Iconográfica: How Selena Went From Pop Star to Patron Saint

Illustration by Cristobal Saez/Remezcla

Every few decades, there are women who are so influential, they become mythical, even posthumously: almost a santa. A good example of this is former Argentine First Lady Evita Perón, who won over the hearts of her people and pervaded international popular culture decades after her death. When she passed away at 33 at the height of her career, more than three million mourners lined up to visit her open casket. Even after the Vatican ignored the hundreds of letters asking for a canonization, many still immortalize her as Santa Evita.

A similar phenomenon has happened with the late Selena Quintanilla Pérez, the Chicana singer we now know as The Queen of Tejano. At 23 years old, she was well on her way to global domination with an upcoming English crossover album. Abruptly, she was tragically murdered by the president of her fan club, Yolanda Saldívar. Much like Evita, a swarm of 30,000 people showed up to pay their respects in her hometown of Corpus Christi, Texas. But the world wasn’t ready to let go of Selena. Nowadays, there’s Selena Day, Selena museums, Barbies, and festivals. There was even talk of a Selena hologram, though that project has been put on hold. During her lifetime, she broke down music industry barriers and became a role model for a new generation of Latin@s and Chicanos. And Santa Selena still lives.

Selena grew up in a musical family in Texas, and first got her start as the lead singer of Los Dinos, a Tejano band founded by her father Abraham Quintanilla, Jr. With management help from her father and her brother, who helped compose and write her songs, she eventually recorded iconic hits like “Como La Flor” and “Amor Prohibido.” Soon, she started breaking records, and with them, the mold of the traditionally male-led Tejano band.

By fusing synths, rock, and polka with her powerful voice, she soon signed with Capitol Records and reigned the Latin market. Aesthetically, she juxtaposed the good-girl-who-goes-to-church stereotype with the image of a confident woman who rocks white, bedazzled bustiers and skin-tight clothes. Selena often sported a full red lip and curly black hair. She flaunted her curvy body in a world of stick-thin models and shined. At the beginning of her career, Selena only spoke English, and had to learn her Spanish-language lyrics phonetically. She overcame machismo in the Latin music industry, and was assertive about her style and confident in her curves while she was at it.

Latin culture commentator Ilan Stavans refers to Selena as “omnipresent in la frontera, the focal point of a collective suffering – a patron saint, of sorts.” But with movies like Selena, celebrations like Fiesta de la Flor in Corpus Christi, and viral nostalgia, Selena’s cult following grows and grows. And regardless of their age or whether they got to see her in concert, we can all agree that our Santa Selena left us too soon.