There is something sacred in my weekend ritual. When Saturday nights roll around, my friend Michelle and I color our lips with bright red lipstick, don dark, body-hugging outfits, and make our way to the same bar for the same reason we did the previous weekend: Selena. Every Saturday at Barbarella—a nightclub in Austin, Texas—is DJed by ulovei, who hosts a rich mix of hip-hop, rap, cumbias, and Selena songs. We make sure to get there early, and at the stroke of midnight, assume our place atop steps that overlook a sea of bar-goers: college kids, hip-hop heads, wide-eyed Austinites here for the first time. A few hip-hop songs in, we create our alliances with select dancers; we’ve seen each other here before and we know what’s to come. When the opening notes of a Selena song begin to rise from underneath a Kanye or old Jay-Z beat, my body knows exactly what to do. My eyes become focused. I plant myself on top of the highest stair and spread my arms out wide, wrists curved, imagining the many dancing bodies below as my audience. My brain happily blurs the crowd’s actions with what I’ve seen Selena’s crowds do—they wait and watch for my next move. Hearing Selena’s voice awakens a fierce necessity to perform. For the rest of the night and into the early hours of the morning, my entire body moves to illustrate the joy my heart cannot contain.
I am writing this the day after such a Selena Saturday, wearing the same old, beat up tee shirt I always wear. It is covered with a large graphic of Selena’s kind face and beaming smile across the front and back. From my desk, my 1997 Selena Barbie doll looks on from behind her plastic container. These are my memorials.
On the anniversary of her death this year, I taught my students all about the eternally young woman they’ve seen on the covers of my books and various laptop and phone backgrounds. I never had a Disney princess who looked like me, I tell them. Selena was a huge part of how I figured out what I wanted to be like when I grew up. “I don’t understand,” one says. “If someone is your best friend, why would they want to kill you?”
After doing the math another asks, “You mean she could have still been alive today?”
“If someone is your best friend, why would they want to kill you?”
I imagine what this presentation might sound like to an 8-year-old. When the news of Selena’s death first broke, I was only a couple of years younger than my students are now. Outside light flooded the dining room of my childhood home as I watched my mother happily clean while Tejano music filled the house. She danced, broom in hand. Whatever song was playing was interrupted by an announcement of some sort. I couldn’t quite hear what the radio jockeys were saying, but could tell by my mother’s stark stillness that it wasn’t good. My words tumbled out in a hurry. “What’s happen—” She shushed me and leaned deeper into the radio. All I remember after that is that my mother took a seat at the kitchen table, laid her head in her hands, and didn’t look up for a long time. This is my memory.
For myself and so many others, the story of Selena begins at her death. She is the Latina who lived once.
Early this month, Selena Quintanilla’s family and Nevada-based tech company Acrovirt, LLC announced the coming of an Indiegogo campaign to raise $500,000 in order to bring Selena fans “Selena the One”: a “digital format” version of the singer, “body, voice, and mind.” “Selena the One,” they said, would bring us new songs and collaborate with current artists when it goes on tour in 2018.
In an interview with Billboard, Selena’s sister Suzette Quintanilla expressed her family’s total support of the project, saying, “We think it’s something amazing. A lot of the new fans that did not get to experience what Selena was about hopefully will be able to get a sense of her with this new technology that’s going to be coming out.”
This is not the first, nor the last time holographic or CGI technology will reanimate deceased performers. Michael Jackson, Tupac, Eazy E, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Elvis, and Frank Sinatra have all had another go-round in the spotlight, and Selena would be the first Latina to perform through this kind of technology.
“It’s not about replacing Selena in any shape, way or form,” Suzette stressed. “It’s just something to help her legacy continue growing.”
The months of March and April continuously gift Selena fans every year with exciting news and projects commemorating the singer’s life. With the highly-hyped two-day Fiesta la Flor festival in Corpus Christi’s Bayfront Park, Drake’s heart-stopping Instagram posts of him sporting shirts with Selena’s airbrushed image on them, and even Buzzfeed’s “Selena Week”—complete with illustrations of what a Disneyfication of Selena as a Disney Princess would look like—2015 has been pretty good to us. The announcement of a dancing, singing, “digital” version of the singer came at a time when her legacy never felt stronger or more highly celebrated.
When the Indiegogo campaign debuted on April 16th, it became clear that Acrovirt and the Quintanillas’ intentions for “Selena the One” went far beyond what any of us could have imagined.
In a video that looks like it was made for GeoCities or a bad scifi fan fiction, Acrovirt’s Co-CEO Terry Kennedy begins by boldly proclaiming that the company “believe[s] that the best musical artists have either passed away or are no longer making new music.” It strikes me as a pretty silly thing to say, but hey—it is a shame when a musician or performer is taken too early.
“She will be the symbolic Eve of the digital world.”
Selena, he continues, will be “the first digital embodiment of a human.” Okay… What is this?
Suzette and Abraham Quintanilla introduce themselves to viewers almost robotically. “We are very excited to announce the personified essence of Selena made digital for all her fans,” Abraham says.
They tell us that Selena “will be releasing new music, film, and TV projects for everybody to watch, follow, and interact with her and her new projects online.”
As if he’s finally stating what everyone has been thinking since 1995, Abraham chuckles slyly and says, “It was about time for the return of Selena.”
Then it gets weirder. We watch as an image we understand to be Selena becomes rendered in “techie”, layered graphics. It’s meant to represent the spirit and history of movement transforming into something digital and tangible.
“We believe Selena is the perfect person to be the foundation of all digital humans in the future,” Kennedy says. “She will be the symbolic Eve of the digital world.”
Accompanied by slow motion footage of Selena smiling and bouncing from side to side, Kennedy casually explains that, “Acrovirt’s intellectual property imposes the digital salient features of Selena: her body, her voice, and her mind. This digital embodiment will move, sing, and perform like Selena had done in her past.”
“Selena The One” attempts to rectify Selena’s departure as if we haven’t kept her memory alive all along.
Not only will fans get to see her perform again, Kennedy argues, but they’ll also be gifted with the ability to get a glimpse of “the future through [Selena]’s eyes and her family’s.”
WHAT’S HAPPENING? THIS IS OFFICIALLY OUT OF CONTROL.
Money from the campaign will support three new music videos, initial tour expenses, and a documentary on the making of “Selena the One.” Prizes for donations include early song releases, tickets, or signed merchandise from “Selena the One’s” “creators”. For a pledge of $100, you can “Sing Backup with Selena.” For $5,000, you can upload a video of yourself and be virtually added into all three of Selena’s new music videos.
Think of the immense buying power of Latinos, and of the millions of dollars “Selena the One” will make for the Quintanilla family. All for a chance to be a part of Selena’s supposed restoration.
Undeniably, Selena’s death left a very immediate and intimate hole in the daily lives of the Quintanilla family. It’s understandable for any family to wish their loved ones were still alive. That loss is ever-present. But “Selena the One” is not the return of Selena. It’s a disappointing and creepy twist beyond what even the most hesitant fans were worried could go wrong with the reanimation of Selena’s memory. To call for the “return” of something is to imply that its leaving created a hole that outweighs the significance of its living. “Selena The One” attempts to rectify Selena’s departure as if we haven’t kept her memory alive all along.
“Selena the One” doesn’t give us the future, or even show us what could have been had Selena continued living. We’re not getting 47-year-old Selena Quintanilla with sparse gray hairs, laugh lines, and signs of a more “fully lived” life. We are given young superstar Selena, not a day over the age she was when she died, abruptly inserted into our very immediate present, and into the rapid context of a world she never actually interacted with. It is painfully difficult to imagine hearing words Selena never spoke coming from the lips of “Selena the One,” let alone watching internet videos where the digital singer asks us to click to check out her new projects.
In trying to make sense of it all, I remember the words of performance studies scholar Joseph Roach. “Into the cavities created by loss through death or other forms of departure…survivors attempt to fit satisfactory alternatives…The process requires many trials and at least as many errors. The fit cannot be exact. The intended substitute either cannot fulfill expectations, creating a deficit, or actually exceeds them, creating a surplus.”
Selena has always been at the forefront of Latina/o identity making. Dr. Deborah Paredez’s 2009 book, Selenidad: Selena, Latinos, and the Performance of Memory explores what we attempt to hold on to when we remember Selena.
In it, Paredez defines Selenidad as something that allowed Latina/os to assert ourselves and participate both culturally and economically within a mainstream community at a time when nativist sentiments were on the rise. Paradez, one of a small handful of people to hold PhDs in the subject of Selena, asserts that Selena shaped the way we saw ourselves, our potentials, and our families.
“Throughout the landscape of Selenidad,” Paredez states, “Young Latinas have performed and dressed like Selena as a means of marking her departure and of asserting their own arrivals.”
Selena, in essence, was just like us. So much of the singer’s appeal was rooted in her working class familiarity, the excess she proudly displayed, and her rasquache attitude. Selena was a woman who straight up looked like somebody’s prima but who’s sheer presence within many worlds—Tejano and American pop music, heaven and earth—posits her next to colossal cultural figures like la Virgen de Guadalupe. I used to fight with childhood friends about who got to “be” Selena during playtime.
Reenacting her power has always been about imagining my own.
I am one of countless fans who never got to see Selena perform live. The formation of my fandom and love were largely built on the artifacts of her life after she died. I had her music and Jennifer Lopez’s portrayal of her in the Selena movie, and as I got older, I had the bonds I created with other Tejanas and Tejanos over our shared and somehow equally unmatched admiration of the woman who seemed to show us all the things we could be if we remained true to ourselves. My experiences exist in both a materialistic means to memory, as well as a celebration of myself and other Latina/os asserting our own lives through the way Selena publicly pushed boundaries in hers.
Our collective memory holds dearly her voice, her gestures, the intricate details of her many outfits, her dance moves, and her smile. We remember it all. These connections have been encoded in our memory from watching video after video of Selena. Every time we perform her memory, we retrieve these parts of her and piece them together in search of her, of ourselves.
To need “Selena the One” is to dismiss fans’ collective ability to retrieve and revisit her life as she lived it. The essence of Selena lives on in the work her fans have put into celebrating her. The singing, dancing replica that Abraham Quintanilla stressed during a press conference at Fiesta la Flor is “not a hologram,” but something much bigger, will only interrupt the very real life we have preserved and continue to revere through our actions.
Reenacting her power has always been about imagining my own.
As it stands, the Indiegogo campaign has raised a little over $8,000, only about 2% of its goal. With less than a month left for funding, the future of the project remains unclear. If Acrovirt and the Quintanillas are truly attempting to model Selena as the “Eve of the digital world,” perhaps they should reconsider who they are really doing it for. Our memories of Selena are not so fleeting that we need technology, however groundbreaking, to take their place. Isn’t everything Selena left us enough? What need is there to breathe digital life into a woman whose pulse we’ve honored in the rhythm of our collective bodies?
It’s a Tuesday night and I’m ready for a special Selena tribute party at my favorite bar. I’m dressed up in a black boustier, shiny high-waisted black pants, a black leather jacket with several layers of fringe, red lipstick, and a long, black wig. Tonight I am Selena. Inside the bar, my friend Michelle pays her respects at an altar topped with burning candles and framed photographs of the singer. She leaves a tube of her now broken red lipstick beside one of the photos. “It’s for Selena!” she yells.
The club fills quickly. I make it a point to speak to everyone I see dressed as our shared idol. We laugh and strike similar poses—sharing with each other how we bring our interpretations to life. The many screens surrounding the smoky dance floor show footage of Selena music videos, live performances, and interviews. Incredible Selena mixes by the night’s DJ, theGlitoris, have the entire crowd screaming with joy. We use the backs of our hands to wipe the sweat from our bodies but being drenched does little to distract us. Tonight, all walks of life dance the washing machine together. Our bliss is her essence.
Just before she begins the chorus of “Como la Flor” at the last concert she performed in life, Selena takes a moment to wait for us to join her. She lowers her microphone and angles her head upward in a momentary pause while the cheers crescendo. A flirtatious grin spreads slowly across her face as she soaks in the electricity of the stadium. Her hand flutters open and closed in a mesmerizing wave that exposes a bandaged fingernail. Even on video, there is a palpable permission given in the way Selena looks out at her audience. When the stadium finally quiets, we all sing with her, Ay, como me duele.
Selena fans don’t need “Selena the One.” We never did. To believe in Selena is to believe in life and death existing at the same time. Selena continues, even in death, to make us feel so alive.