scene in 1997 as a Puerto Rican who felt the same way as the Mexican American Abraham Quintanilla Jr. There were too many times when I had to prove I was more Puerto Rican than the Puerto Ricans and more American than the Americans. I realized that I had more in common with the Mexican American Quintanilla family from Corpus Christi, Texas, than with white families in the Northeast, where I lived. I was already exhausted back then, and I was only 26 years old. Suddenly, Hollywood understood me.

"Selena" was always more than just a biopic of the musician. Director Gregory Nava made sure his great film showed a Mexican American family dealing with the real struggles of assimilation, biculturalism and acceptance.

That’s why "Selena," which was just rereleased across 500 theaters to celebrate its 25th anniversary, was always more than just a biopic of the musician Selena, whose life tragically ended in murder when she was 23. Director Gregory Nava made sure his great American film showed a Mexican American family dealing with the real struggles of assimilation, biculturalism and acceptance.

“It turns out that that message resonates with everybody,” Nava told NBC News earlier this month. “If you tell the truth about who you are, you really tell a universal story for everybody.”

There should be no surprise, then, that "Selena" remains a popular film, so much so that it is officially part of the National Film Registry. Selena reached goddess-like status after her 1995 murder. Then, Jennifer Lopez played that goddess two years later.

But for all its benefits, the film and the reverence for the musician may have done harm to the identity the U.S. Latino community has tried to celebrate for years. After non-Hispanic white people, Latinos are now the nation’s largest racial or ethnic group, and Latino identity has gotten much more complex, raising concerns that "Selena" returning to theaters will perpetuate an image of Latino unity that was never universal or monolithic, even back in 1997.

“The modern Latinx media machine was built on Selena's image,” Maria Garcia, my Futuro Media colleague and host of the award-winning podcast Anything for Selena, told me when I asked her this week about how identity can be limiting. “After her death,” Garcia said, “Latinos surged the streets across the country, mourning her in these spontaneous vigils, the images of which dominated global news.”

In addition, Garcia said Selena’s death made historically invisible U.S. Latinos visible to mass media. For instance, Garcia noted, People en Español launched only after a Selena commemorative issue sold out multiple times. The launch of Latina magazine was timed to the 1997 release of the "Selena" film.

“Selena's face became a badge of Latinidad,” Garcia added. “Especially after the movie, J.Lo and Selena became apex symbols of American Latino identity, but this brand of Latinidad has favored some voices while ignored others.”

"Selena" being rewarded with a 25th anniversary theatrical rerelease may hide the reality that Latinos remain grossly underrepresented in Hollywood.

That is part of the problem, too. Selena and "Selena" the film will never be the only or the most representative examples of the Mexican American community, just like the "West Side Story" musical and subsequent films are not the only (or best) representations of the Puerto Rican community, and just like the "In the Heights" musical and subsequent movie don't and couldn’t represent the entire Dominican community. Still, "Selena" being rewarded with a 25th anniversary theatrical rerelease may give the impression that other stories from the U.S. Latino community don’t matter as much. It may hide the reality that Latinos remain grossly underrepresented in Hollywood.

A 2021 study once again showed how the film industry continues to ignore Latino voices, especially Afro Latino ones. Across a 13-year time frame, Variety reported, “3.5% of leads/co-leads were Hispanic/Latino” and “only 6 Afro-Latinos worked as leads/co-leads.” There is hope that the numbers will change now that Ariana DeBose won an Oscar for best supporting actress for her role as Anita in Steven Spielberg’s "West Side Story." Even so, according to that Variety report, in 1,300 top-grossing films, only 4.2 percent of directors were identified as Hispanic or Latino. On television, especially on cable and streaming sites, Latinos continue to have representation issues, according to 2021 Nielsen data.

This is why there’s the fear that "Selena," undoubtedly a classic that will be handed down from generation to generation, might be taking up too much oxygen. As one parent told NBC News, “I wanted to show my kids something that was part of me growing up.” However, what if those 500 movie theaters this month were, instead, featuring new films by new Latino and Latina directors? Would the next Gregory Nava, who also directed gems like “El Norte” and “My Family,” become more mainstream? Would there be a new J.Lo reaching global stardom? Would there be more films that challenge the very same united U.S. Latino identity that is now being challenged more frequently off the screen?

To paraphrase Edward James Olmos in "Selena," we've got to keep confronting a manufactured Latino identity but still celebrate the past that got us here. It will be exhausting, though. It always is.