"Selena" was released 20 years ago today, and continues to teach us important lessons about identity

Selena Quintanilla continues to be one of the most important figures in pop culture. From music to socio-political frameworks, Selena impacted the life of many, and she continues to be an icon of cultural and identity representation. In 1995, Selena died amid a shifting political landscape in the United States. During that time, politicians increasingly targeted Latinx communities — such was the case in California with Proposition 187, an initiative to deny public services to undocumented immigrants. Additionally, constant immigration raids across the country targeted undocumented immigrants, and policies enacted post-NAFTA were injecting fear into many communities.


Selena’s death became about more than a lost Latina legend — it transcended her artistry. She became an icon of cultural identity, resistance, and women’s empowerment.

In 1996, Selena’s story was documented for a feature film. A nationwide casting call was held in 1996, and more than 24,000 women auditioned for the role of Selena — the largest open casting call in Hollywood history since the Scarlett O’Hara auditions for Gone with the Wind. The role was given to Jennifer López, and the phenomenon of thousands of women attending the auditions illustrated the power of Selena.

Selena was more than a film, it was a cultural narrative of identity and Latinx affirmation.

The film chronicles the story of Selena, but also offers an opportunity to view the struggles of marginalized people — or the other — and the intersection of womanhood and culture. Selena offered some of the greatest life lessons, and catapulted a conversation about Latinx, women in music, bi-cultural identity, and intersectionality.


A lesson about cultural hybridity 

It is one of the most iconic scenes from Selena. A clear and honest portrayal of the struggle – and gift – of cultural hybridity.

Selena is getting ready for her Mexican debut performance, but her father, Abraham Quintanilla, is worried that her lack of Spanish will depict her as less Mexican, and she’ll be mocked by the media. Typical of Selena, instead of focusing on language barriers, she is confident that her talent will prevail. Abraham, portrayed by Edward James Olmos, speaks one of the most hair-raising quotes, a moment many Latinx continue to identify with:

"And we got to prove to the Mexicans how Mexican we are, and we got to prove to the Americans how American we are, we gotta be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans, both at the same time. It’s exhausting. Damn. Nobody knows how tough it is to be a Mexican American."