Netflix honors Selena — and the German origins of Tejano | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 10.12.2020
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Netflix honors Selena — and the German origins of Tejano

Selena fans get to see the life and times of their idol on Netflix. But few know that her signature Tejano style originated in Germany nearly two centuries ago.

Selena The Series

Christian Serratos' portrayal of Selena has been praised by the critics despite the series receiving overall mixed ratings

For many people in South Texas, their entire world collapsed on March 31, 1995, when Tejano singer Selena was shot and killed by the manager of her fan-club. The Grammy-winner was expected to become a global superstar bar none, having worked hard in the music industry since her childhood days. 

The intense story behind the life of the Tejano music performer may read like a telenovela at times, but has continued to touch people in the 25 years since her death — which was enough reason for Netflix to release "Selena - The Series" on December 04, featuring actress Christian Serratos in the leading role.

Christian Serratos in Selena The Series

Born to play Selena: Christian Serratos mimicked the Tejano singer down to the last detail

Despite receiving mixed reviews, the series climbed to Number 1 on the US Netflix charts, resulting in decades-old Selena classics like "Como la Flor" and "Dreaming of You" being played once more on airwaves across the US, and thus introducing a new generation of young people to her music.

Selenatown

There is one place in the US that has been celebrating Selena 24/7 in the last 25 years: Selena's hometown of Corpus Christi has been doubling up as a living Selena memorial since the day of her death.

A solemn statue on the city's waterfront attracts Tejano pilgrims from near and far, as does the grave of the singer a few miles away. The scene of her murder — room 158 of what was then the Days Inn Motel — has equally become somewhat of a shrine during the quarter of the century since the crime.

Selena Quintanilla dancing and singing onstage with a black outfit and hat

Despite her small frame, Selena was larger than life (image from 1993)

In addition to a family-run Selena museum, which welcomes visitors to admire her many awards and stage costumes, an annual festival has also been attracting thousands of people from across the US and beyond to Corpus Christi to celebrate Selena's music and her contributions to Hispanic culture in recent years.

"I would describe Selena as an icon. My face just lights up every time I see her name," says Selena superfan Raymond Abel, who grew up in Corpus Christi. The 33-year-old actor now lives in Los Angeles, but says he thinks of her almost every day.

"We saw her evolve at a time when it was all traditional Tejano music. Selena was rising through the ranks of this male-dominated field right in front of you, breaking the barriers, and doing her own thing. She was a visionary," he reflects.

German and European history in Texas

Selena's music has indeed long become the soundtrack of South Texas at large, but the roots of Tejano actually lay mostly in Europe: In the mid-to-late 19th century, German, Polish and Czech immigrants arrived in Texas to work on the plains north of the Rio Grande. And they brought their accordions, waltzes and polka rhythms with them.

German settlers in particular spread quickly throughout the region, as they were among the few who were allowed to own and cultivate land — which was considered to be an incentive to move out to the Old West.

Raymond Abel

Raymond Abel is a die-hard Selena fan

The Mexican laborers and farmhands, who worked for these European settlers, meanwhile were used to listening to different sounds: they celebrated their own stories and culture with Mariachi ballads.

But it was only a matter of time before their cowboy boots would be shuffling to rather folksy arpeggios from Europe, infusing some Mexican spice into the rather guarded German, Polish and Czech communities of South and Central Texas:

"The accordion was brought in by German and Czech influences, and still holds now in Tejano music. Whenever you hear that accordion in Tejano music, you know that things are about to happen," Raymond Abel explains.

Skyline of Corpus Christi, Texas: skyscrapers at dusk

It's now a thriving mini-metropolis: Corpus Christi used to be a fishing village on the Gulf of Mexico a century ago

Bridging cultures through music

This cross-pollination of music has since made Tejano culture the signature of South Texas: "Whenever you go to any festival today, you can see all of the influences the cultures have had on each other, whether it's the music, the food or the beer. People have embraced each other's influences.

"And it's not that Tejano was Americanized. It's the Anglos who have been Tejanosized. I feel like all my Anglo friends are Tejanos as well because they grow up immersed in this culture. And that's something that we owe to Selena," Abel told DW.

Read more: Strudel vs. steak: German bakers take South Texas

Ruben Cubillos, a 65-year-old musician and former advertising executive, who worked closely with Selena, goes one step further, saying that with its power to bring so many influences together, Tejano is "an American art form. Made in America."

Immortal through tragedy

The evolution of Tejano has defined South Texas for decades, but if it weren't for the death of Selena, who was just shy of turning 24 at the time of her murder, there perhaps wouldn't be as compelling a story to tell about this unique culture. 

Selena's death injected Tejano music with new life in the 1990s; other great names of the Tejano genre, like Laura Canales and Emilio Navaira, had failed to make the musical style appeal to younger generations.

More recent Tejano acts have been lacking Selena's charisma, hard work ethic and playful sensuality: "Tejano has changed in so many ways. The hunger, the desire, the drive from the 1980s is no longer there. Today's social media mentality has destroyed that," Cubillos told DW.

"I don't care how many followers you have. You have to bring heart and soul to the music. Otherwise, all you're doing is karaoke," he adds.

"Selena was taken out of our lives when she was so young. And right below the height of her career. She hadn't even peaked," Abel says. "And that tragedy of her death became the appeal. We were left wondering: 'What if?'

"Some people say that we'll never know. I say she would have been global. We owe a Selena a major credit for the Latino boom we had in the 1990s. Without her, we wouldn't have had Jennifer Lopez in the spotlight, we wouldn't have had Ricky Martin, and we wouldn't have had Shakira."

Making Latin culture mainstream

Selena brought Hispanic culture to the fore by tearing down both walls and silos. She infused her traditional tunes with cumbia rhythms. She introduced ballads like "Que Creias," which were reminiscent of Andalusian copla music, bridging Latin culture back over to Spain. She recorded songs in Spanish and English to test reactions.

Selena's music dealt with love and heartache as much as it dealt with simple things like beat-up old cars ("La Carcacha").

"Selena was one of us. She came from nothing. Nothing was given to her. But anything that she wanted to do, she could do. And that's why people still love her," Cubillos explains.

And his assessment seems objectively correct: you don't need to know a word of Spanish to sing along to her hit "Bidi bidi bom bom" or to pretend you know the words to "Como la Flor."

Read more: Country music fans break out the cowboy hats at Berlin festival

Cubillos says that it was crucial from the beginning to make sure that she came across as an approachable, lighthearted person "just like she was in real life:"

"I helped her build her brand. I remember how some Tejano album covers looked like ransom notes back then. So I worked as art director and designer on her first album cover to make sure she got something better. Because she deserved so much better. We wanted her to be seen as a universal artist," he stressed.

Selena and her tribe

As portrayed in the series, Selena always enjoyed the support of her family: her brother A.B. wrote most of her songs and accompanied her on the bass, her sister Suzette played the drums and assisted Selena with her daring fashion sense, while her mother Marcella was possibly the greatest groupie in history.

But above all, there was Selena's father, Abraham Quintanilla, who pushed "Selena y los Dinos" — as the band's title was in full – to its absolute limits.

In the Netflix series, this is depicted as almost bordering on cruelty; actor Ricardo Antonio Chavira's portrayal of the disciplinarian patriarch swings between hot and cold, leaving the viewer wondering about his true character.

Ruben Cubillos

Ruben Cubillos, who worked closely with Selena on creating her brand, says that he misses her smile the most

Ruben Cubillos says that Chavira's performance was "an absolute home run," but highlights that it has to be seen in context: "Let's not forget: he's a father. And as parents, we have a responsibility to our kids. We'd move mountains for them. Until his last breath, he's going to do the best for his daughter," Cubillos points out about Abraham Quintanilla.

"If it weren't for Abraham Quintanilla, Selena wouldn't have made it. Selena didn't need a cheerleader. She needed a tough manager. And he's the kind of guy who'll step on your toes or get into a fight if he needs to. Did she always agree with him? Of course not. But we're humans. We can agree to disagree."

In fact, it is exactly the dynamic between Selena and her father portrayed in the series that provides the audience with a true understanding of the cultural mix that is at the soul of South Texas: swaying cumbia hips juxtaposed with a Prussian sense of authority and control; tropical weather systems interfering with Catholic rites of piety; songs of love and longing mixed with childlike enthusiasm and purity; and the richness of life contrasted against our own reckoning with mortality.