Selena's Music and Struggle Become the Song of a People


'Innocence" is not the first word that comes to mind when one thinks of a rock star. But the celebration of innocence is the essential experience of the popular new movie "Selena," says its director, Gregory Nava. The film portrays the revered Mexican-American pop singer, Selena Quintanilla, who was killed by a disturbed fan in 1995.

"Some people don't want to believe [innocence] exists, and critics can be especially incredulous when you show it in a film," Mr. Nava says in an interview. But, he adds, it is a universally appealing quality and a central theme of everybody's life.

Nava is well-suited to tell Selena's story. All his films celebrate family and community life and the particularities of a bicultural heritage - but also the individual's struggle to assert him- or herself against that which is stifling in culture, family, and community.

Selena's struggle for independence within the context of a close family and community, her triumph in the face of prejudice on both sides of the border, and her achievement as a woman who made it to the top of a male-dominated regional musical form called "Tejano" (derived from rock, R&B, pop, and traditional Latin influences) made her an exceptional figure.

In fact, Selena was a superstar with Latino audiences north and south of the border - a "crossover" success with several hit albums. At the time of her death, she was just beginning to cross over to mainstream Anglo audiences as well, singing in both English and Spanish. Yolanda Saldivar, the founder of Selena's fan club, was convicted in October 1995 of murdering the singer at a motel in Corpus Christi, Texas.

Poignant as the story necessarily is, the film manages to inspire and hearten viewers, because Nava lauds her innocence, her zest for life, and her generosity. Audiences have been positive about the joy expressed in the film and about Selena's saucy sense of humor, he says.

"I kept hearing all these stories about her from people who knew her," Nava says. "She was really like that. She had tremendous endurance and she could take the bull by the horns and control a situation.... And it is also true that while she was packing the Houston Astrodome, she was going out to mow the lawn and she was still shopping at Kmart. She was known to be very sweet, I mean to a fault. She trusted too easily, and, in fact, that's her tragic flaw. She couldn't see the bad in anyone, and that is a function of her having been so protected.

"But she was wonderful, down to earth. And yet she was also a very strong, assertive young woman. The more you find out about her, the more you fall in love with her - I did, the deeper I got into the research."

Nava, a leader in independent film and also director of "El Norte" and "Mi Familia/My Family," says what first attracted him to the project was that it was a real-life story in which real people live out mythic themes. In the film, he takes on American racism toward Mexican-Americans and Mexican sexism and cultural disdain for Mexican-Americans - a surprise, perhaps, for many Anglos who may not be aware of Mexican prejudice toward Chicanos.

But the story's most important conflict centers on Selena's growing need for independence and her father's refusal to let her go - especially to the man she loves, her husband, Chris. Nava treats this generational tumult with sensitivity. Abraham Quintanilla (Edward James Olmos gives a finely layered performance in the role) is just like most dads. Yet somehow Nava manages to imply that this confrontation is ancient and universally significant.

The mythic revealed in daily life has always been a theme in Nava's thought and art. Bilingual and classically educated, he has a particularly broad knowledge of ancient myth, history, and medieval literature. He follows in the tradition of great Latin American authors and artists who are still involved in the grand issues - the sweeping backdrop of history, the universal truths, and the meaning of epic subjects as they are reflected in people's lives.

Indeed, there is a kind of operatic opulence to this new film, a high-tech design intended to drive home what Selena meant to the masses of people who loved her. Each of the songs (all Selena's own recordings) is used, as in opera, to reveal what is going on in Selena's emotional life.

Then there are Nava's triptychs: Through new computer techniques, he divides the screen in three parts la Abel Gance's epic silent film, "Napoleon," using mirror images of Selena integrated with shots of her audiences and of the rising sun.

In other triptychs, he integrates video and super-8 footage of the real Selena with professional 35-mm film of her on-screen persona, played by a luminous Jennifer Lopez. He has broken new ground with these techniques.

All these cinematics might seem a trifle too adulatory for a rock star - and some American critics don't get it, thinking Nava is merely romanticizing Selena as some kind of latter-day pop saint.

But Selena was more than a celebrity; she was and is a hero to her people. When Nava called for extras to re-create the Astrodome concert, 35,000 extras showed up without pay because they wanted to honor her.

While older stars like Martin Sheen, Raquel Welch, and Rita Hayworth had to disguise their Latino origins and change their names to make it in Hollywood, Selena was crossing over and making it in the mainstream being herself - not hiding her identity or changing her sound.

"She was accepted for who she was, and that was a big deal to us," says Nava. "I think she was a great torchbearer for our culture, for Tejano music and Latino music. I think she would have carried it into American culture and into the world. [Her death] was a great loss for our community and for the country."

Selena made inroads in the music industry, and Nava is making them in the motion picture industry. He says that Hollywood has not given Latino filmmakers the latitude it has afforded African-American filmmakers.

But he adds that the African-American community supports black filmmakers. The Latino community has to demonstrate to Hollywood that it will support films that deal with Latino concerns.

"Selena" is a testing ground for how big the Latino market will be. So far, so good. In its debut two weeks ago, it was No. 2 at the box office nationally, and has since grossed $21.7 million. Its first weekend, 80 percent of the audience was Latino. Exit polls showed that a remarkable 93 percent of viewers recommended it.

But Nava makes it clear that he does not like to be pegged as a Latino filmmaker, either - any more than one would peg Martin Scorsese or Francis Ford Coppola as Italian-American directors or John Ford as an Irish-American. Although, Nava jokes, Ford made movies about how the Irish won the West. Nava sees himself as an American filmmaker.

"That's what I'm fighting for," Nava says. "And I guess in fighting for that position for myself, I'm also fighting for acceptance of my community at the level that Ford and Scorsese have been accepted."

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