Selenidad: Selena, Latinos, and the Performance of Memory

Selenidad: Selena, Latinos, and the Performance of Memory

by Deborah Paredez

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822390893
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 07/22/2009
Series: e-Duke books scholarly collection.
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

Deborah Paredez is Assistant Professor of Theatre and Dance at the University of Texas, Austin.

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Selena, Latinos, and the Performance of Memory

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2009 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4502-2

Chapter One

Soundtracks of Selenidad: "Disco Medley" and "Como la Flor"

I do believe that the experience of performance, and the intellectual, spiritual, and affective traces it leaves behind, can provide new frames of reference for how we see a better future extending out from our more ordinary lives. Seeing that vision, we can figure out how to achieve it outside the fantastical, magic space of performance. -Jill Dolan, Utopia in Performance

"Como la Flor" [tiene] algo especial, algo mágico. ?M'entiendes? Y es por eso que-yo pienso-que todo el mundo quieren a "Como la Flor" ["Como la Flor" has something special, something magical. You know what I mean? And it's because of that-I think-that the world loves "Como la Flor"]. -A. B. Quintanilla III, Selena's brother, lyricist and composer of "Como la Flor," on En Persona: Selena, narrated by Joe Morales, Galavisión, 31 March 1999

Director Gregory Nava launches the 1997 Warner Bros. biopic Selena with a backstage scene from Selena's final concert in the Houston Astrodome on 26 February 1995. The opening tracking shot follows the frenzy of last-minute preparations as grips roll sound equipment into and out of the frame and Selena's sister Suzette calls out in exasperation, "Selena! You're still not dressed?" Selena, portrayed by Jennifer Lopez, sits at a lighted dressing room table hurriedly fixing her hair when she utters her first on-screen words: "I can't decide what to wear." The camera then makes a series of fast cuts: Selena flipping through a rolling rack of costumes; Selena plopping an off-brand suitcase on the floor and unzipping it; Selena, suitcase unzipped, exclaiming "I know which one!" as she pulls out a rumpled pile of glittering purple material and rushes off-screen in a sparkling violet blur. This series of images flash by in less than ten seconds, setting an anticipatory pace and quickly establishing Selena as a down-to-earth girl who, like so many of us, packs her bags in a haphazard way and picks out her outfit at the last minute.

This behind-the-scenes view of Selena's decision-making process, with its focus on the famous purple pantsuit, depicts a key moment in the literal and proverbial fashioning of Selenidad. The film introduces Selena's pantsuit in a conspicuously unglamorous way, stuffed carelessly in a suitcase apart from the other costumes, implying a recognition of the outfit's status as an iconic representation of her. The joke here, for those in the know, is that the iconic purple-spangled pantsuit is self-consciously introduced as simply a heap of wrinkled fabric waiting to be called into service. This opening image serves as a contrast to the vision of Selena in the following scene, when she fills out the costume in iconic ways as she belts her "Disco Medley" to over sixty thousand adoring fans. Together these before and after images of the purple pantsuit highlight the specific representational value it has come to have within the circuit of Selenidad. The pantsuit was clearly made for the stage, the very excess of its construction-the generous scattering of sequins, its synthetic stretchiness hugging the hips, the bell-shaped flare at the ankle-designed to reflect and sparkle under the stage lights and to simultaneously cling to and flow with the dancing body. As such, the costume has emerged as the most recognizable sign of Selena's skills as a performer, its aura imbued with the echoes and gestures of her performances. The opening moment of Nava's film, wherein the purple pantsuit is transformed from disheveled knot into fulsome symbol of excess, reminds us of the power of Selena in performance and suggests that her performances provide insights about how and why Selena became Selenidad.

As with other late pop stars, Selena's star text, multiplatinum albums, and recording industry promotion fuel the industry of Selena commemoration, but it is her performances that serve as the benchmarks of her iconicity. The continued proliferation of these performances across her memorial terrain suggest that they provide imaginative, collective, and affective spaces for the expression of what Frances Aparicio calls "the interlatino affiliations, desires, and conflicts" of latinidad. Selena's 1995 Astrodome concert in particular circulates frequently in the repertoire of Selenidad, deployed as video montage or staged reenactments to assert diverse aspects of latinidad, ranging from queer Latina/o style, Tejana/o working-class resiliency, and pan-Latina/o collaboration. These invocations suggest that if Selenidad acts as a memory circuit wherein claims to latinidad are negotiated and contested, then it is performance that provides the prevailing mode by which such claims are made. Selena's performances document and serve as methods for experiencing latinidad as an affective mode or, as Ramón Rivera-Servera observes, "as a sensibility, a shared feeling of placeness, and at times placelessness, within the U.S. national imaginary." Selena's concerts chart the emotional registers and cultural codes of latinidad and offer insights into how and why Selenidad, like the purple pantsuit, is inhabited and transformed by the range of Latino communities that gather within its capacious measurements.

Performance accumulates much of its power as a spatial practice. Live performance, by its localized and ephemeral nature, offers a way to account for the specificity of historical, geographical, and political location: a play or a concert takes place in this venue in this city at this moment in time. But the magic of performance resides in its ability to encourage transcendence beyond discrete temporal boundaries. While performance only ever occurs in the present, it simultaneously lifts us out of this present, haunted by the ghosts of the past (invoking previous iterations of a role or a song) and gesturing toward future possibilities (creating structures of feeling or imaginative worlds). Performance is thus often spoken of in terms of both effect and affect. Jill Dolan writes evocatively about how performance can capture "the attention of the audience in a way that lifts everyone slightly above the present, into a hopeful feeling of what the world might be if every moment of our lives were as emotionally voluminous, generous, aesthetically striking, and intersubjectively intense." Dolan refers to these moments as utopian performatives that "in their doings, make palpable an affective vision of how the world might be better." Utopian performatives are "most effective as a feeling," and, as such, their political and social efficacy resides in creating "the condition for action" in the spaces beyond the now of the performance. Thus the most potent effects of performance are often the affective spaces it can open up for its participants.

The afterlife of Selena's concerts can be attributed to this affective spatial power of live performance and also to the ways that music creates and transcends space. In fact, Selenidad operates as one of the most frequently traversed soundtracks of latinidad. Josh Kun writes about both the spaces within and produced by music, the structural components of song and sound as well as the social, political, and imaginative worlds music makes. Kun shares Dolan's interest in the utopic spaces within artistic practice, calling our attention to what he calls audiotopias, those "small, momentary lived utopias built, imagined and sustained through sound, noise, and music." For Kun these audiotopic spaces are what enables music to "give us the feelings we need to get where we want to go." Kun's work highlights the audiotopias produced by American popular music, within which we can hear and inhabit the soundscapes of racial difference and the remapped borders of America. The audiotopic spaces created by Selena's performances of two distinctively American pop songs, "Disco Medley" and "Como la Flor," afford us the opportunity to listen to the ways that the staging of racialized sexuality often provides the bass line for the sounds and gestures of (trans)national citizenship and migration.

"Disco Medley" and "Como la Flor" circulate frequently within Selenidad, in video clips posted on YouTube and tribute websites and in reenactments performed by young girls and drag queens. These songs are, in fact, the two hits that frame the Astrodome concert re-created in the opening moments of Nava's film and documented on the 2003 DVD release Selena Live-The Last Concert. A close look at Selena's final concert renditions of these signature songs reveals how they offer sites wherein expressions of Latina/o longing and belonging are palpably felt. Through both musical components (tempo, rhythm, lyrics, and song structure) and performative skills (easy charisma, choreographic virtuosity, velvety voice), Selena's performances of these songs create circuits for navigating Latina/o grief and survival. The songs provide emotionally useful modalities, what Dolan would call utopian performatives, that posit new possibilities for latinidad beyond the homogenized categories of market segment, political constituency, or national threat that characterized constructions of Latinas/os at the end of the twentieth century. The songs measure and direct the affective labor of latinidad, invoking the pleasures and punishments resulting from feeling Latina/o. In these performances we can hear the sounds of Latino desire, can witness the improvised steps marking Latino loss, can sing along with and follow the lead of the audiotopic possibilities for queer latinidad or Latina agency that they offer. "Disco Medley" and "Como la Flor" thereby tune us in, so to speak, to the affective frequency of latinidad and to the echoes of its lasting political effects.

Latina Hustle

In the opening moments of her now legendary Astrodome concert, Selena looks out at the record-breaking crowd, flashes her signature beaming smile, lifts her left arm in benediction, and asks in a booming Tejano twang, "How're ya doin,' Houston, Texas?" She then lowers her hand, clutching her heart as she begins to perform her version of the Gloria Gaynor song "I Will Survive." Throughout the song she gestures with her left hand, pointing her index finger for emphasis, highlighting the Band-Aid wrapped around her forefinger in place of what appears to be a lost acrylic nail. She marches rhythmically across the stage, her purple-sequined, self-designed, midriff-baring costume glimmering under the stage lights and showcasing her ample curves. After a few verses she closes the chorus with a powerfully rich "Hey Hey" and commands "Todos amigos, vámonos, todo el mundo! [Everybody join in! C'mon everyone!]" as the tempo shifts into a synthesizer-heavy rendition of another pop classic, Lipps Inc.'s "Funkytown." She claps her hands above her head as she moves her body to the new rhythm, shouting "Eso!," a popular Mexican American exclamation of encouragement akin to "Go on!" or "Preach it!" She then spins around into a step-slide-step-kick cumbia before launching into the lyrics: "Talk about-talk about-talk about-talk about it. Talk about-talk about-talk about mo-o-o-vin.' Gotta move on" (figure 8). During the synthesizer-thumping pum-pum-pum-pum-pum-pum between verses, she glides seamlessly from cumbia-inspired freestyling into a forward-moving flamenco-esque stomp-and-clap routine before imploring the audience, "Won't you take me to-funky town?" She then dances upstage as she delivers another command: "Let me hear you, Houston, Texas-Méjico." As the crowd goes wild, she claps her hands above her head emphatically and kicks her legs into quick-paced salsa stylings, the flared-cut material of her sequined pantsuit rippling to a blur, breaks into one of her famous 360-degree backspins-off flies one of her earrings-switches her microphone from right to left hand and tears off the remaining earring, breaks into another 360-degree turn followed by more freestyling, all on the beat, and then claps overhead again as she marches forward and begins crooning Donna Summer's "Last Dance." Immediately following her final "So let's dance the last dance toni-i-i-ight" she declares "Do the Hustle!" as the music changes and she joins Don Shelton and Freddy Correa, her African American and Nuyorican backup singers and dancers, in the well-known Van McCoy disco routine. After a few moments she calls out, "Bring it down! Let me hear some gritos! Vámonos! [shouts! Let's go!]," as her timbale player launches into a solo, during which she kicks her silver, spike-heeled boots into cumbia and salsa stylings once again. She concludes this premiere of what has become known as her "Disco Medley" with another Donna Summer hit, "On the Radio," in her trademark deep and textured voice. At the close of the song, she warmly declares, "Muchas gracias, Houston! ?Cómo 'stán todos? [Thank you very much, Houston! How is everybody?]," before issuing another command, "Manos arriba! Eso! [Hands up! C'mon!]," as she dances her way out of her purple-sequined jacket, exposing a matching halter top that crosses her chest like the bandolier worn by iconic Mexican revolutionaries, and launches into the Spanish-language cumbia title track to her Grammy-nominated album, "Amor Prohibido" (Forbidden Love). She performs this complex semiotic feat in just under eight minutes.

Selena's Astrodome concert has been frequently invoked as an emblem of her stage charisma, inter-Latina/o musical range, and crossover promise. Just one month following her murder on 31 March 1995 the Spanish-language television network Univisión aired the concert as Selena's "Ultimo Adiós" (Final Goodbye). Gregory Nava depicts the opening moments of the concert to launch an American Dream narrative in his 1997 biopic. In 2003 the concert was packaged and released as a DVD, Selena Live: The Last Concert, complete with special features that included behind-the-scenes footage from the making of Nava's film. The performance is notable not only because it set new concert attendance records at the Astrodome, but also because it occurred in the midst of Selena's well-publicized studio work on her forthcoming English-language album, Dreaming of You. This crossover context has framed many of the invocations of this concert, ignoring the facts that "Disco Medley" was the only English-language song Selena performed that evening and that Selena was doing "The Hustle" as part of "Tejano Night" at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. Nava's film, for example, does not include Selena's Spanglish interjections within and between the songs. In these narratives Selena's opening "Disco Medley," which she premiered that evening, seemed to offer a glimpse of this potential crossover career move.

But the complex semiotics of "Disco Medley," wherein Selena's "Hustle" breaks down into Tejano cumbias and Caribbean salsa kicks, clearly exceed the confines of the conventional (unidirectional) musical crossover classification. Her performance undeniably crosses over a range of performative, national, racial, sexual, and gendered boundaries. Within the context of latinidad, frequently fractured by these very divisions, Selena's concert (and its ensuing circulation within Selenidad) offers a compelling space for observing the articulation of inter-Latina/o conflicts and desires. Frances Aparacio has argued, "That Selena could affirm and maintain her Tejana identity while simultaneously constructing a larger Latina/o identity through her music and audience, is evidence of the multiple subjectivities that traverse and inhabit the space of Latinidad." Selena's performance of "Disco Medley" enacts an instructive negotiation between Tejana/o and Latina/o affiliations, and thereby offers us a guide for feeling our way through the gestures of belonging within the "multiple subjectivities" of latinidad.


Excerpted from Selenidad by DEBORAH PAREDEZ Copyright © 2009 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Preface xi

Acknowledgments xix

Introduction: Selenidad and Latinidad in the 1990s 1

1. Soundtracks of Selenidad: "Disco Medley" and "Como la Flor" 31

2. Colonial Past, Tejano Present: Civic Maintenance is Selena's Memorial 56

3. Selena Forever, Latin Futures 95

4. Becoming Selena, Becoming Latina 126

5. "Como la Flor" Reprised: Queer Selenidad 155

Epilogue 187

Notes 193

Selected Bibliography 231

Index 245

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