Amor Prohibido: Mobility, Free Trade and the Possibility of Romantic Love with Anayvelyse Allen-Mossman
Welcome to Amor Prohibido: Mobility, Free Trade and the Possibility of Romantic Love at the WyFy School. Before we get started, I’d like to thank BUFU and Distributed Web of Care for hosting today’s session, and for creating such an amazing place to share with each other. I’d also like to thank my mom, Dr. Rona Allen, David Borgonjon and Maia Collins for a tremendous amount of support in putting this class together. Thank you, too, for coming to this class. I hope we can keep the conversation going.
My name is Anayvelyse, and I currently earn a living as a graduate student. I’m from New York City, but am currently located in Buenos Aires, places that are originally Lenape and Mapuche lands--the latter spanning what is also known as Chile and Argentina--have been colonized for over four hundred years, which I think is important to keep in mind because, although this class and educational context point to different horizons, my thinking as a person here and there has never taken place outside of this context, and such that I have inherited both the prejudices and privileges associated with someone who is allowed time and space to think.
A lot of the topics and material in this class do not touch my lived experience in any way except as a fan. I am a Black, latina and jewish cis woman. Other things about me are that I like to write poetry and watch the same shows and movies on repeat, I like cooking for others, and am a Selena fan. I think that these facts, the general theme of the course, and my way of putting together a course like this as someone trained as an academic, but trying to leave academia, these facts are important to keep in mind. This is because understanding how a pop album has been taken to express concerns over (presumably) cis hetero-sexuality, land and labor theft in a free trade economy, and how the people, things and ideas we took to be one thing, under these conditions, become another, these feel like easy things to say, but the more I, at least, think about them, the more they seem to mean, and the ways I have been trained to think about them are not actually adequate to do so. What I’m about to talk about begins with me being a fan of pop music, Selena’s music but doesn’t stop there. What I want to talk about with you are the questions, what context does Selena belong to? What are the limits of belonging when belonging so often has to do with property, which can’t be untangled from the long history of enslavement of Black and Indigenous people? What happens when we think about romantic love as a kind of property relations? What happens when romantic love is impossible, then? What can it mean, then, when Selena sings about amor prohibido, forbidden love? These questions are important to figuring out what being a fan means to me and what listening to this music means for me, and I take responsibility for the silences and misinterpretations that occur here despite my better intentions, and hope that you will be honest enough with me and with each other to point them out.
Class Content and Objectives
In this class I will be talking about topics like music and performance as much as violence in many different forms, including murder, sexual and gender-based violence, dispossession and racism, which are part of a whole, long moment in the 1990s where the rise of someone like Selena happened both because of and despite how racialized and gendered people’s lives and work were cheapened, made to appear to value less by the political and economic systems that governed them. By talking about and working on these things together, I don’t really have any other goal than just that, to talk them out. I’m not an expert on any of these topics or trying to say anything new. There is so much really smart material that’s already out there on this topic, material that I’ve linked in the text version of this class. I put this together out of my own curiosity and hopefully by the end of this, we’ll all know each other better and will want to keep talking and working on other things in the same spirit.
I started thinking about Selena a couple of years ago after I saw Gregory Nava’s 1997 biopic Selena: The Movie for the first time since I was a kid.
Not to spoil anything, but in the last scene, as the last hours of Selena’s life are fictionalized on screen, her song Dreaming of You plays in the background. [PLAY CLIP from Dreaming of You]
Ever since I was a kid, every time I heard that song I’d feel so sad. Dreaming of You had this power to take my thoughts to a place of loss and introspection in this kind of automatic way, and, it wasn’t until I saw the movie again as an adult that I understood what a big impact she and her music had on me.
A few months ago, I read Kelli María Korducki’s 2014 article, published on The New Inquiry, “Dreaming of NAFTA.” Korducki writes:
“Twenty years ago, in January 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect, promising to perforate the social-commercial membrane between the U.S. and its neighbors. Just months before, Tex-Mex superstar Selena had begun recording on her English-language crossover, Dreaming of You, an album meant to catapult her to a new level of cross-border (and cross-cultural) fame. Neither of these worked out as planned. At first, NAFTA’s ratification held tentative promise: Some policymakers anticipated that the income gap between the two countries would shrink as the treaty expanded trade, gradually eliminating tariffs between Mexico and the U.S. Logistically, a strengthened Mexican economy might temper the impetus for ongoing economic migration from Mexico into the U.S.; culturally, it could make for a more level playing field, with the potential to usher in an age of North American unification. It could even help mitigate Anglo-American cultural hegemony. Selena, a Texas-born Latina with a geographically scattered and primarily Spanish-speaking fan base, forecasted what that might look like.”
Despite having such strong feelings about Selena that are really about the movie, I’m always surprised that my memories and other people’s memories and interpretations where Selena fits in within a bigger cultural context spin so tightly around the Gregory Nava film. On the one hand, I guess I’m surprised how clear it is that our memories are manufactured by the film industry--so many of the Selena T-shirts you can buy quote the film instead of her songs, with the line “Anything for Selenas” appearing more times than any lyric, which says a lot about how Selena, in her absence, has come to be anything but herself and instead a bunch of things and ideas that others would attribute to her. On the other hand, I think my surprise has to do with the movie’s insistence on the American Dream narrative of social mobility through hard work that it doesn’t acknowledge what it means that Selena becomes a martyr for that dream, which I think is my pain point.
Lourdes Portillo’s documentary about Selena Corpus: A Home Movie for Selena, released shortly after Nava’s feature film in 1999, our memories and what they do to Selena and to us collectively.
In an interview clip that runs before the version of the full movie I saw on YouTube, Lourdes Portillo says two things that I thought were interesting, first that she didn’t know who Selena was until she “started seeing everyone’s reactions and coverage on the television. I think it was my own kind of internalized racism that I could not believe that this brown girl had gotten to be so famous.” That, in a way, the possibility of her fame only got to her, Portillo, after Selena had passed, and that Selena was, “She’s a repository for a lot of ideals, a lot of desires. I think Selena’s a complex role model. She’s very sexual, and in our culture, to be very sexual is a danger.”
The movie starts with Portillo asking people in and around Corpus about how they found out about her death. She includes footage from the candlelight vigils held in her honor and the early TV news reporting about the events that night. She goes to Selena’s public memorial and interviews the locals and tourists who come to pay their respects. [PLAY 3-minute clip from beginning of Corpus: 15:00-17:36]
Momo, a devoted fan who goes to take care of Selena’s tomb every day, talks about treasured souvenirs that Selena’s aunt gave to them. Portillo stays at the memorial to talk to the fans to pay their respects, also goes to local businesses, the Tejano Fine Arts Academy, the home of Vicente Carranza (Verdades y Chismes radio host), a dinner with intellectuals Cherríe Moraga, Sandra Cisneros and others, and a performance by Malissa Mychaels, a Selena drag impersonator, and she talks with Selena’s father and sister. It’s a home movie in the sense that Portillo is making new memories out of a bunch of different experiences of Selena in her absence. She does a similar thing in her next movie.
After Corpus, Portillo released Señorita Extraviada in 2001.
Señorita Extraviada is an investigative feature documentary about the between 200-400 murders that took place from the late ‘80s to the late ‘90s and early 2000s in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua and across the Chiricahua Apache, Manso, Suma and Pescado lands. The movie opens with the mother of Silvia Arce, a young woman who disappeared in 1998, telling Portillo about her own early experience of Juarez as a young pregnant woman. She, too, was almost disappeared after a woman who thought she was her friend sold her to a man in a car outside of a motel. Portillo links Ciudad Juarez as a transportation hub for goods coming through Mexico to the US to the number of people that congregate there, trying to earn a living off of the traffic. The kind of Ciudad Juarez that Portillo talks about is distinctly post-NAFTA—Ciudad Juarez is the city on the other side of El Paso where the consequences of the deregulation of trade are more visible as a corrupting effect, one that is distinctly more dangerous for poor people whose labor (factory, service, reproductive, domestic and sex work) is gendered, devalued, made precarious and sexualized beyond the boundaries of any individual’s consent, exposing them to lethal violence. These workers travelled from all over to work in these factories, leaving their homes and communities to search for wages. the Although the landscapes that Portillo films in Señorita Extraviada are from the post-NAFTA era, she is also careful to point out that these conditions existed before the deregulation of trade between the US, Mexico and Canada, that, US consumerism, global capitalism and the creation of a border were instrumental in establishing these conditions. [PLAY CLIP FROM 5:57-10:30]
As she investigates these disappearances, Portillo talks with the families of the disappeared about what they think happened to their children, and sifts through years of newspaper articles about the cases. Each story is different and uniquely haunting, but toward the end of the film, patterns emerge. The patterns include how most people—identified as women in the film—disappeared between work and home. Another pattern was that the disappeared were often forced to change jobs often—they became undesirable to factory bosses, and were fired, only to be replaced by another person a little less aware of the goings on of the workplace, a little less tired or injured from their work. Another pattern was that they were often found wearing someone else’s clothes, such that they appeared to be interchangeable with someone else. And in all of this, the police and the prosecutor’s office, rather than fully investigating their disappearances, insisted that these women had either run away with their boyfriends, were living a double life, that because they were sexual in a way they weren’t supposed to be, did not deserve to be looked for. Adding to this was the excuse that they were victims of gangs and trafficking operations, casualties of an illegal industry that the state was powerless to stop. And when the police did investigate, they often misidentified the bodies that had been found, insisting that one person was another. All of this is to say is that the patterns that emerged suggested that these were working people who were treated as disposable and interchangeable, despite obviously having their own personhood, individuality, desires and dreams, and were exposed to violence by the state because it was more profitable for the factory operations, companies that produced goods there, and their counterparts in government, to create a climate of fear and scarcity in which these workers would have to settle for anything to stay alive.
Lourdes Portillo is a Chicana film director, born in Chihuahua, Mexico and raised in California, USA. Her work mostly consists of documentary feature films, including, Las Madres: The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, The Devil Never Sleeps, Corpus: A Home Movie for Selena, Señorita Extraviada, among many others. Gregory Nava, who directed Selena: The Movie had also directed and written, alongside Anna Thomas, El Norte, a 1983 drama about how two Mayan siblings flee Guatemala for the US after government troops invade their hometown and murder their family and neighbors for trying to organize a labor union. Both Portillo and Nava’s filmmaking were important in associating Selena and her music with questions about the toll of capitalism, and unequal trade “free” or not, anti-indigenous racism and sexual and gendered violence. But it was Nava’s film that pushed Selena into a different context, and drew attention to how, whether intentionally or not, Selena’s ability to cross-over, relied on Blackness as a sound—the film opens with Jennifer López-as-Selena performing Gloria Gaynor’s 1978 hit “I Will Survive”—and body type as a means of social, racial and geographic mobility.
As Frances Negrón-Muntaner has written about this in her essay “Jennifer’s Butt: Valorizing the Puerto Rican Racialized Female Body,” and how Selena’s cross-over became available to others once she became a symbol. “In contrast to most U.S.-born Puerto Rican actresses of the last five decades, Jennifer López has been able to play on the hyphen and come out al otro lado [on the other side]. Although she embodies idea boricua beauty (which Rosie Pérez seemingly “failed” to do)—that is, neither too dark nor too light—the Puerto Rican label does not seem to stick to her in the mainstream media” (230). She goes on to quote Jennifer López in a The Virginian-Pilot article, “Saying a Puerto Rican couldn’t play Selena, a Texas girl, is taking it a bit far. Selena looked like me. She was dark and she was, well, curvy,” later elaborating that “Academic discourse on “Latino” cultural practices tends to be managed by “serious” concepts such as class, language, religion, and family—the stuff of sociology and political activism. Yet it was precisely the body, particularly the curves (or, in less poetic boricua street language, el culo), that proved to be the most compelling way López and other found to speak about how Latinas are constituted as racialized subjects, what kind of (low) cultural capital”—and I would add financial capital— “is associated with these bodies, and how the body can materialize as a site of pleasure, even if it produced by shaming discourses not under our control….Even if “race” was hardly mentioned in this debate over curves and buttocks, for any Caribbean interlocutor, a reference to this part of the human anatomy is often a way of speaking about Africa in(side) America….And despite the fact that Selena was Chicana, an ethnicity not associated in the Caribbean popular imagination with big butts, her measurements, which according to her seamstress actually match Jennifer’s, characterized her as not specifically Mexican American but “Latina,” and hence more easily embraced as one of our own” (232-233).
The obvious asterisk next to all of this is that, although Selena and Jennifer López could maybe have seemed “dark” in a media landscape which took the white consumer as standard and where the majority of Anglo and Latino stars were white, both were and still are beneficiaries of anti-black colorism and fatphobia, as they appear to be close to an imagined white standard of paleness, thinness and femininity, while putting people with darker complexions and bigger, curvier bodies, at a disadvantage, if not at risk. “A big culo upsets hegemonic (white) notions of beauty and good taste because it is a sign of the dark, incomprehensible excess of “Latino” and other African diaspora cultures. Excess of food (unrestrained), excess of shitting (dirty), and excess of sex (heathen) are its three vital signs. A big Latin butt is an open air invitation to pleasures as illicit by WASP ideologies, heteronormativity, and the medical establishment through the three deadly vectors of miscegenation, sodomy, and a high-fat diet. Unlike breasts, which are functional, big bottoms have no morals, no symbolic family function, and no use in reproduction.” (237)
A.B. Quintanilla addresses this in the Spoken Liner Notes to the album.
He talks about genre mixing and experimentation. He says that to push Selena’s music and career forward in the pop market, as her primary composer, he had to pull from different styles that were not historically related to Tejano music. A.B. talks about how the pressure of staying on top of the industry with the amount of turnover of producers and musicians, the band needed to keep experimenting, going further with R&B, other kinds of cumbia, rap and more. [Play 0:39-4:32]
Selena and Her Music
Selena Quintanilla Pérez grew up in and around what is currently also known as Corpus Christi, Texas and is originally Coahuiltecan territory. She was born on April 16th 1971 to Carmella and Abraham Quintanilla Jr.. She sang in the family band Selena y Los Dinos, which featured her brother older AB as composer and on the guitar and her older sister Suzette on drums. Her father was the band manager and her mother did costume design. As the family tells it, their father was trying to teach AB how to play guitar when Selena came in and started singing along, and that’s when her father got the idea to start the band and have them perform. Selena y Los Dinos started playing at parties, her father’s short-lived Mexican restaurant PapaGayos, then at local fairs and events, and then at the larger venues that she would headline in the US and internationally before her untimely death.
According to Suzette, Lake Jackson and the Corpus Christi area of Texas where the Quintanilla siblings grew up was a mostly white neighborhood that they were able to access after their father got a job at Dow Chemical. Their exposure to Tejano music and Spanish-language music more broadly, according to Suzette, was limited to what their parents listened and encouraged them to listen to. Otherwise, they listened to English-language pop. Selena cited Donna Summer, Madonna and Janet Jackson as influences. Her reliance on genres like R&B in her interpretations of Tejano music, of a Black sound into a genre that had historically eagerly incorporated European (waltzes and polkas for example) influences into the rancheras, corridos and mariachi while holding Black musicians--and the sounds they would contribute--at an interested distance, would contribute to her popular appeal.
In 1994, Selena released Amor Prohibido. Selena’s fourth studio album, its original release featured ten tracks including the singles “Amor Prohibido,” “No Me Queda Más,” “Fotos y Recuerdos” and “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom.” Amor Prohibido was a success on the charts, at the award shows and at the bank. It was also actually her first cross-over album. Selena shifts away from the mostly Tejano rhythms of Ven conmigo, Entre a mi mundo and Selena, to, on Amor Prohibido to focus on cumbia, making an attempt to appeal to a broader Latinx audience. All of the songs on the album, as you can imagine, are love songs. Most of them are about frustrated love, impossible love, forbidden love. They’re also about refusal and desire and limits of love. This isn’t family love, love between friends, love that isn’t sexual in some way. Romantic love--I’m not even sure if this is a euphemism for something like consensual hetero sex, but it’s my hunch--is a kind of love that gets talked about a lot in pop culture. I assume this is because a lot of people can relate to rejection, which is the feeling at the bottom of our modern experience (at least to me). Selena’s Amor Prohibido traces the edges of this rejection, her rejection of being treated as less desirable, of not being able to be with the person she wants to, and lets us sing along.
[PLAY TITLE TRACK VIDEO: Amor Prohibido. Uptempo Tejano cumbia featuring heavy synths. See lyrics on AZlyrics.com. The video opens with a green open door frame in a desert clearing with big rocks and scrub. Selena runs toward the door. She sings and dances around the door, the rocks and the desert plants. There is a bright magenta set modelled after a small living room, with a blue couch and a bowl of fruit on a side table. Selena dances between the door, the dining room and a single chair placed in the clearing. She sees herself in a mirror buried in the sand. Chris, Selena’s husband appears, and they hug and dance to the music. The video ends with Selena and Chris running through the door with their backs toward the camera.]
Amor Prohibido, the song, is about love between a wealthy man and a much less wealthy woman. Some have interpreted the song as a commentary on Selena and her husband Chris Perez’s relationship. By the time they started dating, Selena was already gaining fame and wealth through her music, and Chris was a guitarist in her band, close to her wealth and success, but not fully a part of it. I think the video takes the song in another direction. The door in the desert, a beginnings of a home, I’m not sure what these mean definitively, but they seem to reference this landscape (Joshua Tree) as a border region, but not as a transitory place, but as a place to live and build something. The door is open and Selena dances around it, there’s nothing to restrict her movement. The drama of the song, that love can overcome the demands of family and social class, seems to disappear in the video. Ultimately, she and Chris can escape through the door, but what does that mean when there were no walls around the door, and the door was always open to begin with? Still, she seems so introspective in the video, it almost seems like a dream sequence—is this what freedom from those demands, having that kind of mobility looks like to her, in her dreams?
In the “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom” video, Selena meets a guy at a gas station and flirts with him as they drive around the city, each in their own cars. She stands on a board walk, singing and dancing around the railings onto the water, and a crowd of people comes to sing and dance with her. Selena and her partner do fun activities together, like play games at the fair, and walk off into the sunset. [PLAY VIDEO: Bidi Bidi Bom Bom. Cumbia featuring reggae influences. See Lyrics on Letras.com]
The song is about the way her body reacts to feeling things for another person. It’s not about rejection, but about the embodied experience of longing, about losing control of her body, but in a pleasurable way.
In Selena’s “No Me Queda Más,” on the other hand, she sings about resigning herself to not being with the person she loved, but treasuring the memories of the time they spent together. The video opens with her sitting at a café table eating breakfast and listening to Mariachis play. A waiter hands her a hand-written note, and she looks sad. The video uses home-video-like footage cut with a formal performance, with Selena singing on carpeted steps in a formal gown with an orchestra to her sides. [PLAY VIDEO: No Me Queda Más. Poppy Mariachi Ballad. See lyrics on Letras.com].
The song is about heartbreak and loss, but the video takes care to portray Selena as dignified and elegant in her loss. Shots of a couple in a suit and wedding dress—maybe Selena’s ex with their next partner?—are an important part of the video, and Selena’s sleek ballroom dress, not white, but not not white either, both give the appearance that she was left at the altar AND that she didn’t need to get married to anyone anyway, she’s her own person and she has an orchestra.
I think part of it is that Selena establishes limits in these songs, and sings about why the relationship failed. In “Cobarde” she sings about broken promises, “Tú me prometiste que pronto ibas a Volver/que ya nunca más recordarías el ayer/Que no pensarías en aquella mujer/Y hasta me juraste que mío querías ser.” She gave herself over to her partner expecting the same in return, but instead he creates the illusion of reciprocity and runs away when that illusion is no longer sustainable. In “Tus Desprecios,” she takes it even further, saying that her partner’s twofacedness hurts her, is killing her. Of course, these are all commonplaces in pop music, but within the context that Selena’s been interpreted in, they take on a more allegorical meaning
North American Free Trade Act (NAFTA)
Shortly after Selena’s death in 1995, George W. Bush, then governor of Texas, declared April 16th Selena Day. His father, only a few years earlier, in late 1992, signed the North American Free Trade Act into law in the U.S., alongside peers Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and President of Mexico Carlos Salinas de Gotari. The agreement was developed and negotiated beginning in 1990. Once signed into law, the trilateral trade agreement created a free-trade zone between the three states and left a wake of violence.
NAFTA is a direct consequence of Ronald Reagan’s supply-side economics attack against working people of color, following the mobilizations in the 1960s and 1970s, namely especially the Black Power Movement, El Movimiento or Chicano Movement, Third World Movement and Asian American Movement. NAFTA allowed the gains made by organized craft, industrial and farm workers over the course of the previous decades to be displaced by the flight of commodities-producing multinational corporations away from the US.
As Jack D. Forbes, a Powhatan-Renapé and Delaware-Lenape writer and scholar wrote in a Cultural Survival article 1993, a month before the treaty was to take effect, “A major agreement of this sort should have recognized Native groups split apart by the U.S.- Mexican and U.S.-Canadian borders and included provision for free movement, unification and indigenous local government. NAFTA us expected to have a devastating impact upon all U.S. workers who are working in minimum wage jobs or sectors vulnerable to Mexican low-wage competition, such as manufacturing, trucking, agriculture, and heavy industry. Native Americans will be especially vulnerable because almost are employed in such areas. Industrial located on or near reservations are especially likely to move to Mexico, where labor can be obtained for 80 cents an hour with no benefits provided. NAFTA will also end legal protection for U.S. Indian craftspeople, since it will prevent discrimination against their far more numerous Mexican and Canadian counterparts. In ignoring native people totally, the creators of NAFTA did not include a provision protecting all Native crafts-person.”
On January 2nd, 1994, just after NAFTA officially took effect, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation issued the First Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, effectively a declaration of war on the Mexican government. The Declaration read, “We are the inheritors of the true builders of our nation. The dispossessed, we are millions and we thereby call upon our brothers and sisters to join this struggle as the only path, so that we will not die of hunger due to the insatiable ambition of a 70 year dictatorship led by a clique of traitors that represent the most conservative and sell-out groups…
To prevent the continuation of the above and as our last hope, after having tried to utilize all legal means based on our Constitution, we go to our Constitution, to apply Article 39 which says:
“National Sovereignty essentially and originally resides in the people. All political power emanates from the people and its purpose is to help the people. The people have, at all times, the inalienable right to alter or modify their form of government.”
Therefore, according to our constitution, we declare the following to the Mexican federal army, the pillar of the Mexican dictatorship that we suffer from, monopolized by a one-party system and led by Carlos Salinas de Gortari, the maximum and illegitimate federal executive that today holds power.”
The treaty itself took effect only a year and a half after Selena’s death. NAFTA--I am not an expert in Free Trade policy, so please bear with me and if you have anything to add, please do--allowed objects to have freer movement within the trade zone without allowing the people that made them or consumed them to have the same liberty of movement, or the same power to negotiate over the terms of that movement as the factory, plantation, mine and logistics company boards and shareholders that the treaty favored. Moreover, the treaty encouraged the expansion of a system in which what was made in one place would not be consumed there, but somewhere else entirely. By separating the place where things were made from the place where they were produced, the larger industries that could afford to benefit from free trade policy were able to limit the amount of oversight that consumers and other interested people had in how things were made and why they were made that way and at what human cost.
In the telenovela Dos mujeres, un camino, in which Selena made two very celebrated cameos, Johnny, a Mexican trucker (played by Erik Estrada) who works delivering merchandise produced in Mexico across the border in the United States.
In the first episode of the short, brilliant series, Tanya, a young waitress (played by Bibi Gaytán) working at her family’s roadstop restaurant, tries to run away from home by stowing away in Johnny’s rig on the way to Tijuana to look for her father and learn the truth about her family. Johnny is married to Ana María (Laura León), and has children with her, a marriage that would be perfect if only Johnny wasn’t on the road all the time. Johnny is also on the run from a powerful trucker family who believes that he killed their son. Tanya is young, and has never left home before. Johnny’s trucker friends assume that he is taking advantage of her, and at first, he makes an effort to show his friends that nothing’s going on, but after a while all pretenses fade and they fall for each other. Dos mujeres, un camino is careful to use the stereotypes and stories told about the kinds of characters that NAFTA has privileged—the trucker, the runaway, the police detective, the good wife, the businessman and the playboy, these are just some of them—without taking these characters to the limits that the stereotypes dictate because of TV morality or portraying them outside the conventions of romance and respectability. Johnny and Tanya’s love is pure—criticizable, but wholesome in the show—and yet Tanya is a runaway (if not a teen, then very young) and Johnny a grown, married man with children. Romance makes everything OK. Selena makes appearances in the program in 1994 alongside Ramiro Delgado from the Tejano group Bronco, who she falls in love with during her show, symbolically resolving a long-standing rivalry between Bronco and Los Dinos and perhaps any resentment between both nations.
What does Selena have to do with NAFTA? First and foremost, Selena’s relationship to NAFTA is a product of years of writing and film and other work that, by proximity (in the case of Lourdes Portillo’s Señorita extraviada and Corpus: A Home Movie for Selena) or explicitly arguing it, saw her as a symptom of increased trade activity between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. That interest in poppy Tejano music was the product of something structural going on across the country. Another reason is that Selena has been transformed by the entertainment industry into a commodity. This is a process that was not unique to Selena, but extends across all popular music. We could just as easily talk about Celine Dion, the Quebecoise singer who crossed-over into the US market after an early career making French-language music with her 1990 album Unison, with her cross-over career taking off only a couple years after the passage of the Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement in 1987.
Céline Dion’s iconic status was also cemented in a US film Titanic, a romantic drama which tells the story of how two American travelers of different social classes on a boat to the United States fall in love, despite the odds. Unlike in Amor Prohibido, however, there is no happy ending for the couple. Céline Dion was featured ads for things like Coca Cola, Applebee’s ribs and Effervescent Vitamin C. Selena did Coca Cola advertisement during her lifetime, and after her death, her image has been officially used to sell MAC makeup products as well. Her official merchandise is sold at stores like Macy’s, Hot Topic and other big box stores. Selena also famously did public service announcements directed to survivors of domestic violence and about the importance of staying in school for students.
My point is that we could easily be talking about Céline and not Selena, just to give one example, if it weren’t for the fact of Selena’s untimely and tragic death. Selena’s death marks the point at which she no longer has agency over how she and her music are consumed publicly, and when others make decisions about how, where and why her image and work are distributed, and who profits. I think this is the point that circumstantially brings together the effects of NAFTA in the tejano-norteño border region and Selena’s impact on pop culture, especially after Amor Prohibido. Selena’s success as a living recording artist was her own. Her entry into the music business in the 1980s was the product of years of lobbying and negotiations by her father and brother with local, regional and national industry people, and insistence with her and her siblings that they follow that path.
Recent Approaches to Selena
A 2015 Texas Monthly article by Jeff Winkler, “Amor Prohibido,” charts the after-effects of Selena-mania in her hometown of Corpus Christi and the city’s preparations for a 20th anniversary mega-concert in her memory. Winkler’s controversial article took cues from Portillo’s documentary and looked at the unofficial events, meet-ups and festivals dedicated to Selena’s memory.
The poet and cultural administrator Minerva Reynoso published a poem a few months ago, “son los 90 y lo que me gusta es el grunge nirvana pearl” on the Letras Libres website. She writes “no queríamos a los vaqueros a los cumbieros pantalón wrangler bota roper eran los 90 carlos salinas de gortari el tratado de libre comoercio o nafta ezln selena y los dinos country jazz polka cumbia norteña pop rock balada ranchera.” The three poems, published together look back at growing up in Selena’s ‘90s, learning to live in a different way from one’s parents, finding out about her death and remembering all of the regular parts of her day as exceptional because of Selena’s death, remembering the femicidios in Ciudad Juarez and the Zapatistas’ challenge to the Mexican state on behalf of the people of Chiapas. The poems read like she’s telling you herself, like she wants you to know that these are all one moment.
A couple weeks ago Sebastián Castro Niculescu gave a performance at the Bureau for General Services called “Tired Selena.” A projected photograph from the performance graces the top of the Artforum review by Jess Barbagallo. In the photograph, she sits up on a twin-size bed, dressed in white go-go boots and a sparkly magenta and gray dress, looking at a music stand and holding a microphone in her hand by her face. The nightstand to her (our?) left betrays her reading--Robert McThurer’s Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability peeks out from the stack--and the miscellanea of life and rest. Two posters hang on the wall to her left. “Tired Selena” is set to Amor Prohibido, which Barbagallo describes as “an infectiously romantic Romeo and Juliet-style track about loving across class lines.” How do we bring Selena back to life, how, why do we keep waking her from her rest?
With that last question, I’d like to open the floor for more questions. Mine are:
1. The questions I asked at the beginning of the presentation, to recap, are: What I want to talk about with you are the questions, what context does Selena belong to? What are the limits of belonging when belonging so often has to do with property, which can’t be untangled from the long history of enslavement of Black and Indigenous people? What happens when we think about romantic love as a kind of property relations? What happens when romantic love is impossible, then? What can it mean, then, when Selena sings about amor prohibido, forbidden love?
2. What does Selena mean to you? What are your memories of Selena?
3. Are there other essays, songs, movies, etc. that make you think about Selena? What are they?
4. Why is she such a powerful symbol today? Why has there been a Selena renaissance?
5. What other kinds of popular culture do you see politicized in specific contexts? Why do you think that is?
6. Why do we not indulge in the same associations with other pop stars of the same period and similar contexts?
7. How can we think about memory making and sharing from these examples? How do our memories activate certain histories or suppress others?
8. What are our obligations as fans, as people who listen to music, with the communities that have allowed those sounds and traditions to reach us?
Thank you again for taking this class. You can write me at firstname.lastname@example.org or DM me on Instagram @anayvelyse. Looking forward to talking to you later!