When 23-year-old Tejana superstar Selena was shot to death by the president of her fan club in 1995, it seemed like a story tailor made for the tabloids, complete with sex, glamour, betrayal, and murder. In Corpus: A Home Movie for Selena, Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Lourdes Portillo picks up where other accounts left off, placing Selena’s life and legacy in a cultural context and revealing powerful social forces that transformed a popular entertainer into a Chicana role model turned modern-day saint.
“I walked into my parents’ living room and they were really engrossed by the TV because someone had been shot,” Portillo recalls. “I said, ‘Who was shot?’ They said, ‘Selena.’ I asked, ‘Who is Selena?’ When I saw the coverage on the television, I couldn’t believe that this brown girl had gotten to be so famous. That’s when I decided to make a film about Selena.” retraces Selena’s career from preteen singing sensation to cultural icon, intercutting rare home movies, candid interviews with Selena’s family members, voices from the Mexican-American community, and a spirited debate among Latina intellectuals on Selena’s value as a role model.
“A little girl may see herself in Selena, whereas an older woman can see something different. And the men of course see something entirely different,” says Portillo. “She’s a repository of a lot of things, a lot of desires.” In Corpus Christi, Texas, the singer’s hometown, locals reminisce about the young Chicana who sang in Spanish and made it big as a crossover star in mainstream America. “She was local,” Corpus Christi businessman Frank Fregoso says proudly. “She was the first one to hit everybody’s soul at the same time: the Puerto Rican community, the Mexican community, the Chicano community,” adds Corpus Christi radio personality Vincente Carranza. “I mean, you turned on a radio, you could hear her, you could feel her. When she died, she became part of our soul.”
For Latina girls and women, Selena’s success was an affirmation of self-worth, proof that beauty comes in different packages. “You see the majority of the stars from Mexico and Latin America are all real light complected, blue eyes, green eyes, blonde hair,” one fan explains. “All the telenovela stars look more Anglo than Hispanic. And she had the bigger lips, big hips, the whole works. People related to that because she looked more like us.”
“Selena’s a complex role model,” says Portillo. “On the one hand, she gave the girls a lot of confidence about who they were. On the other hand, the way that she went about doing that was to be very showy and very sexual, which is not really accepted in our culture.” Corpus: A Home Movie for Selena features lively arguments from Latina intellectuals on both sides of the debate. “Selena gave these girls a way to have Chicana sexuality,” insists writer Cherrie Moraga. “Agh! I’m not a Selena fan,” counters writer Sandra Cisneros. “I’m sorry, that’s not a model that I would want…for a young woman or for anyone related to me or a child if I had one.”
Meanwhile, at the Tejano Fine Arts Academy in Corpus Christi, pre-teen Selena wannabes starved for Latina role models emulate their idol, swiveling their hips and lip- synching to her records, daring to dream of a glamorous future. “From Selena, I realized that you don’t have to have a certain look or anything. You just gotta try your best,” one little girl says.
At Selena’s gravesite, devastated fans cluster in tearful groups and pose for photos like pilgrims at a holy shrine. One ardent Selena devotee faithfully cleans the singer’s headstone every day, spraying it with Windex and wiping it carefully with a cloth. Some visitors leave flowers or Selena dolls, others write tender, intimate notes and tape them lovingly to her tombstone. “Sometimes, we see people that we want to be like them, not because of their fame, but because of the way they act with people and we just want to share that,” one fan explains solemnly. “Almost every day, we make a tribute to her in our souls, in our hearts, and in our minds.”
“For us, Selena was like Elvis, a star and a victim,” says Portillo. “But this is a phenomenon that goes way beyond celebrity. This is so profound. For the kids, she represents a future: ‘I could be famous, I can have beauty.’ There is no one who looks like them who they can associate themselves with in the media. I think the most important thing in telling these stories about Selena and about Latinos is that we need to see ourselves portrayed, that we need to see our experiences validated. Otherwise we don’t exist and if we don’t exist, we become diminished by the media. And we can’t allow that to happen.”