Selena Forever

The Selena Trial

The Houston Chronicles Files

Cultural myth of Selena


Copyright 1995 Houston Chronicle

In death, Selena Quintanilla-Perez has attained the heights reserved for saints and legends. She has become a tragic, martyred folk heroine. "She became greater in death than in life," says the Rev. Virgil Elizondo, a San Antonio Roman Catholic theologian and scholar. Elizondo, rector of San Fernando Cathedral, theorizes that Selena's life and death transformed into instant "cultural myth." "It is a story that becomes greater than the original fact," he says.

As a myth is retold, it becomes greater, not because of imaginative embellishments, but because it has meaning and implications that are greater than its details. "It is the people saying what she meant to us," Elizondo says. ""In their testimonies, she is becoming more alive than she ever was in life."

There are universal elements to Selena's tragedy that resonate with people. She was seen as a beautiful, vivacious, talented woman who was cut down in her prime by a once-trusted friend. "Here was a person ready to become nationally famous and cross over (into mainstream American entertainment), and she is unable to do so because she is murdered," says Mark Gelazer, anthropology professor at the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg. "In her case, you have a kind of folk sanctification process of a martyr." Selena, although not a Roman Catholic, also fits the folk saint role in the culturally Catholic mind-set of Hispanics. The Lady of Guadalupe -- a Mexican apparition of Mary, the mother of Jesus -- and female saints play integral roles in the spiritual lives of Hispanics. Elizondo commemorated Selena during Good Friday services. "Her death, like the death of Jesus, was a totally senseless death," he said. "She is not a goddess; she is not Jesus Christ. But she is one of ours that the community is praising as a real heroine, one of the saints of the community."

Selena also plays into the cultural ideal role that women continue to hold in Hispanic cultures. For example, most Spanish TV telenovelas focus on the trials of women, with the heroine overcoming obstacles and problems through virtue and character. Selena fit that ideal for many Hispanics. "She was seen as a very pure person," Gelazer says. Juanita Garza, of the UT-Pan American History Department, says, "Selena showed the essence of who we are, as family-oriented, as community-oriented."

There is cultural significance in her death as well. Her betrayal by a once-adoring fan chills Hispanic hearts. Disloyalty is still a cardinal sin against cultural ideals. "It makes it tragic," says Arturo Madrid, humanities professor at Trinity University in San Antonio. "She trusted, and we all want to trust. As a consequence of trusting, she died." Perhaps Selena's life and death defy analysis. She may simply have possessed qualities that bedazzle onlookers, that create legends.

Madrid fully expects future singers to bill themselves as the "new Selena." Women will dress as she did and imitate her charms and qualities. It will be proof that Selena set a new standard. Her impact will not diminish quickly, Elizondo predicts. "Because she was killed at her peak, she can't decline," he says. ""She will only continue to grow. She becomes a dynamic force of life for all the people to whom she was important."