4 Things Selena Quintanilla Taught Me About Being Mexican-American

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The music of Selena Quintanilla puts me in a very specific place.

“Baila Esta Cumbia” sounds like sitting in the backseat of my abuelos’ van on a hot summer day in Texas, windows rolled down and my cousins crowded in with me. It sounds like filling a sack with pink and yellow pan dulce, like my abuela handing me a fistful of coins and saying, “Go up there. Say it in Spanish.”

Selena provided the soundtrack to my childhood.

But looking back now, I realize she was more than her music. It was her life, the way she navigated our culture, that really made her something special to me.

Here are four things Selena taught me about being Mexican-American.

You might have to learn Spanish on your own. And that’s okay.

Despite my abuelos’ best efforts to throw as much rapid-fire Spanish at me as they could, I wasn’t raised speaking the language, so I grew up without it.

Not knowing Spanish made me doubt my identity. How could I claim Mexican heritage when I couldn’t even hold a conversation in español?

This is a problem Selena had as well.

Anyone who’s seen the movie knows the Queen of Tejano music wasn’t raised speaking Spanish. She conducted interviews in English, and it wasn’t until the early 1990s that she began taking Spanish lessons.

But Selena eventually did learn Spanish, a tool that helped her break down barriers between the mainstream American music scene and Tejano music.

Let that serve as a reminder to us all that speaking Spanish is not a prerequisite to being Mexican-American, and that, yes, sometimes we learn Spanish in a classroom instead of at home.

And there’s no shame in that.

You will have to be more Mexican than the Mexicans…

On that note, however, not knowing Spanish isn’t the only thing that might make a Mexican-American insecure about their roots.

I’ve encountered people who say that because I was not born in Mexico, I have no right to claim that I’m Mexican-American.

But to give up that part of me would be to deny who I am altogether.

I remember watching Selena’s biopic for the first time. The part where her father said that they would have to be “more Mexican than the Mexicans” really resonated with me.

Because we are separated from Mexico, we have to work even harder to stay connected to our heritage. We not only have to learn American history, but also Mexican history if we want to truly understand the context we are in.

And you will have to be more American than the Americans.

Not only that, but we have to prove how American we are at the same time.

Mexican-Americans are under constant pressure to assimilate. We are constantly asked to prove how committed we are to being Americans. Look no further than the push to get Latinos of all stripes to just “speak English” already.

Balancing the two has always been a challenge for me.

I remember one time when my abuelo was a substitute teacher in my high school English class. He talked about working with immigrants for a while, and then he pointed to me and said, “That’s my grandson.”

I was so embarrassed at the time. I’m ashamed to admit that I was embarrassed by his thick accent, by just how “Mexican” he looked. I didn’t want to be associated with immigrants. I just wanted to feel American. I wanted to fit in.

Now I see how wrong I was.

I can’t separate myself from my history just to make other people comfortable. This is where I come from. This is who I am.

To see this struggle addressed in Selena’s biopic, and to see it as a recurring theme in her life, really comforted me. I wasn’t alone. I didn’t have to change to be “American.”

You should find what you love, and when you do, you should chase it.

But perhaps what made Selena the immortal icon she is today is the fact that she holds appeal for people of all groups.

Selena knew how to laugh. She knew how to have fun. She knew how to chase her dreams.

What she represents for Mexican-Americans is that, yes, it’s possible for us to achieve great things.

She reminds us to not let anything hold us back, and if we should encounter obstacles due to our culture or our “otherness,” well, there are ways to overcome them and even to use them to our advantage.

I’m proud to have Selena as a visible Chicana icon. She was taken from us too soon, but her legacy lives on and inspires us all.