Amor Prohibido

Selena's Crossover Dream

Como la flor... Like the flower that dazzles and delights with its beauty and can brighten the most jaded and indifferent heart, if only momentarily... "Como la Flor" was the name of one of Selena's hits. Selena was already a magnificent flower when her stem -- her very life -- was tragically severed far too soon -- like all flowers seem to die, by a bullet from the gun of her fan club president/business associate Yolanda Saldívar. Despite her star status, Selena was only a bud in terms of her unrealized potential. Although her music was known and loved by millions of Tejanos, other Latinos, and Latin Americans, to the majority of the population -- the gringo population, that is -- she was a total unknown.

Selena dreamed of crossing over into the bigger world. Her death on March 31, 1995 precipitated a posthumous crossover, but as her Lake Jackson elementary school classmate and next-door neighbor Meredith Lynn Cappel succinctly summarized: "All her dreams -- gone."

Joe Nick Patoski's excellent new book, Selena: Como la Flor (Little & Brown, $22.95 hard), is the third book already. The (first) movie has been cast, and presumably we can still look forward to the touted official biography sanctioned by her ultra-controlling father, Abraham Quintanilla, Jr. Quintanilla is trying to control his dead daughter's legacy in every way. The familia cartel disapprove of this book (as of anything connected with Selena that isn't explicitly licensed by them), so I'm presumably earning their wrath reviewing it.

I hope her family at least reads it. Especially Quintanilla. Because he was "the ultimate stage father," a lot of this book focuses on him and his obsession with music and Selena's destiny for stardom. Even though Quintanilla comes across as sleazy -- almost sinister at times -- without him, a little Mexican girl from Corpus Christi would never have become an international star. This story of a family band with lots of cards stacked against it making it in the always-cutthroat music biz because they were willing to do whatever it took is an inspiring rags-to-riches story: Who says the American dream isn't available to everyone? Patoski tells their story with such empathy and insight that we began to understand Quintanilla's fixation and almost admire him, despite his unlikable qualities. And Patoski captures eight-year-old Selena singing her heart out in the family restaurant in Lake Jackson so exquisitely that it feels like he was actually there.

Selena had "it," whatever you call that indefinable but tangible star power -- charisma is the best word we have. Her innocent seductress image combined with an amazing voice, sexy dancing, and an obvious and exuberant joy tantalize. I never saw her perform live but having seen videos and heard her songs is enough for me to know she will live on forever in my heart. This book is a beautiful tribute that goes a long way towards explaining the phenomenon that was Selena and the South Texas Mexicano world from which she came, the world that is still an underclass despite whatever progress towards racial harmony and understanding we may have achieved. (At least you don't see "No dogs or Meskins" signs posted in restaurants any more, [[questiondown]]verdad?)

Among the small coterie of writers interested in Texas-Mexican musical culture, most seem to prefer the older, more traditional, and therefore presumably far more "authentic" conjunto style, which is unequivocally fabulous, but I'm a renegade for liking Tejano too. Some colleagues disdain Tejano to the level of asserting we would be better off if it didn't even exist. They are not alone in this opinion. Not all Mexicanos like "Mexican" music, although they usually only admit this to me in whispers. My teenage son, whose taste ranges from Metallica to Mozart, regularly tells me things like: "I can't stand Tejano; I'm not kidding," and "Tejano music sucks." My goddaughter and best friend feel the same way, although both are wild about Selena's duet with David Byrne, "God's Child (Baila Conmigo)," on Dreaming of You. Indeed, who did call this child to walk on the moon?

I say Tejano music is just as authentic as conjunto. So what if it's "polluted" by rock, country, reggae, non-Mexican Latino styles, rap, or whatever else and employs sinful synthesizers? From that perspective, conjunto is equally impure. Flaco Jiménez tells how his dad, the great acordeonista Don Santiago Jiménez, Sr. used to eavesdrop at German dances in the central Texas area. And how about the corrupt electric bass replacing the stand-up bass tololoche?Musical cross influences have been fermenting in Texas at least since Anglos started migrating here. How can we write off Tejano music, just because it -- like virtually all contemporary musical styles -- is mongrel? When it moves millions around dance floors?

The fact that few outside this huge scene even know it exists (aside from Selena's murder) is pretty bizarre. Now, I don't think all Anglos must get into Tejano with a vengeance, because if nothing else I revel in the role of token gringa on the scene, but I sure would like to live in a Texas where Mexicanos get a hell of a lot more respect than they do now. We can assume they wouldn't mind either. They've already endured an incredible amount of shit from us since Anglos first started moving to Texas long after they had settled here, and we still have la migra to terrorize recent arrivals who are the only ones willing to do our dirty work in this promised land.

One of the major strengths of this book is Patoski's in-depth knowlege of Texas musical history in general. His inclusion of extensive descriptions about the context in which the Quintanillas struggled to make their mark is fascinating and greatly enriches the possibility for outsiders to understand this story. So the fact that the inimitable Lydia Mendoza is only mentioned in passing as another act recorded by Quintanilla's early mentor Johnny Herrera, with the added phrase "considered the greatest Mexican-American female voice of modern times," is inexplicable.

Lydia deserves at least her own paragraph for her pioneering role. In her long career, she has recorded over 1,200 songs, beginning at age 12 in 1928 with her family band. She toured extensively in Mexico and all the many places around the U.S. that migrant workers from Texas traveled (and many cases settled). I had the thrill of seeing Lydia at the recent Quinceañera Party of the Tejano Conjunto Festival in San Antonio, and she is -- at 80 -- as regal, glamorous, and beneficently gracious as ever. Although she has been retired for about a decade due to failing health, two nights later she sang with Mingo Saldívar at the festival and reportedly still sounds great. Lydia Mendoza is the First Queen of Tejano Music.

Although Selena credits Laura Canales, called la reina, whose singing career was falling apart as Selena's was taking off, as having paved the way for her to be in the music business, in fact, both Laura and Selena and every other woman (and man for that matter) in the Tejano scene are trodding in Lydia's formidable footsteps. (I wondered if Selena knew who Lydia Mendoza was, because she had to cross back over into her "own" world and her roots didn't go all that deep, but several Tejano friends have insisted to me there is no way she couldn't have known, so her statement about Laura was referring just to an immediate predecessor.)

Although I've seen maybe sixty música Tejana acts live, I still feel like somewhat of an interloper as a gringa -- a mere Tejana wannabe -- at Tejano Ranch, even though I go with friends who are insiders on the scene. Crossing into this world, like crossing out of it, means entering contested ground. Despite his overall superior research on Como la Flor, the author is not an insider, so a few glaring errors crept in. In general, the earlier musical era in which Abe almost made it with the original Los Dinos (Selena would become part of a later version of Los Dinos) is more movingly evoked, while descriptions of the contemporary era of Tejano music do not fully capture its vigor. The hot neo-conjunto group Intocable (untouchable) is mistakenly identified as "Intocables," but worse, La Tropa F and Jaime y los Chamacos are included in a list of an "even newer generation of Tejano acts," -- La Tropa are a few months short of 25 years playing together and have used their current name at least since 1982 (previously they called themselves Los Hermanos Farías), and Jaime started playing drums in his father's conjunto at age five and formed his own group in 1985.

Of course, much of the blame for this slight weakness in the book can be laid at Abe's feet; due to his powerful stranglehold, nobody with any monetary stake in the current Tejano scene could give interviews for this book for justifiable fear of retaliation from Q Productions. Not to say that people who were cut out of the business when the major labels moved in and thus had nothing to lose didn't offer significant insights about Selena's life and music.

The most potent message of this book is the continuing virulence of racism, and Patoski does not sidestep that issue. I think every Texan -- and I include y'all naturalized ones here -- who cares about the future possibility of racial harmony in our state and nation should read this book. It's also highly recommended to anyone just looking for a stimulating read. And, Mr. Patoski, since you've done such a great job on unauthorized bios (including co-authoring with Bill Crawford for Stevie Ray Vaughan: Caught in the Crossfire), and you have exceeded your previous writing efforts in weaving together Selena's complex tale, I'd like to put in a request for additional biographies on Roky, Doug Sahm, Little Joe, Freddy Fender, and Willie -- they might cooperate!

Other books about Texas-Mexican music are coming out, but they won't tell all the story, either. Dark, sordid stuff still shrouded in murkiness surrounds Selena's prematurely aborted crossover dreams, and the dreams that seemingly every other Tejano star has of crossing over somewhere.On a rerun of Puro Tejano (KNVA, Sundays, 11:30am), Selena told the story that inspired her hit "Amor Prohibido." In Mexico, her grandmother was a servant girl in the home of a very wealthy family and one of the sons of the family fell in love with her. Of course, their love was completely forbidden, but they escaped the established system to found their own household. Sometimes, even forbidden love can be attained. But Selena's longing remained unrequited. The forces trapping people inside her world were too strong to let her escape.

Governor Bush was a special guest at the 1995 Tejano Music Awards at the Alamodome. He was among the few of many emcees, presenters, and awardees on the program who spoke in Spanish. To my non-fluent ears, his accent sounded passable and his remarks inspirational. A number of the 35,000 or so audience gave him a standing ovation; I hope they weren't all Hispanic Republicans, but just appreciated that he came there and spoke their language. (The last time I stood and clapped for a Republican was when Barry Goldwater came to San Antonio in 1964 campaigning against President Johnson, but I would applaud if the Governor would make Cinco de Mayo and Diez y Seis official state holidays for starters. They should be. Those of us in the vanilla majority have ignored the richness of our collective Tejano heritage for way too long.)

We can hope that Selena's tragic death may lead to her being as seminal a cultural intermediary as the Aztec goddess Tonatzin, who manifested as Our Lady of Guadalupe to bring Indians into the fold of the Catholic Church and save millions more from genocide. (20 to 40 million indigenous people are believed to have died in the wake of the Spanish conquest.) Of course we're way too advanced in our morality to commit genocide, but what about virtual genocide? Just because walls are invisible doesn't mean they don't exist. Selena was breaking down some of those invisible walls between the Tejano world, and the outside world, when she died.

Like La Llorona, who, legend has it, wanders riverbanks weeping for the illegitimate children she drowned, surely Selena's spirit is restive. Even though she's a featured soloist in the choir of angels up in heaven now, surely she longs to walk back on earth and search for the children she told her brother she wanted more than anything. Selena wanted to live, not die.

I have an ofrenda (Mexican, and in my case, pantheistic altar) for Selena in my home. A photo of her looking sultry, yet remote, is surmounted by NuestraSenora de Guadalupe, surrounded by many images of people and objects I venerate, including a postcard of Stevie's statue right next to Selena, Hindu gods I worship from two years living in India, Frida Kahlo, John Cage, etc., but she is the central figure, the main icon.

I aspire to achieve Selena and Stevie's level of inspiration. A tabloid story claims that Selena has been performing miracles since her death, healing sick people and appearing to children in dreams telling them to stay out of gangs and off drugs and make good grades in school. Admittedly both a "true believer type" and obviously a Selenaphile, I believe these stories are true.

Selena will be an icon for all time for the sheer glory of her human spirit. Not many saints manifest themselves in these latter days, but for me, with her death, Selena became an instant saint. Her not-quite 24 years among us not only increased her own people's pride in themselves -- especially young women -- but she lived and sang and danced with all her being trying to get more respect for the living cultural legacy of her people and died trying to achieve the Great American Dream. Eternamente Selena. Cómo te extraño. n Former ChronicleDance Editor Sarah Wimer is writing the libretto for an opera, Mnemonia,about a teenage girl who has a vision about Atlantis. This collaboration with composer/ multimedia artist Geroge Cisneros will premiere next year in San Antonio.

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