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Sounds of Nepantla

Where Selena Found Her Voice

ISSUE:  Winter 2020

 


“Sounds of Nepantla” is the third installment in a three-part series. Click here to read part 1, “Lines of Sight,” and part 2, “Murmurs on the Plain.”


 

As last summer drew to an end, I signed up to attend my first-ever online dance party, the “Bidi Bidi Boom Boom!” Virtual Selena Tribute, hosted by Chicago’s National Museum of Mexican Art. Outside our Tucson home, which I’d rarely left since spring, wildfires smoldered at the edge of the city, record heat rippled across the desert, and a pandemic tightened its grip over our day-to-day lives. Evening light still filled the sky as I logged on to my computer and launched Zoom, muting my microphone, disabling my camera, and plugging in headphones so as not to bother my partner and dog. The hosts welcomed those of us who’d tuned in and then, after establishing ground rules of mutual respect, described the event’s roots as an annual in-person celebration they were hoping to preserve online.

The live shows at the Chicago museum were defined by gleeful performances from showgirls and drag queens channeling the spirit of the world’s most famous Mexican American diva. In an attempt to replicate this same sense of energy, the museum had prerecorded videos of dancers lip-synching on an empty stage and would be streaming them to the expectant audience of homebound Selena fans. The first video, dubbed Ladies of the Night, began with a shot of a black curtain and the opening notes of “Disco Medley” crescendoing in the background. Four performers appeared dressed in the sequined crosscut pantsuit Selena wore for her famed 1995 performance at the Houston Astrodome, each outfit hugging their bodies in a slightly different shade of purple and pink. Selena’s voice belted out a greeting to the sound of a roaring crowd. One of the performers took center stage, clutched her chest, and mouthed, “At first I was afraid, I was petrified,” as the others danced behind her. When the song transitioned from “I Will Survive” to “Funkytown,” the lead singer traded places with a backup dancer who spun toward center stage and feigned the new verse: “talk about, talk about, talk about movin’.” The grid of onlooking faces brimmed with delight. 

The event continued with performances of Selena’s greatest hits: “Como la Flor,” “Fotos y Recuerdos,” “El Chico del Apartamento 512,” “No Debes Jugar,” “La Carcacha,” “I Could Fall in Love,” “No Me Queda Más,” “Si Una Vez,” “Amor Prohibido,” “La Llamada,” and finally, “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom” itself. Each new song saw performers dressed in different iconic outfits—Selena’s white bustier, her denim jacket and halter top, her leather jacket and white lace shirt, her rhinestone-studded military hat. Scrolling through the feed of eighty or so participants, I watched as people sang along with outstretched arms and muted microphones: a woman spinning and twirling her daughters, a girl sitting at a dining-room table as her mother danced in a nightgown behind her, a couple bobbing their disaffected cats along with the beat, another woman jiggling a small dog in front of the camera. People watched from their living rooms and kitchens, sang along from bedrooms and backyards, and huddled around grills and tables drinking from cans of beer and bottles of tequila, many of them proudly displaying Selena-inspired shirts, hats, mugs, buttons, posters, bags, and other paraphernalia.

At one point, the hosts asked the audience to call out their locations in the chat thread: We have people from San Francisco and Los Angeles, they announced, from Arizona and Mexico, from Bolivia, Michigan, Chicago, and Austin. The party continued with a raffle, a virtual marketplace, a DJ set. A gust of warm wind brought the smell of rain through my windows, and with a sudden surge of energy I plugged my computer into the living-room speakers, filled the house with music, and finally worked up the courage to turn on my camera and dance along with the crowd. The video feed continued cycling through faces and spaces that had become, after nearly two hours, almost familiar, and when the hosts announced the last songs, a flurry of final messages and shout-outs rolled through the chat thread, with guests showering attention on one another’s moves, clothes, accessories, pets, and home decor. There was, in short, a kind of love in this virtual space, a joy and affection I had not tapped into for nearly half a year—the kind of feeling that often hovers in bars, concerts, clubs, and dance floors. The session ended with a montage of archival footage: Selena laughing among friends and family, singing a cappella and charming interviewers at radio stations and television studios in both English and in Spanish. When the time came to sign off, people unmuted their mics to say goodbye, and as farewells dragged on, everyone finally agreed to hang up after a countdown, like lovers afraid to part.

 

Selena Quintanilla was born on April 16, 1971, to Marcella Ofelia Quintanilla and Abraham Quintanilla Jr. Selena’s mother, the daughter of migrant farmworkers, fell in love with Abraham while he was stationed with the US Army in Fort Lewis, near her home in eastern Washington. They raised their three children in Lake Jackson, Texas, where Abraham had found work driving a forklift in a shipping warehouse for the Dow Chemical Company. A native of Corpus Christi, Selena’s father was descended from a long line of Texas-born Mexicans, or “Tejanos,” and came of age in the heyday of “La Onda Chicana,” a musical movement that fused American rock, country, doo-wop, and big-band orchestra with the traditional folk sounds of the accordion-heavy, polka-influenced conjunto of South Texas. As a teenager, Abraham played his own part in La Onda by singing for a band called the Dinos, eventually dropping out of high school to perform and record with the group before the Vietnam draft led to its demise.

As a family man, Selena’s father channeled his musical aspirations into his children. He taught his eldest son, A. B., to play the bass, his middle daughter, Suzette, to play the drums, and his youngest, Selena, to sing. He soon quit his warehouse job to open a restaurant with a coworker, venturing to bring sit-down Mexican fare to the predominantly white residents of Lake Jackson. Meals at Papagayo’s, he decided, would also be accompanied by live music, and it was there that Selena first learned to perform for the public. 

Business at Papagayo’s suffered a fatal blow during the economic recession of the early 1980s, forcing Selena’s family to relocate from one house to another, moving west to El Campo, then back to Lake Jackson, and finally down to Corpus Christi. It was there, back in Abraham’s hometown, the music capital of South Texas, that Selena slowly began to make forays into the regional Tejano scene that had absorbed La Onda and grown to incorporate influences of pop and R&B, as well as the sounds of electronic keyboards and pan-Latin genres like cumbia. After resurrecting the name of their father’s high-school band, Selena y los Dinos began to record tracks and make the rounds on the state touring circuit. Increasingly, Selena found her way onto radio and television and began spending more and more time on the road. Her father pulled her out of eighth grade, switching permanently to correspondence classes and prioritizing her music career above all else. Family life on the road was a tightly monitored affair, and in addition to managing the band and their schedule, Abraham also took it upon himself to aggressively mitigate any corrupting influences, prohibiting, in accordance with the beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses, things like parties, celebrations, and holidays.

Despite the fact that her early songs were regarded by mainstream culture as “border music” appealing only to “Mexicans,” Selena’s life, like the lives of so many young people just like her, was a profoundly American one. She grew up speaking English at home, English at school, and English at work. She consumed American pop culture and preferred Top 40 radio. But since the Tejano scene was dominated by Spanish-language acts, she had learned from a young age to sing in the language of her ancestors, even if she could only speak it haltingly. As a teenager, Selena quickly became a mainstay of the Tejano scene, winning her first Tejano Music Award as a fifteen-year-old and, at eighteen, making the jump to a major record label by signing with Capitol-EMI. As she entered adulthood, Selena began to break into the mainstream Latin pop market, scoring hits on Mexican and international charts. Her albums went gold, then platinum, and soon she found herself touring and doing press in Mexico, where she gained greater fluency in Spanish by attending courses in Monterrey and Mexico City, all on her way to becoming the most successful Tejano act south of the border. Meanwhile, in the US, she had become a spokesperson for Coca-Cola, won a Grammy, and begun preparations for an English-language crossover, all by the age of twenty-three.

Selena was in the midst of recording an entire album’s worth of songs in her native tongue when she was unexpectedly gunned down by her friend and fan-club president, in March of 1995. The murder reverberated across the country on a scale previously unimaginable for a Latina star; following her death, People magazine famously featured her portrait on its cover and sold more copies than any other edition in its twenty-year history. There was every reason to believe that Selena’s foray into mainstream American pop would have been monumental, akin to the trailblazing of Gloria Estefan before her and the later success of figures like Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Martin, and Shakira. Indeed, her posthumously released album Dreaming of You, which included four songs from her English-language recording sessions, went on to become the best-selling Latin album of all time. 

Because her life was cut short at the very moment of her ascendance, Selena’s posthumous iconization would position her as a transformative, transcendent figure. She had been perceived, as one Mexican newspaper put it, as “una artista del pueblo,” a star who remained grounded in her working-class roots, who embodied sexuality on her own terms without forsaking family values, and who found success in a male-dominated world that prioritized whiteness without compromising her brown skin, her dark hair, her cultural and linguistic fluidity—proving once and for all that Latinas could be just as boldly glamorous as anyone else. 

Selena’s death coincided with a broader moment of regional and national ascendance: the long-awaited recognition of Latinx people as a cultural force no longer consigned to the margins. In Selena’s hometown of Corpus Christi, writes her biographer Joe Nick Patoski, there had been a palpable feeling that some kind of shift was underway even in the years before her death. For the first time, he writes, “the majority of the coastal bend’s national and state legislative delegation was Hispanic” and Tejano-owned businesses boomed like never before. Nationally, it was presumed that Latinx people would be confirmed as the largest minority by the time of the next census. But for many in South Texas and across the nation, the abrupt loss of Selena gave pause, portending that the promised future might not arrive as it had been envisioned. 

 

I began my journey to understand the places that figured in Selena’s life and death at the Houston Astrodome, site of her last major concert in 1995. I arrived late at night and fell asleep in the parking lot of a nearby Holiday Inn, watching YouTube videos of the famed performance on a camping mattress in the back of my car. The next morning I stood outside the closed gates of the stadium, studying the concrete dome and side panels streaked from rainfall like the walls of a canyon. The building, now in disrepair and subject to constant rumors of demolition, was once celebrated as the first air-conditioned arena, and was long considered by Texans to be the “eighth wonder of the world.” When Selena took the stage here on February 26, the stands were filled with nearly seventy thousand screaming fans, shattering all previous attendance records. Now the only sound was that of cicadas roaring from the treetops—the last remnant of an energy deposited long ago by throngs held in rapture. 

Driving south toward Lake Jackson, the industrial outskirts of Houston gave way to the green and humid lowlands of the Texas coast. The town of Selena’s birth had been named for plantation owner Abner Jackson, who was once the second-largest slaveholder in the state. His sugarcane plantations managed to continue operating long after the Civil War, leasing the bodies of innumerable state convicts through a clause in the newly ratified Thirteenth Amendment that permitted involuntary servitude as punishment for crime. In 1874, an inspection of working conditions at his Lake Jackson plantation found that prison laborers were malnourished, lacked medical care, slept on bare mattresses, and had been beaten and punished at the stocks like the slaves before them.

The city of Lake Jackson, as it is known today, was established as a company town for Dow Chemical, the same corporation that pioneered the mass production of Agent Orange and plutonium pits used in nuclear weapons. Indeed, still looming over Highway 288 is the massive Dow Texas Innovation Center, a fifty-five-acre campus dedicated to the company’s research and development. On the other side of the roadway, tucked away along a nondescript row of businesses, I found the dentist’s office that had once been Papagayo’s restaurant. An online fan guide listed the nearby address of the singer’s first childhood home, but when I arrived there I found that the house and the streets around it had been consumed by the expanded parking lot of an H-E-B, a popular Texas supermarket chain. I drove past rows of cars to where Selena’s street had once been, recalling old images of her home with its wood-paneled exterior and front yard dominated by a massive live oak. The parking lot, I soon realized, was studded with the few remaining trees that had once shaded the old neighborhood, some draped in Spanish moss, their rustling leaves audible even above the sounds of car tires and shopping-cart wheels grinding on the asphalt. 

The road to Corpus Christi meandered southwest from Lake Jackson over the Brazos, the Colorado, the Lavaca, and the Guadalupe Rivers, skirting the inland edge of bays, ports, and deltas. At the outskirts of one town after another, maskless hitchhikers languished in the heat; barefaced police officers interrogated terrified-looking speeders outside their cars; and historical markers commemorated cattle barons, Spanish missionaries, military men, and a slew of white landowners and empresarios. Meanwhile, cotton fields and towering rolls of alfalfa zipped past endlessly, marked with menacing signs celebrating god, guns, and country and imploring: keep america great.

My arrival in Corpus Christi was preceded by a crush of power plants, refineries, and loading docks. After crossing the Nueces Bay, I finally exited the highway on Shoreline Boulevard and parked along the bayfront next to a white mirador—a Spanish-style gazebo with arched columns and curved roof tiles. Looking up and down along the promenade, I noticed several identical structures. Each of the miradors, I would learn, “commemorates the city’s history” and celebrates its “firsts,” including the “First Cattle King,” the “First Explorer,” the “First Missionary,” the “First Colonist,” and the “First U.S. Flag” brought to Corpus Christi by General Zachary Taylor, a man who, before ascending to the presidency, led an army regiment in the Mexican-American War that torched villages and orchards, desecrated churches and cemeteries, and became notorious for murdering, raping, and scalping any Mexicans they encountered along the way, including children.

In 1997, two years after Selena’s murder, Corpus Christi erected a new mirador commemorating the pop star. The memorial, according to poet and scholar Deborah Paredez, “reinserts Tejanos—the very people conspicuously absent from the ‘key episodes’ depicted in the other miradors—into the official history that punctuates this well-traversed tourist path.” Precisely for this reason, it was met with fierce consternation and debate from local governing officials, power brokers, and Anglo residents—but Selena’s unbridled fame, and the tourist dollars that flowed from it, soon solidified the memorial’s place on the seawall. 

All along Shoreline Boulevard, families strolled by in their masks while teenagers cruised the promenade on electric scooters. Up ahead, “Como la Flor” blared from outdoor speakers. Adjacent to the mirador’s archways was a wall of yellow and blue tiles depicting a mosaic of flowers, musical notes, and treble clefs, all of them “hand-painted,” a sign noted, “by Texas children who loved Selena.” Selena’s bronze statue presented her in tight pants, a leather jacket, and her signature bustier, leaning against the mirador’s central white pillar as if in a moment of rest, a microphone held down at her side and her head turned to watch the full moon rising over the silvery waters of the Gulf of Mexico. 

“Selena was not only iconic for an entire culture,” a prerecorded voice announced over the music, “she was able to overcome racial stereotypes.” The message played on as I looked down at the bricks beneath my feet, covered with messages of adoration scrawled in black Sharpie and colored markers. i love u selena. you are so special, you will always be in my girls. dreaming of you. from ohio with love. stacey & justin. brooke y carlos. pedro & juana. “She was an entrepreneur and a pioneer,” the voice continued from the speakers: “She was a trendsetter and a visionary.” I stood as close as I could to the sculpture, blocked by a guardrail that had been installed by the city to keep fans’ handwritten messages from sullying the monument’s whitewashed column. “Selena forever lives in our hearts,” intoned the voice from above, “she forever lives in our memory, and she is forever part of our lives.” Beside me, a man who had been gazing up at the statue stepped onto his electric scooter. Tilting his head to the sky, he sang out “Ahh-ah-ay—como me duele!” and then zipped off along the promenade. 

 

“I watched her videos a lot,” a young girl confesses in the 1999 Lourdes Portillo documentary Corpus: A Home Movie for Selena. But since her untimely death, the girl admits, “a lot of that got me crying too much and got me sick. So I quit listening to her music.” A classmate standing beside her bows her head and looks down at the ground, as if grieving. “But I’m back and feeling better,” the girl concludes. “I still listen to her music, but not as often.” The classroom of girls, all of them Latina, go on to enumerate how they are like Selena, smiling and laughing together as they give examples. “I went through the same things she did,” one girl says. “She worked hard at her goals,” says another. “She sings her songs with feelings,” someone else announces, “and that’s how I sing my songs.”

The legacy of Selena is first and foremost a legacy of joy. Her music is unequivocally exuberant, as was her style, her personality, her self-assuredness. But in the borderlands, joy is rarely something unqualified, rarely uninterrupted. Rarer still is joy ever commodified or reproduced as a borderland export—popular culture perpetually rejects the idea of the border as a site of happiness, triumph, or beauty. But Selena and her music represent all of these things in a straightforward, unencumbered, and sometimes even gaudy, tacky, silly way—a way that begs to be celebrated and joined. 

Chamilla Foxx, the cohost of the “Bidi Bidi Boom Boom!” virtual tribute, told me that, as a drag queen on the gig circuit, “if you go somewhere and you do a Selena number, people are going to go up for it. It doesn’t matter where you’re at. You could be at a white club, you could be anywhere, and everybody will go up for a Selena number—it creates a nostalgia and it brings you back to a happier time. Everyone’s just happy to be with each other, even if they’ve never met before.” Far from isolated or anecdotal, Foxx’s assertions can be confirmed on dance floors across the globe. 

Judged by these criteria, Selena’s music and celebrity is perhaps the US­–Mexico border’s single most powerful emotional export. Her murder, however, represents the inevitable intrusion of violence into borderland narratives. In the telling of her life and death, violence is positioned as a simultaneous point of rupture and re-creation—marking the end of Selena’s agency to shape her own legend and the beginning of an open-source mythology that allows fans to shape her meaning through the agency she offers them. The violence that ended her life did not flow from the border, but from an old impulse to control, erase, and rewrite the story of another, an impulse rooted in a history that papers over protean lives with new records, with monuments and historical markers that substitute, obscure, and repackage their existence in the shadow of undeviating, inevitable, and triumphant authority. But the borderlands are a place where undeviating stories are often overtaken by anomalous ones, where even brutality is sometimes subsumed by joy. The body, whether stuck alone at home or thrust into a stadium filled with strangers, learns to unburden itself of violence and injustice, of rancor and discontent, even if for only as long as the beat of a techno cumbia pulses through the air, the ground, the veins. 

 

The masked clerk at the Knights Inn on Navigation Boulevard rebuked me gently when I asked if I might be able to see the lobby, drawing his attention to the tiny altar and framed photo of Selena hanging beyond the locked glass doors. I’m sorry, he told me, but the lobby is closed due to, you know, everything that’s going on. I nodded as he handed me my room key and emphasized that no smoking was allowed. I walked past clouded windows and peeling paint until I found my room, thick with the unmistakable odor of cigarettes. Mask on, I obsessively set about disinfecting every surface, spraying even the bedsheets. I walked outside to the motel’s inner courtyard and stood for a while outside the room where Selena was shot, staring at the door that had long ago been renumbered out of superstition from 158 to 150. Unsure of what I should feel there, I walked back to my room and scrolled through the messages on my phone. Make sure you light sage to cleanse the air, one friend told me. Wear your juniper beads for protection, my mother advised. It’s a full moon in Pisces, another friend wrote, get ready for crazy dreams. 

The next morning, I drove the short distance to the Selena Museum, housed in a nondescript building with off-white aluminum siding and a maroon awning. Parked in front of the entrance was a large SUV with a man in sunglasses and combed-back hair listening to a Bluetooth call at high volume. A woman greeted me at the door, pointing a temperature gun at my forehead and making sure that I sanitized my hands before entering. She chatted with me as I paid the $3 entry fee, and when I remarked that the man in that car outside looked like Selena’s dad, she told me that, indeed, it was him. His office is still here, she said, so we get to see him almost every day. Another woman arrived to guide me to the exhibition hall, leading me first through the recording studio which, she said, had been left just as it was when Selena used it. I walked through the room and stood by the microphone where Selena had recorded vocals for her ill-fated crossover album, peering through the glass into the control room. The woman smiled at me. You’re welcome to take photos, she said. 

After leading me down a hallway lined with posters, my guide pointed out the gift shop and left me inside an exhibition room packed full of photos, awards, outfits, memorabilia, and possessions that had belonged to Selena. In the middle of this space were her most famed outfits—the purple jumpsuit, the white bustier, the leather jacket and white lace, all seemingly tailored to fit on the decidedly un-curvy mannequins. Her music awards lined the wall, along with her gold and platinum records, her bedazzled accessories and custom-designed hats, her belt buckles and cowboy boots. Circling the room, I passed by Selena’s perfectly preserved lipstick-red 1986 Porsche, mock-up sketches of her clothing designs, and a display case full of fan mail from El Salvador and New Zealand, Japan and Ecuador, Malaysia and Jamaica, Hungary and Peru. On my way out, I stopped at the gift shop and browsed through T-shirts, sweaters, blankets, bags, pencils, buttons, hats, and koozies. At the register, a man made small talk with the sales clerk, explaining how a two-week trip to visit family in Corpus had turned into two months, then three, then four. The clerk shook his head. It came in waves here, he explained. At first no one we knew was sick, then friends started to get it, and the next thing I knew my own family was in the hospital. 

On my way out of the museum, weighed down with bags of merchandise, I stopped at the reception area to ask the woman who had taken my temperature if she knew of anywhere in town I might be able to browse through old Tejano records. She called to two of her coworkers and they conferred back and forth across the room, consulting their phones and computers, listing off the various old record shops that used to be scattered across town, all of which seemed to be closed. Then, Selena’s father walked in the door with a mask and sunglasses, leaning on a cane. Hey Mr. Q, one of the women asked him, are any of the old Tejano record shops still open? He looked at me. You like Tejano? 

Of course, I said. 

He squinted doubtingly and asked where I was from. 

Tucson. 

Mira, he said, of course you’re looking for Tejano—there’s no good music where you come from! The women laughed, but Mr. Q barely cracked a smile.

He sat down at a table and asked what it is I do in Tucson. As I haltingly explained that I was a writer and teacher, he raised an eyebrow above his tinted glasses. You know, he said, I just finished writing a book. It sets the record straight about all the rumors that have swirled around since my daughter’s death. He added the name “Selena” as a clarification, as if I might not know, and then sent one of the women to fetch the manuscript from his desk. When she returned, he flipped to a passage toward the end of the book and held it out for me to read. It was written by his daughter Suzette, and described, with heartbreaking clarity, the everlasting haze of losing her sister. When I handed the book back to him, I struggled with how to react—not wanting to show too much emotion, but also recognizing that emotion was what had drawn him to share the passage in the first place. Since you’re a writer, he asked, I wonder if you’ve read the Bible? I stammered, confessing that I had never exactly read it cover to cover. 

Mr. Q took off his mask. I want to show you something that was written more than three thousand years ago, he told me, pulling out his phone. He did some typing and scrolling and then handed it to me. Read verse twenty-two, he instructed—you can read it out loud. There is One who dwells above the circle of the earth, I read, And its inhabitants are like grasshoppers. He is stretching out the heavens like a fine gauze, And he spreads them out like a tent to dwell in. Mr. Q smiled. The circle of the Earth? he intoned. But we’ve been told that everyone back then believed the world was flat! Ah, but even before science there were people who knew the shape of things. 

He took his phone, typed some more, and offered it back to me. Now read this, he ordered. I diligently spoke aloud the words of Job 26, verse seven: He stretches out the northern sky over empty space, Suspending the earth upon nothing. So now you see, he said, that even then they knew about outer space, about the universe beyond us. 

Selena’s father then asked me if I knew the true name of God, and as he took his phone and continued speaking, I struggled to follow his words, focusing instead on his face, fixating on the features he shared with his daughter. Looking at him was like looking at a mountain. As he continued, it occurred to me that Selena herself had sat through countless lectures like this one, countless speeches and lessons—and in that moment I struggled, just as she had, to listen, to not interrupt, to convince this man I understood. 

 

In her landmark book Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Chicana theorist Gloria Anzaldúa writes of the “Tex-Mex” music she grew up listening to during her childhood in Hargill, just two hours south of Corpus Christi. She names artists like Little Joe Hernandez, “The King of the Brown Sound,” and Lydia Mendoza, “La Gloria de Tejas,” writing that “these folk musicians and folk songs are our chief cultural myth makers, and they made our hard lives seem bearable.” But she also admits to placing herself at a certain imposed distance from the region’s dominant genre: “For the slightly educated and agringado Chicanos, there existed a sense of shame at being caught listening to our music. Yet I couldn’t stop my feet from thumping to the music, could not stop humming the words, nor hide from myself the exhilaration I felt when I heard it.”

Anzaldúa’s words, written two years before Selena’s first major studio release and five years before her first international hit, describe a species of shame that was doubtlessly familiar to generations of border residents. But as Selena catapulted to success in the early 1990s, she seemed to brush away those vestiges of white-imposed shame, taking a marginalized regional style and translating it into full-fledged pop. She was able to do this, in no small part, because of her fluid regard for genre, an approach expressly rooted in her experience as a border dweller long adept at moving between cultures. In Borderlands/La Frontera, Anzaldúa writes that “there is no one Chicano language just as there is no one Chicano experience.” What Selena also seemed to understand is that there is no one Chicano sound. 

The writings of Gloria Anzaldúa also help us make sense of Selena’s posthumous exaltation, her elevation from “cultural myth maker” to a universal touchstone of Latina identity. The subtitle of Borderlands/La Frontera gestures at Anzaldúa’s concept of “The New Mestiza,” a feminist who rejects rigid patriarchal and white supremacist identity constructs in favor of ones rooted in the fluidity of the borderlands. “The new mestiza,” Anzaldúa writes, “has a plural personality, she operates in a pluralistic mode.” She goes on to proclaim that “the future will belong to the mestiza. Because the future depends on the breaking down of paradigms, it depends on the straddling of two or more cultures. By creating a new mythos—that is, a change in the way we perceive reality, the way we see ourselves, and the ways we behave—la mestiza creates a new consciousness.” In this way, Selena’s arrival in the stratosphere of international fame announced the possibility of rupturing binaries long present in popular culture, and heralded an end to the relegation of Latinx art.

It makes sense that Anzaldúa’s insights would reveal so much about the idolization of Selena—the two women are, after all, the two most culturally influential daughters of South Texas, helping to define popular and scholarly understanding of Latinx identity at the close of the twentieth century. Anzaldúa would continue to hone her thinking after the publication of Borderlands/La Frontera by developing a specific concept to explain the psychological and spiritual state of existing in a liminal space: “I call it Nepantla,” she explained in an interview with Karin Ikas,which is a Nahuatl word for the space between two bodies of water, the space between two worlds…where you are not this or that but where you are changing. You haven’t gotten into the new identity yet and haven’t left the old identity behind either—you are in a kind of transition.” For Anzaldúa, nepantla was an all-inclusive state, one that encompassed distinct and overlapping notions of culture and society, of geography and landscape.

As a state of suspended transition, nepantla also entails great discomfort, pain, and even violence. Nepantla is both “a constant state of displacement” and a “birthing stage”—it is, essentially, the act of “crossing over” without end. Selena, as a mythmaker who died on the cusp of her crossover, can be understood as having lost her life in a state of nepantla—and as having gained new life there as well. 

Anzaldúa, expanding upon her idea of the new mestiza in subsequent essays and interviews, developed the idea of the nepantlera, women she describes as supreme border crossers: “They serve as agents of awakening, inspire and challenge others to deeper awareness, greater conocimiento, serve as reminders of each other’s search for wholeness of being.” Selena, considered in these terms, is far more than just “The Queen of Tejano,” but a figure of cosmic, almost spiritual stature—the world’s most recognizable nepantlera

 

I arrived at the Seaside Memorial Park late in the evening, after all blue had faded from the sky. The graveyard was unexpectedly disorienting, devoid of any fan-specific signs or telltale clusters of devotees. Eventually I spotted a conspicuous gravesite at the southern edge of the park, ringed with a wrought iron fence. An old woman stood nearby with a large man who appeared to be her son. I nodded at them as I passed, watching the man water the grass of an adjacent grave with a long hose. Then, just as I approached the gated headstone, he called to me over the sound of the wind. Did you know her? he asked. 

I looked over at him. Did I know her? 

Yeah. Are you from Corpus? 

Oh, I said, no. Are you? 

Oh yeah, he replied. I met her once. She was real nice. 

The man went on to describe how, back in the ’90s, at a local shopping center, he had stopped to check out a good-looking woman in line when suddenly she turned and caught him in the act. With a smile she asked him if he was a Selena fan. Selena? he said. Sure, she’s got some good songs. He looked over at me and emphasized that the woman wasn’t wearing any makeup—she looked like a regular girl, he said, but you know, with a big booty. He held out his hands to demonstrate while glancing mischievously toward his mother. 

Anyhow, he said, once this girl mentioned Selena, I was like, have you seen her husband? He’s not even that good looking! I think she could have done better. She laughed at me, you know, real friendly, and then asked if I wanted an autograph. I was like—an autograph? And that’s when she pulled a CD out of her purse and I finally realized it was her. She signed it for me, and that was that. Man, like I said, she was real nice. I even remember which CD it was. It was Live. 

I asked him if he and his mother came to the graveyard often. Oh yeah, he said, we’ve been here every day since my grandma died. His mother looked solemnly toward the ground. It’s been dry as hell, he added, so we come every day to water the grass. I looked down and noticed the perfect square of green at their feet, sopping with water and luminous compared with the yellowing sod around it. I’ll bet you see a lot of people coming to visit Selena, I said. The man whistled and they both nodded their heads vigorously. Especially on the weekends, his mother added. He looked at her and shifted a few steps to the right, directing the hose at another already-wet patch of grass. I guess we’ve seen a lot of stuff, he told me—people crying, people singing, people with their kids, people on dates. Lots of people leave cans of beer or bottles of tequila—you know, as a kind of offering—but then other people show up later and take it for themselves. 

As the man walked away to turn off and roll up the hose, his mother finally lifted her head. Silence hung between us until it finally occurred to me to ask the woman about her own loss.

Was it your mom who died? 

Yeah, she said. 

How long ago? 

The woman thought for a moment. I guess it’s been about two months now. 

Was it the virus? I asked. 

She shook her head. My mom had dementia for a long time and then one day she just took a bad fall and that was it. They had her in the hospital for more than twenty days. I don’t even understand how she made it that long. She didn’t have a feeding tube or nothing, all she had was the moisture from the sponge we used to wet her lips. Somehow she survived all that time just from that. And now she’s here next to my uncle, so you know, we still come visit her. The woman stared for a moment at the two gravestones. I followed her gaze, marveling at the vivid green beneath them, at the speed with which the water soaked into the earth. 

A few yards away, the woman’s son had started the car and sat waiting with the windows down. As she made her way to the passenger door, the man waved and lifted his head at me as a parting gesture. I guess we’ll leave you alone with Selena now, he said, smiling. As they drove away, I observed the ledger stone engraved with an image of Selena’s face and sprinkled with wilting long-stemmed roses, flanked on either side by prayer candles and displays of artificial calla lilies and white roses. In the videos and pictures I had seen online, some taken decades ago, the tree behind her grave looked small, even feeble. But standing there now, I could see that it had grown into a sprawling mesquite with fat leaves and long bean pods, its forked trunk and twisting branches undulating slowly in the breeze. 

I kneeled at the small fence and reached my arm in between the iron bars to place my offering. Then, gazing up at the swaying crown of the mesquite, I began to whisper a message of gratitude. The sky had grown dim, and as I spoke to Selena with so little distance between us, it felt as if every artifice of idolatry and myth had somehow fallen away. It felt, in other words, like visiting any loved one who had passed. After a while, I got up, listened once more to the wind, and swore I could hear the ocean.

 

In Selenidad, Deborah Paredez carefully deconstructs Selena’s mythic performance at the Houston Astrodome. She had been invited to headline “Tejano Night” at the Houston Rodeo, and she chose to open her set by singing, uncharacteristically, in English. After famously circling the arena floor in a horse-drawn carriage, Selena took the stage and called out to the audience—“How you doin’, Houston, Texas?” before launching into a rendition of “I Will Survive,” the first song in a nearly eight-minute Tejano-fused “Disco Medley.” Paredez makes note of Selena’s frequent Spanglish interjections between verses and songs, issuing dual-language commands like “con animo raza” and “bring it down.” During her cover of “Funkytown,” Selena dances to the front of the stage, sings out the chorus, then points to the crowd and shouts, “Let me hear you, Houston, Tejas-México!” before twirling into a salsa step, losing an earring, and then reaching up to fling aside the other, all as the crowd roars in response. By now, only halfway through her opening number, the only Latina star of Tejano Night has announced her arrival in English, performed a mash-up of two quintessentially American songs, and acknowledged the history-spanning, transnational identity of her fans. Her invocation of Tejas-México, writes Paredez, “spatially remaps the Texas border to foreground a Tejano history that predates the region’s Anglo-American economic colonization,” the very history which, year after year, is “worshipped at the altar of the rodeo.”

It is no coincidence that the virtual Selena tribute I attended at the end of the summer began with an interpretation of this very same performance. “I think she knew what it meant to be at the Astrodome,” Angelicia Marquez, one of the event’s performers, told me. Despite all the masculinity, all the whiteness that emanated from that space, Selena found power there, Marquez says, power she describes as explosive. “It’s sort of like she picked up that stadium and took it somewhere where it was just for the Latinos. And for a woman to do that in the ’90s is completely spectacular, you know?” 

For Marquez, as for so many others, Selena has served as a beacon of hope, a transformative influence. As an eighteen-year-old struggling with her gender identity, Marquez would dress as a woman and go out to the bars in Texas. “People would tell me I resembled Selena,” she said, and soon she began performing as a tribute artist. “She gave me a moment and a spotlight to actually set my foot on a stage and be able to embody her and show people who I am.” After a while, she built enough confidence to perform as Angelicia, without the Selena act. “Now that I’m far into my transition and living as a Latin trans woman, I feel Selena gave me the ability to see my future and hope for more. I don’t think I would be standing where I am now if it weren’t for her.”

In the podcast Selena: A Star Dies in Texas, listeners can hear broadcasts from Corpus Christi news stations that aired in the days following Selena’s death. Network anchors reported that cars had begun a slow procession through the parking lot of the motel where she was slain, and fans had gathered in front of the room where she was shot, dumbfounded by sorrow and disbelief. People flocked to leave offerings on the sidewalk and fence outside her home, resulting in a line of cars two miles long. “Her fans journeyed here from across the state, across the nation, driving from as far away as Michigan,” one newscaster reported: “This was no vacation for these people, it was more like a pilgrimage.” For these early mourners, traveling to these sites was a way to demystify Selena’s death and manifest their grief. Likewise for the steady stream of pilgrims that would follow, coming to Corpus was a way to affirm Selena’s transformative power and anchor it in a specific place, a terrain made intimate. 

The first time Angelicia came to Corpus, she was just eleven. She went with her family to visit the statue, the museum, the graveyard. “It was so powerful,” she said, “you could just feel it in the air.” What Marquez felt was undoubtedly an energy Selena had left behind, but she was also likely tapping into something else, something that Selena had, in turn, inherited from the place itself, an energy that made it possible for her to evolve into the woman she would become. At age twenty, Marquez returned to Corpus Christi to attend a Selena-themed festival. She went dressed in her favorite outfit and was surrounded by thousands of others who had done the same. “You felt like at any moment you would turn around and Selena would be there.” It was as if the star was within reach, Marquez told me, “like she was watching over everyone.”

 

An expanse of cotton fields begins barely a mile past the home where Selena lived with her husband just before her death, in a house next door to her mother and father and brother. As I drove southwest, the harvested fields stretched into the horizon, streaking by on both sides of Old Brownsville Road. I passed a man selling watermelon on the side of the road, more fields edged with stacked rolls of alfalfa, and a sign warning entering prison area, do not pick up hitchhikers. Just off the highway, I stopped at the Coastal Bend Detention Center, where, behind two layers of chain-link fence and concertina wire, more than seven hundred migrants were being detained by the federal government, which had contracted the for-profit GEO Group to manage the facility. In searching for news about Coastal Bend, I learned that more than a third of its detainees had recently tested positive for the virus; that GEO Group offered them wages of just $1 per day for their labor; and that an investigation had been launched following reports of civil-rights abuses, inadequate medical care, and poor conditions that included detainees being made to sleep on damaged mattresses.

On my way back to the highway, I drove over a carpet of locusts swarming the asphalt. I briefly entered oil country, passing by several derricks at the edge of Alice, a town that also houses the Tejano Music Hall of Fame. Outside of Falfurrias I saw a sign promoting the local “Heritage Museum,” which boasted a room commemorating the history of the Texas Rangers, who, as chronicled by Monica Muñoz Martinez in The Injustice Never Leaves You, often played a central role in the lynching of thousands of Texas-born Mexicans in the early twentieth century, sometimes leaving their hanging corpses on display for months afterward. I drove by a billboard advertising bail bonds and stopped briefly outside another detention center in Brooks County, located next to a junkyard only forty miles from the last facility and barely sixty miles to the next in Raymondville, seventy to another in La Villa, and ninety to another in Port Isabel, overlooking the Laguna Madre Bay. Sitting outside the detention center, I recalled that Brooks County was also notorious as one of the deadliest places for migrants crossing the border, reporting more than 650 deaths in the last ten years.

Between Falfurrias and Hargill I joined the freeway and passed a massive border-patrol checkpoint. I began to notice that the landscape was becoming drier, less verdant, even as the flat terrain still maintained a coastal, expansive feel. When I finally stepped outside my car at the Valle De La Paz cemetery, at the edge of Hargill, I felt the air was little different than it had been in Corpus, still soft with salt and moisture from the Gulf. The cemetery was crowded and overgrown at its edges, rimmed with nopal and low sprawling mesquites. I quickly came upon the gravesite of Gloria Anzaldúa, marked with draped beads and artificial orange and yellow carnations, located next to the resting place of a stillborn child. “Caminate,” read a message carved on the back of the stone, “no hay puentes. Se hace puentes al andar. Voyager, there are no bridges. One builds them as one walks.” I crouched at the foot of her grave, left my offering, and whispered a message of gratitude once more into the wind. 

Leaving Hargill, I drove along a dirt road at the edge of a wildlife refuge and was soon pulled over by the border patrol. Have you ever been in trouble? the agent asked me, checking my license. No sir, I told him. No one should be out here, he said, eyes glaring above his mask. Excuse me? I asked. He handed me my ID and repeated himself coldly: I said there’s not supposed to be anyone out here. 

By the time I reached the beach at Boca Chica it was almost dark. Several signs announcing that the beach was closed had been knocked over and pushed aside, so I drove to the edge of the sand and parked my car with the back end facing the waves. As the last light drained from the sky, I waded into the water and dug with my hands below the surface, reaching for clams as they burrowed away, leaving nothing but air bubbles and vibrating sand in their wake. Back at my car, as I stumbled around with my flashlight preparing a cold meal, I spotted a pale crab holding its pincers up to the light. I followed him as he ran toward the surf and in the glow I soon discovered half a dozen other crabs all walking sideways at the edge of the water, holding their claws out into the darkness.

In the morning, I woke to the sound of the waves unchanged from the night before. Since there was no road that led to the mouth of the Rio Grande, and since I didn’t trust my car to drive across the sand, I prepared to jog the final three miles along the empty beach. The sun, even at that early hour, had layered the ocean air with its heat. As I ran, I braced for the likelihood that I would once again be stopped by the border patrol, and I scanned the horizon for surveillance towers and listened for the sound of engines revving toward me along the beach. But when I finally neared the mouth of the delta, all I heard was a cacophony of birds, streaking up and down along the intersecting waters. The meeting place of the ocean and river was not just geographic, but sonic and textural as well—a hybrid of distinct sounds rising up from the landscape. I walked south and then west along the water’s edge, until the shore-crawling surf gave way to gently lapping banks. Nepantla, Anzaldúa wrote, is the space between two bodies of water. But from here, it was impossible to discern where one body ended and the other began. 

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