Mi Amiga, Selena
By Yvette DeChavez
It’s hard to talk about Selena without talking about yourself, you know? Because that’s the thing about Selena—in a way, she’s everyone’s homegirl or big sister, and everyone’s got a story or two to tell about her. But since I’m the one writing this here essay, let me tell you about my homegirl Selena and why we became so close.
Let’s start with a confession: I’m a Pocha, a Xicanx who can’t speak Spanish. I mean, I can speak a little here and there, and if you threw me into a situation where Spanish was absolutely necessary, I could probably get by. But the Spanish I use in everyday life is mostly phrases I grew up hearing that stuck out. Like when my grandma would call someone a sinvergüenza, or my mom’s comadre would call someone a cabrona. You know, that kind of stuff.
I spent a lot of time beating myself up about not speaking Spanish (and I still vow to learn it, which is the line that all of us Pochas give after admitting we don’t speak Spanish). It’s like that scene in the movie Selena where Selena’s dad, played by the one and only Edward James Olmos, says “Being a Mexican American is tough. Anglos jump all over you if you don’t speak English perfectly. Mexicans jump all over you if you don’t speak Spanish perfectly. We gotta be twice as perfect as anybody else.” And while I think there are a lot of people who gotta be twice as perfect as anybody else, I will say that this scene still makes me shout “Tell it, Edward James Olmos!”
The inability to speak Spanish is a huge source of shame for many of us Pochxs. It’s like losing something you never really had but always wanted in your life. I think about my grandpa, who died before I was born—a part of me never got to exist because I never met him. Same with Spanish. Who would I be if I could speak this language? I don’t even know. I know who I am without it, though: someone who constantly felt out of touch with a huge part of her culture.
But when I found out as a kid that Selena didn’t actually speak Spanish, that she learned it phonetically so that she could sing her songs, something inside me changed forever. Kinda like when I was in the fourth grade, and my parents were getting a divorce, and all of my friends’ parents were still married, so I couldn’t quite relate to them. But then one day a new kid came in and was like “Hey, my parents are divorced, too,” and I finally realized that things weren’t that bad, and there was nothing to be ashamed about. That’s how I felt when I found out about Selena—like I wasn’t alone.
Homegirl was talented and kind and beautiful and also she didn’t speak perfect Spanish. And it didn’t make her any less fabulous. And it didn’t make her any less Tejanx. Selena gave me back a part of my culture that I felt disconnected from all those years. And while I admit that I still fall into the trap of feeling like a bad Mexican, Selena is always there to tell me “Nah, girl. Language alone doesn’t make you Mexican. Don’t listen to the haters.” Selena’s cool like that.
Now I don’t want to go on and on about me and Selena and how we’re both Pochas, because that’s not all that she was. She wasn’t just a fashionista or a pioneer in the Tejano industry, either. She was a voice. Selena was only 23 when she died, but that voice of hers was something much older, much bigger than most of us can imitate. And in those husky sounds that she belted in Spanish, I hear not only Selena but also other Latinx womxn.
Sometimes, when her American accent sneaks through, I hear myself and all my other Pocha friends. I hear all those who were told that Spanish wasn’t allowed, who had to lose their language in order to survive. In the hip-shaking beats of “La Carcacha”, I hear all the girls who didn’t love their bodies until they saw someone with a round booty, brown skin, and thick, dark hair like their own. When Selena wails the lines of “Tú Sólo Tú”, that’s my tía, who lost the love of her life when she was twenty-one. I hear the pinks and marigolds of Mexico. I hear the voices of our ancestors, their sadness and strength pouring out of Selena’s rancheras like “No Me Queda Más”. Selena’s voice was big enough to speak for all of us when we needed it, whether we could speak Spanish or not. Whether we were born in Mexico or el otro lado. (And you don’t have to be Mexican to appreciate Selena. She’s a voice of the people, man.)
Anyway, that’s the Selena I know. She was that person you hear about on tv, the mujer who is beautiful and talented and still somehow super sweet. Like the prom queen who did volunteer work during her free time while also earning perfect grades and shit. Except Selena was better than that, because Selena was one of us.
Hey but one more thing before I go. Here’s something I think about a lot this time of year: it’s kind of weird that the day Selena died, March 31st, was roughly two weeks before her birthday, April 16th. Although the connections between life and death are so obvious that pointing it out is cliché, there’s something to be said about the importance of this connection when you’re talking about an icon like Selena.
As quickly as we mourn the anniversary of her death every year, we then celebrate her birth just a couple of weeks later. (This year her birthday just so happens to land on Easter Sunday. I’m not making any connections here, but you’re free to do so if you’re into that kind of thing. Another confession: I’m into that kind of thing.) And though the love for Selena is always in the air, in those sixteen days between her death and birthday, the conversation is always non-stop. But that’s because when your homegirl dies, you keep her memory alive by telling those stories.
This is my Selena story, but it’s no more important than yours. Let’s keep telling these stories, keep listening to her music, because there are new generations who need Selena just as much as we did, as we do.