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Eternal: My Experience as A Selena (Quintanilla) Fan

To some, Selena Quintanilla was an icon. To others, she’s a legend. To me, she's all that and so much more.

By Jonathan ApolloPublished 2 months ago 14 min read
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The beautiful Selena Quintanilla.

(Photo by selenaqofficial)

In April 2022, I attended a 25th anniversary screening of Selena, the iconic biopic based on the life of Tejano superstar Selena Quintanilla (Perez).

Those who know me well are very familiar with my love and reverence for the late entertainer – a talented performer, fashion designer, trendsetter, and beacon of change in a male-dominated industry, who lost her life at the far-too-young age of 23. Despite departing this Earth nearly 30 years ago, people are still drawn to the story and music of the Mexican-American starlet who ultimately achieved her dream of world recognition, albeit through tragic means.

As I sat in the movie theater that rainy afternoon, reciting line and line of the script with a full audience (“Anything for Selenas!”), a little Black girl with her mom and younger sister sitting nearby caught my attention.

She couldn’t have been older than 10 (or maybe she was – all kids are 10 years old to me). Seeing a young Black fan among the crowd brought warmth to my heart on its own, but it’s what she did after that, to this day, brings tears to my eyes.

*****************************

Being the weird kid (see: “gay”) in junior high was pretty rough.

By 13, I knew I wasn’t like most boys. While my male classmates enjoyed sports, video games, and girls, I hated… just sports. Video games were an escape from the occasional stress at home (more later), and I liked girls just fine. It just happened to be platonic and nothing more.

Still, I had little in common with the boys in my school. Most of the time, I found ways to hide in the back corner of classrooms, cowered and covered up, with a Walkman I would “borrow” from my older brother for company.

My taste in music made me even more of a social outcast. I still remember the laughs and comments from other boys when I brought up songs like Xscape’s “Who Will I Run To?” and Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy” as personal favorites.

Of course, the female classmates loved my affinity for R&B led by women.

When school wasn’t in session, I found a bit of refuge in the strangest of places: A small laundromat a few blocks away from my apartment. It would be there where I’d hone my beat-em-up skills in games like Super Street Fighter II (with Cammy as my go-to fighter) and Mortal Kombat II while grooving to tunes from my brother’s Walkman.

One of the laundromat attendants, a young mother, and I would strike up a friendship after she noticed me singing while button-bashing on the arcade machines. Whenever I would use up all of my money, I’d walk over to her counter to chat, and help myself to some of the little candies she brought along for her young daughter (she always had more than enough to share). On the days she was too busy to chat, she’d slide over a few quarters left behind by distracted customers and send me back to the video game station until things calmed down.

During one slow afternoon, I was sitting at the counter when I heard the opening of a relatively new song come through a small radio in the back room. I had no idea who the singer was, but the sweet, seductive voice that seemed to float over the pretty melody caught and held my attention.

“Do you know who sings that song,” the attendant asked as it faded to a close.

“Not at all,” I admitted, “but I think it’s pretty.”

“That’s Selena.”

“Selena,” I repeated before the memory clicked into place.

“Wait, are you talking about the murdered singer?”

Like most of the domestic world, I had first heard of Selena Quintanilla following her shocking death in March 1995. Considered the “Mexican Madonna” by American media – a largely incorrect association, I would later learn – I found myself intrigued by the story of her meteoric rise to fame and the heartbreaking aftermath. A few weeks later, I came across a special tribute issue of People about Selena and purchased it immediately. I read it from cover to cover in less than an hour.

I vaguely remembered mentions of Selena fulfilling a lifelong dream of recording an English album, referred to by the music industry as a "crossover." However, I didn’t recall a release date and assumed the recordings would never see the light of day.

“Hey, do you know where to buy bootleg tapes,” the attendant asked, easily snatching my attention.

That one was easy – of course, I knew where to get bootleg tapes.

Whenever I had the luck of having a few dollars, I’d head down the block from the laundromat to the underpass of a nearby train station. On most days, a lanky Jamaican vendor, standing behind a folding table, would sell bootleg audio cassettes of any album or mixtape your discount-seeking heart desired.

“One for three and two for 5,” he would repeat every few minutes.

That meant $3 would get you one album, and $5 would get you two. Having zero dollars would get you attitude – an attitude I encountered more than once.

After sharing the info, the attendant dug into her jeans pocket and pulled out $4.

“Can you do me a favor and see if they have the Selena album? I think it’s out now. You can keep the extra dollar for yourself.”

I accepted the task but specified she would have to wait a day. It was getting dark outside, and the bootlegger had gone home by then – and I had to, also.

Her brow lowered with a bit of disappointment.

“Shit, I’m off tomorrow! Okay, well, you can bring me the tape on Monday. You can listen to it if you want. Just don’t forget to bring it on Monday.”

“Will do!”

*******************

It was gloomy and rainy when I awoke that next morning. Still, I kept my word and made the trek down to the subway station that afternoon with an umbrella and my Walkman in tow (my brother eventually got tired of me taking it every morning and simply bought himself a new one).

As I expected, the vendor was right by the subway entrance with his table of tapes. On this day, they were covered with a clear plastic tarp for protection from the dewy sky. As I also expected, he began to scowl when he saw me approaching the table.

“I’m looking for the new Selena album.”

“Yeah,” he started in his drawn-out Patois, looking around for other customers. “I don’t think I have that one.”

Scanning the table top for myself, I called his bluff.

“Is that it?”

With a defeated sigh, he walked toward one end of the table, leaned down, and pulled out a box full of cassette tapes – copies of the ones on display. After a moment or two, he stood up again with one clutched in his left hand.

“Three dollars, man,” he said with annoyance, while sticking his right hand out.

When he saw actual money in my hand, his aggression quickly faded.

“Alright then,” he said warmly before passing over the tape. “Have a good one!”

As I made my way home, I glanced at the album art, taking in the name of the album for the first time: Dreaming of You. Staring back at me was a faded photo of Selena, looking different than I remembered. After a beat, I realized she wasn’t wearing much makeup.

She looked flawless.

A promotional photo of Selena's 'Dreaming of You' | Photo by selenaqofficial

Before buying the tape, I had decided not to open or listen to it. If I liked what I heard, I knew it would make it tougher to give it to my friend on Monday. I had every intention of standing my ground with that choice. That is until, while scanning through radio stations on my Walkman, I heard the recognizable percussive opening of that song.

That song would be “I Could Fall in Love,” the first single released from Dreaming of You.

“I could lose my heart tonight/If you don’t turn and walk away/Cause the way I feel, I might/Lose control and let you stay…”

Before the final note could fade, the cellophane surrounding the cassette cover was in shreds, and the tape was in my Walkman.

Oh, well. I gave it an honest try.

*******************

Dreaming of You remains a groundbreaking album for Selena – it was the first predominantly Spanish album to top the Billboard album chart – and a life-changing one for me in multiple ways.

It was the album that fully introduced me to Selena’s talent, a magic that had only begun to sparkle beyond anyone’s expectations. The first six songs – four new English recordings (at the time), one remixed English recording, and a bilingual duet – paint a picture of an artist both finding their footing and being secure in their position simultaneously.

It seems weird to describe it as such, but Selena was already quite seasoned before recording Dreaming of You. The English market may have been new territory for her, but the world of music was not, and Selena was a damn good musician. You can hear the influence of so many artists she loved growing up (Whitney Houston on “I Could Fall in Love,” Janet Jackson on the rock-inspired “Captive Heart,” Donna Summer on the disco-tinged “I’m Getting Used to You,” etc.) without outright imitating them.

It was also the album that allowed me to connect with music that, at the time, I believed was from a culture separate from my own. While it would be years before I learned of my Haitian ancestry and the full makeup of it – know your history, people! – the emotion behind songs like “Amor Prohibido,” “Tu Solo Tu,” "Bidi Bidi Bom Bom," and “Como La Flor” touched my heart in familiar ways, even if I couldn’t mentally comprehend the words.

I don’t remember how many times I played the album in full before that Monday. I do, however, know that when that Monday came, I failed to return to the laundromat as promised. It wouldn’t be until the following weekend that I returned her copy of Dreaming of You for my friend (I purposefully waited until Friday to receive my allowance and buy a copy for myself).

***************

As my love and reverence for Selena grew over the years, so did my levels of self-love.

On my first same-sex date in 1997, my then-beau and I saw the Selena biopic together. He held my hand through the entire movie. For the first time in my young life, I felt like being gay was going to be okay.

Immediately after the movie, I ran to the nearest music store to buy the soundtrack. Funny enough, I had a similar experience to when I bought the Dreaming of You bootleg from the Jamaican vendor – this time, with an employee who worked at the music store. I had outgrown bootleg albums by this point, and to be fair, Selena deserved way more than $3 for her work.

The following year, when the movie aired on cable for the first time, I cried heavily as the young Jennifer Peña sang “Over the Rainbow” during the final credits (Peña sings as the young Selena in the film). My nephew, who couldn’t have been more than 10, never questioned my outpouring of emotion. Instead, he climbed beside me for support until I collected myself again. I consider that day to be one that bonded us for life.

As I grew into adulthood, I found other Black music listeners who had fallen in love with Selena’s sound and story. I consider this aspect the most paramount of experiences I’ve had as a fan.

For years, I had felt so alone and misunderstood in my appreciation of Selena’s music. I was teased quite a bit in my pre-teen and teen years by relatives and so-called friends for finding comfort and enjoyment of an entertainer from a culture that most – including myself – assumed I had no part or knowledge of.

“Oh, you think you’re Puerto Rican,” some of them would say with laughter.

One, I did not. It was never an identity crisis.

And two, I chose not to correct them on Selena being a Mexican-American who didn’t learn Spanish until her father decided to start the band that would make her famous. Something told me that would make the teasing worse.

Now that I’m older and slightly wiser, I can’t help but feel validated for finding other Black music fans who absolutely adore Selena just as much and know her story as well as I do. When I've asked other Black fans what drew them to Selena, they all give similar versions of the same answer: "It's not about what she sings. It's about how she makes us feel."

And yes, from a somewhat petty standpoint, it also helps that the culture some ignorantly assumed I was appropriating was just as much as my culture all along.

As I said previously, know your history, mi gente.

*******************

It is somewhat bittersweet that a big part of my personal growth is attached to someone who died nearly three decades ago. Instead of relishing in the sadness of what could've been, I try to hold tight to my belief that everything happens for a reason.

As Alanis Morrisette once sang, “How about not equating death with stopping?”

Selena left this Earth too soon, but her story is ongoing. And so is mine.

The day of the Selena anniversary viewing incidentally marked seven months since I lost my mom to cancer. I had never felt lower or more alone, and the rainy sky that day mirrored my long-term mindset.

When I first learned of the screening on social media, I felt something different. I couldn't pinpoint the exact feeling, but I kniew it was different from the darkness I couldn't shake. At that moment, I knew I had to be at that screening, no matter how I felt or even if I was the only Black person in attendance.

Spoiler alert: I was not the only Black person in attendance.

My ticket to the 'Selena' 25th Anniversary screening. | Photo belongs to me

During the scene when Selena records “I Could Fall in Love,” a soft voice caught my attention. It was the beautiful little Black girl, with her mother and sister, that I mentioned earlier. With her hand over her heart, she sang along loudly and proudly with the rest of the crowd, adding more and more emotion with every word. Though there were dozens of people singing along, it seemed that I could only hear her.

At that moment, I was pulled back in time to 13-year-old me, walking down the street with the Dreaming of You cassette playing on my Walkman, singing along just as loudly and proudly to the same song, feeling something wonderful and right at the same time.

Before the little girl caught me watching her – or saw the tears streaming down my face – I averted my glance.

I know now that I've never been alone in my love for Selena and that there were and are other kids, just like me - Black, white, brown, whatever - finding their way to her music and her legacy. Like myself, they may not understand most of her songs, but something about her music, her voice, her energy, her spirit – her – still resonates with them.

It isn't about what Selena sings. It's how Selena makes us feel. And that is universal.

Seeing it for myself that night with fans of every culture and hue made me feel seen in ways I never had in the 29 years I've been a fan. I can never thank Selena, that young Black girl, or that beautiful audience enough for what that experience meant to me. I truly believe that Selena brought me back to life... and it wasn't the first time.

Para mi reina, Selena Quintanilla –

Thank you for healing something I thought I had long healed from.

Thank you for reminding me that even when we’re hurting beyond measure, there is still beauty in the world.

Thank you for reminding me that love, music, and the love of music are powerful and universal.

And most importantly, thank you for continuing to inspire and help me through this game of life. As you continue to soar above us, know that the joy, hope, and music you created during the 23 years you were on this Earth is everlasting and continues to touch lives. As you once beautifully stated, “The goal isn’t to live forever – it’s to create something that does.”

Mission accomplished, Selena. Eres eterno. Te amo.

The final shot of 'Selena.' | Photo by Warner Bros.

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About the Creator

Jonathan Apollo

I bang my keyboard and words come out. Sometimes, they're worth reading. Sometimes, they're even good.

40-something, M, NYC. He/Him/His. #TPWK

https://twitter.com/JonnyAWrites

http://www.facebook.com/JonnyAWrites

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