Cultural heritage isn’t passed down quite like our genes. We don’t inherit that history, those influences, the way we do eye color or other physical traits—not even when our appreciation of a cuisine or genre of music feels instinctive. But unlike genetic inheritance, sharing our culture is an ongoing exchange, one that can reverse direction from child to parent, from second-generation to first-generation, from one side of a border to the other.
Selena Quintanilla-Perez wasn’t the first or last Latinx artist to make the move from Latin music to the mainstream (read: English-language pop). But thanks to a convergence of factors—my Texas roots and my confidence in a friend’s musical tastes among them—her path to Tejano stardom and the charts was the crossover journey I followed more closely than any other. After putting out five independent LPs where she shared billing with her backing band, Los Dinos, the singer signed to the newly formed EMI Latin and released her self-titled solo debut on October 17, 1989. Although it offered a sign of the great, cumbia-infused things to come, Selena actually represented a bit of a compromise. It was a pivot from the crossover plans her father and manager, Abraham Quintanilla Jr., and EMI Latin’s José Behar had in mind. Behar had high hopes for the singer; he reportedly saw her as the “next Gloria Estefan,” a Latina artist who wasn’t bound by any language or genre. But the three English-language tracks that Selena recorded failed to convince EMI’s pop division that she was already a viable mainstream artist. The label encouraged Selena and her manager-father to first break into the Latin American markets, starting with Mexico, which was just hours from where the singer had grown up in Lake Jackson, Texas.
The change in strategy didn’t require the singer to shelve her dreams of pop stardom for long. Although the majority of Selena’s 10 tracks were performed in Spanish, the singer made her songwriting debut with the English-language, freestyle-inspired number “My Love,” which was arranged by her brother and record producer A.B. Quintanilla. The self-titled album spanned multiple genres, from R&B and pop to cumbia, norteño, and classic mariachi; it even translated the work of Japanese crooner Kyu Sakamoto (on “Sukiyaki”). This early collaboration with her siblings and Pete Astudillo showed off Selena’s range, in both musical influences and ability; it also featured “Amame, Quiéreme,” the first of only a handful of duets Selena performed in her career. Although there was some disagreement over the direction of the album’s cover, EMI Latin threw its weight and marketing efforts behind the album, which helped Selena chart nationally, peaking at number seven on the Billboard Regional Mexican Albums list. In the liner notes of a limited-edition reissue, A.B. would reflect on Selena as a successful foray into the mainstream.
But these are all things I learned in hindsight, after years of writing about pop culture. Chart placement and promotional maneuvering didn’t factor in much on the rare occasion that I had enough money to buy an album. As a multicultural teen growing up in a family of nine in Chicago in the ’90s, I was awash in other people’s influences and aesthetics. My parents had dominion over the radio (the kind with knobs and everything), but their tastes were by no means limited. As I was growing up, my weekends were filled with the sounds of Bronco, the Beatles, and Bach. My mom instilled in my siblings and me a love of classical music, which is probably why several of us went on to be brass and string players. My dad loved Chubby Checker, Pedro Infante, and Pink Floyd, and is still one of the best dancers in my family. My older brothers were into house music, blue-eyed soul, and Old Blue Eyes, and scoffed at the New Kids On The Block mania that overtook my sisters and me. The generational differences led to the occasional “what you kids listen to today is noise,” but for the most part, fights over music mostly broke out over who was hogging the stereo.
My parents’ tastes, though steeped in Mexican culture, were just that—their tastes, their preferences. Back then, I don’t think I really understood that they were sharing part of their lives, and their parents’ lives, and on. When they turned up the Juan Gabriel and Rocío Dúrcal duets, the music might as well have been an aria, for all I understood of the languages. Confession time: I wasn’t really fluent in Spanish until my 20s. By fluent, I mean being able to conjugate properly (for the most part) and not falling for false cognates (when I was 9, I once told a relative I was “embarazada,” which means “pregnant,” not, as I thought, “embarrassed”). Obviously, speaking Spanish is only part of Mexican culture, and certainly doesn’t define Mexican identity (there are lots of Mexicans who speak indigenous languages). And there’s so much more to any culture than its music, but it was music that helped bridge that gap for me—in particular, Selena’s music.
Selena’s bicultural background meant she also grew up listening to disco and grupero, and she also learned Spanish as an adult. After breaking through with her third album for EMI, Entre A Mi Mundo, the singer was sent on an important press tour in Monterrey, Mexico. What happened next was depicted quite charmingly in Gregory Nava’s Selena—label executives and Abraham Quintanilla were worried the Tejano star’s Spanish wouldn’t be proficient enough, and that she’d be dismissed as a “pocha” (another feeling I can relate to) by the Mexican press. But the singer’s effervescence won them over even when she stumbled in what was her second language; not long after, she played to a crowd of 70,000 in Nuevo Leon.
But first, Selena had to win them over from inside the United States, just as she first had to establish herself as a Tejano artist before she could branch out of the Regional Mexican category of the Billboard charts. In order to find herself among pop icons like Janet Jackson and Madonna—the kind of artists who’d inspired her—she’d have to cross over into a predominantly Spanish-language genre. She’d have to learn to sing songs like “Besitos” (Selena’s best indicator of the cumbia direction taken on subsequent records) and “Mentiras” phonetically so she could make her foray into club music with “My Love.” Selena turned that back and forth into a dance (a cumbia, if you will), swiveling and singing her way to platinum record sales, a Grammy, and finally, a Billboard 200-topping crossover album that was released posthumously in 1995, following the singer’s tragic murder in March of that year. Selena’s success in the male-dominated Tejano genre was a breakthrough all on its own—early on, she had trouble booking certain venues because she was a woman. But she helped popularize the form among a broader and younger audience than it had previously drawn, all while refining the cumbia fusion that was winning over fans in multiple countries.
Selena might not have represented the late, adored Tejano icon’s break into the English-language market, but it was a still crossover, one that journeyed into the land and culture of her ancestors. She brought along fans like myself, proving that it’s never too late embrace a new form of communication or an old tradition.