The Austin Chronicle

Color Television

By Belinda Acosta, July 30, 1999, Screens

Television was busy last week. The death of John F. Kennedy Jr. launched a week of near-nonstop network news coverage, from the news of his missing plane to the memorial service following his burial at sea. The 1999 Emmy Award nominations were announced, with HBO and other cable networks making a better-than-fair showing. And finally, critical fallout from the NAACP's announcement that it would open a Hollywood Bureau to monitor diversity in the TV and film industry splashed into print and buzzed through the airwaves in media from Entertainment Weekly to National Public Radio's (NPR) Morning Edition. The NAACP announcement was in reaction to the four major networks' fall season prime time programs, which star nary a black nor brown face.

In light of all this, I'm going to write about Selena, the Tejana singer who was shot and killed in 1995 at the age of 23. She is the subject of Corpus: A Home Movie for Selena(8/3, 10pm, PBS), another installment in the provocative Point of View (POV) series. The Selena phenomenon provides an interesting counterimage to the inescapably persistent images of JFK Jr., the son of Camelot, and offers another take on the diversity issue, which is continually cast in black and white.

Lourdes Portillo's Corpus airs after a curious delay. Last month, she pulled the film just two days before its scheduled screening at the CineFestival, a film festival hosted by San Antonio's Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center. The film's original POV air date was July 13, but was pulled by some PBS affiliates (including KLRU), nervous that Portillo's refinishing work might not be completed as promised. Rumors quickly spread that pressure from Abraham Quintanilla, Selena's father and chief engineer of her career, forced Portillo to pull the film.

"Mr. Quintanilla expressed some concerns about the film," Portillo said in a July 9 edition of NPR's Latino USA (produced at KUT at the University of Texas). "He, of course, is concerned about the image of Selena being a certain way. I considered what he had to say, then I made a change that I felt was for the better," she said.

picture of selena

Corpus examines the often misunderstood significance of the slain Tejana star Selena.

Having had the unusual opportunity to review both versions of Corpus, this writer can attest that the most obvious change in the updated version is the inclusion of Portillo speaking at the beginning, expressing her motives as a filmmaker, which provides a useful context for viewing the film. And yes, the addition improves it.

Unlike other projects that focus on Selena's life as a musician (VH1's Behind the Music) or her rise to fame in the American Dream tradition (the feature film, Selena), Corpus traces Selena's life from a Latina feminist perspective, examining how Mexican-American women, particularly young Mexican-American girls from working-class backgrounds, found a role model and later, a pop-cultural icon, in the hourglass shape of the Tejana from Corpus Christi.

Unlike some Chicano intellectuals who discovered Selena after her death, yet tried to explain the singer's popularity from an insider perspective, Portillo is forthright is declaring her ignorance of Selena. "I walked into my parents' living room, and they were really engrossed by the TV because someone had been shot," Portillo recalls. "I said, 'Who was shot?' They said, 'Selena.' I asked, 'Who is Selena?' Then I started to see everyone's reaction and the coverage on television. I think it was my own internalized racism that I could not believe that this brown girl had gotten to be so famous. I did not believe it. So, that's when I decided to make a film about Selena," she said.

Corpus: A Home Movie for Selena features archival footage, home movies, interviews with Quintanilla family members, Latina intellectuals, and the many fans who adore and miss her to this day. But the story of Selena is much more complex than any of the previous films have shown. Portillo's film makes astute and sometimes pointed observations about celebrity, class, beauty, fame, and culture.

"I think the important thing about telling these stories about Selena and about Latinos and Latinas is that we need to look at ourselves in the media," Portillo explains. "We need to see ourselves portrayed. If there had been a Selena on the television, it probably would have made me feel like I belonged in this country. We need to see our experiences validated. Otherwise, we don't exist and if we don't exist, we become diminished by the media. And we can't allow that to happen."

The death of John F. Kennedy Jr. and Selena share some similarities. There are also vast differences. Like Selena, Kennedy's death marked the end of a life cut short much too soon. Each death saw an outpouring of grief from strangers, who, in some peculiar way, felt a deep, personal loss. But this is where the similarities end.

Kennedy's life as the progeny of the so-called Camelot era was scrutinized from his birth, and television became a sort of living photo album with which to observe the phases of his life. Many viewers fell in love with the three-year-old who saluted his father's passing coffin during one of the most devastating moments in U.S. history. Though print media cannot be dismissed, it is the television images that provided the most immediate means to witness his young life, and in the process, provided a sense of cultural citizenship by all who viewed the same "album."

Part of the Selena phenomenon included the complete ignorance of the mainstream (including middle-class Latinos), who were not only surprised at the reaction to the singer's death, but asked, "Who's Selena?" -- as if to say, since we don't know who she is, she must not exist, or, she must not matter. But as Portillo's film, and other films on this distinctly Mexican-American cultural icon can attest, Selena did and does matter. Even so, it is this sense of cultural citizenship that many African-Americans and Latinos find lacking on television. Based on the Communications Act of 1934, which deems that the airwaves belong to the public, the NAACP may take legal action against the networks for not providing proportionate media representation on- and off-camera. Whether this will fly remains to be seen, and like other media watchers, this writer will keep tabs on events as they unfold. As always, stay tuned.

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