There are certain things that as a Latina, you must know front, back, and sideways, lest you be mocked relentlessly and potentially deemed a “fake ass” Latina. Some basic requirements for survival include how to make arroz con habichuelas, a minimum of at least one of the core four Spanish dances, the entire history of your country or people of origin and exactly how they were oppressed by the United States. But one thing you simply must know is the life story of Selena Quintanilla—one of, if not the most important women to ever utter Spanglish on the face of this earth. So when I sat down to watch Netflix’s new series based on the singer’s life, I didn’t expect to learn anything new. I also didn’t expect that during the nine-ish hours it takes to finish the series I would be thinking such a sacrilegious thought: Jennifer Lopez did a way better job.
There are many, many, many things wrong with Selena the Series, but the first thing I noticed in the first episode haunted nearly every single episode to follow. In one of the opening scenes, Selena, played by Christian Serratos, is on stage in an all-white outfit singing the first lines of “Como la Flor.” For what I can only assume is emotional value, the show captures this moment from behind Selena where the viewing audience can plainly see that Serratos is wearing a fake butt. In that one instant where the very obvious fake butt reveals itself, I am instantly taken out of the moment and painfully aware that I’m staring at an imposter trying to poorly replicate an icon.
In defense of Serratos, she was given an impossible task. She doesn’t look at all like Selena; she isn’t a singer or stager performer; and she was really just given some nice lipstick and several bad wigs and told to lead the show. Unfortunately, Serratos doesn’t help herself with a performance that can only be described as teeth acting. In every scene that includes Selena, Serratos is just doing her best impression of the different variations of Selena’s smile. It is a good impression, but strong teeth do not a series make.
Serratos and her indecision on just how much Texas accent to employ and when isn’t the only issue with the series, which clearly wants to shed more light on the Quintanilla family as a whole. I think audiences could have gotten behind this if the show hadn’t chosen to yadda-yadda the interesting and seemingly important moments in other characters’ lives without first developing them as characters. How am I, the viewer, supposed to care about Suzette, AB, and Abraham if I’m not given enough time with them as individuals rather than satellites attaching themselves to Selena? At points, the other characters even function as mouthpieces for Selena, particularly at a photoshoot where she is unhappy with her makeup and outfit. Instead of Selena telling the stylists she doesn’t like something, her sister Suzette tells her father, who then tells the stylists and the record exec how Selena feels. The show portrays Selena as simply frowning in the background, as though she is not the star of the show and of her own life.
My personal dislike of the series (which does not pass the three-episode test but I watched all nine anyway) finds company among other smarter Latine TV critics, who also panned the series. Kristen Lopez summed it up perfectly in Indiewire, writing, “the story it tells over its first nine episodes is one that feels highly sanitized, controlled and, ultimately, upsetting.” The series is rated G so some sanitization was to be expected, but the lengths the show goes to “mute” Selena, as Lopez points out, felt forced and unnecessary. Joshua Rivera of The Verge hit a different nail right on the head writing that the series is “barely interested in Selena herself,” adding, “she’s mostly shown as cherubic: smiling, singing, and ultimately not saying very much.”
But what the series really suffers from is the looming shadow of the 1997 film starring Jennifer Lopez as Selena and Edward James Olmos as Abraham Quintanilla. Did Lopez suffer from a few of the same issues as Serratos? Yes, but one sold it better than the other and one was not a 30-year-old playing a 15-year-old. But the saving grace of that film is Olmos’s performance. Olmos fully embodied the character of Abraham, and while it may not have been the most accurate portrayal of a real person Olmos was able to bring a level of sympathy to Abraham that is not achieved in the series by actor Ricardo Antonio Chavira. The series tries its best to push the other characters in the show to the front but ultimately doesn’t sustain their stories long enough to make the attempt worthwhile, which is such a shame because I would have loved to see more of AB’s writing process or Suzette’s journey with the drums or even some backstory explaining why Abraham was such a prick to his children.
What is so frustrating about the series being so poorly executed is that it is very clearly a project of representation; Latine fans, writers, actors, and executives have asked to see ourselves on screen more frequently, yet here the response is a hollow recreation of something that’s already been done. On the surface, Netflix is giving the people what they want: a Latine story driven by Latine decision-makers. But as Alex Zaragoza deftly points out at Vice, when people ask for more representation, giving them the same thing dressed up in new sequins is not getting the job done. Zaragoza writes:
It’s not that I believe we’ve had enough of Selena, or that we shouldn’t continue idolizing her. We desperately need more nuanced Latinx representation on screen and stories about us. We just don’t need the same old shit recalentado and fed to us again when we need to focus on treading new ground and widening the understanding of Latinx identity. When there is a semblance of representation in Hollywood, white and mestizo Latinx people dominate screens (and not coincidentally, behind the scenes). If white or mestizo Latinxs are getting scraps, everyone else is getting nothing.
Selena’s status as an icon, especially amongst the Latine community, is indisputable. She will exist forever as an immortal legend along with the likes of Walter Mercado or Celia Cruz. To approach her story from a different angle, to treat her and see her as a human being and not a rack on which her father hung his dreams, wouldn’t do damage to that icon status. In fact, I would argue that if Selena: The Series did more to show Selena the person, her mythos would only become greater and more people could share in the wonder that was this woman’s music. But instead, the series and by default the Quintanilla family who approved it would rather have a symbol than a living person who didn’t just live her life for her father’s approval.