Selena Quintanilla Perez is a name etched in pop culture history, known to many as the subject of the 1997 biopic starring Jennifer Lopez as much as she is known to several generations of Latinx girls. Her tragic death — murdered at the age of 23 — enhances this mythos, a fact often enhanced by what both the “Selena” feature and Netflix’s new series situate as a “we should have seen it coming” undercurrent. “Selena: The Series” no doubt will inspire a new generation of Selena fans, but the story it tells over its first nine episode is one that feels highly sanitized, controlled and, ultimately, upsetting.
“Selena: The Series” certainly knows what it wants to say — that it’s leading lady was a good girl, a brilliant singer, and a woman on the cutting edge of the music scene who would have created a revolution if given the chance. Unfortunately, by putting Selena on such a high pedestal she takes on near Christ-like significance, starting from the minute she’s born and her parents, Marcella and Abraham (Seidy Lopez and Ricardo Chavira, respectively) borrow her name off another couple, later discovering it means “Goddess of the Moon.”
From there the show embarks on a series of time jumps, aided by Selena’s ever-changing hairstyles. The family band starts out as a fun hobby for the kids, though it’s clear that Abraham sees them — and Selena in particular —as worthy of superstardom. We know this because Abraham repeatedly states how good the band is, how important they are, and that they shouldn’t let anything stand in their way. Every iteration of the Selena story has presented Abraham Quintanilla in a highly specific way; in 1997, played by Edward James Olmos, Abraham was a firm father whose love for his children was never in doubt.
Chavira’s performance falls firmly into the role of dadager with a few fleeting moments of warmth and love, though none of it is enough to transcend how controlling the character is written. Abraham rules his family with an iron fist and this goes beyond working his kids to the bone and refusing them outside interests. There’s a weird, bordering on disturbing, control of his daughters, Selena (Christian Serratos) and Suzette (Noemi Gonzalez) in particular, especially when it comes to boys. When Suzette starts to date, her suitor calls up Abraham to ask if she can see a movie, with everyone just being happy Abraham likes the guy. When Selena meets Chris Perez (Jesse Posey), the man who would eventually become her husband, Abraham blows a gasket. Yet when Selena’s brother A.B. (Gabriel Chavarria) meets a woman who he presumably marries and has children with, no one bats an eye.
Courtesy of Netflix
If this is a cultural element, which seems to be what the series is going for, there isn’t any discussion and that’s probably because there’s absolutely no talk about Selena’s feelings towards anything, let alone her identity as a Mexican-American. Serratos is beautiful and does a lot to make Selena as much of a person as the script allows. But that tends to extend to little more than smiling, laughing, making jokes, and being an all-around perfect sister and daughter. It’s important to remember that Selena was performing from the time she was 10 years old and started to see success by the time she was 15. Yet there’s no in-depth discussion about how she feels about being the breadwinner as a teenager. Sure, we get a shopping montage; we know what she likes, but never who she is or wants to be — short of successful and falling in love.
To make this even more treacly, we’re shown several — practically one an episode — moments of young girls looking up at Selena, worshipping at her figurative altar. Even her family, and eventually Chris, are given slow-motion moments to moon over her and experience that undefinable (as far as the series tells it) thing that makes Selena so special. And if you’re not sick of montages, be prepped, because nearly every song Selena sings is accompanied by a flashback, implying that she always sang about things that directly connected to her life, probably as the script’s only way to infuse her with history.
This presentation of Selena as a beautiful ghost probably has to do with her family, particularly her sister Suzette, acting as executive producer on the series. It’s easy to figure out why Selena’s thoughts are usually funneled through her sister or brother. Gonzalez and Chavarria are great as Suzette and A.B., but that’s also because they’re the stars of this series. They have aims and ambitions that are fleshed out. In a way, watching this is a lot like watching “Bohemian Rhapsody,” wherein every other character shows how the lead singer called the shots, but also has to acknowledge that said singer felt controlled and stifled, emotionally.
On top of all this, the series has a rather canned portrayal of the family’s mixed connection to their Latinx identity. As a young girl Selena doesn’t speak Spanish, with her father teaching her as a means of finding success. Once Selena and her band start to rise in fame, the singer continues to push for an English-language album only to be shown — and regularly reminded — that her audience doesn’t want that. At one point, Selena gives a speech on how winning a gold record means so much because she’s more than just someone who sings in Spanish, but that it’s a privilege to do so. It’s a saccharine moment that comes towards the end of the first spate of episodes and never addresses anything with regards to identity or the treatment of Latinos in the late 1980s or early ’90s.
“Selena: The Series” ends up feeling like a Cliff’s Notes take on Selena y los Dinos, the band, and not the woman at the center of it. For all the talk about Selena’s significance in the group, the series leaves her muted, little more than the goose who laid the golden egg that everyone wants to use to profit. The series works more for people who want a different perspective on the other characters not touched on heavily in the 1997 feature and to see more of Selena’s iconic costumes and performances — which Serratos does admirably. There’s a family story in there, but it’s hard not to see it as the story of an ambitious father and the children who created success in spite of his dominance.
“Selena: The Series” is available now on Netflix.