Selena's Story: "Pochos" Have Come of Age

My girlfriend loved Selena because the Tejano star couldn't quite roll her "r's" in Spanish. I liked her because she wasn't too proud to use English during Spanish-language interviews. "Como se dice 'Cinnamon'?" she once asked a Latin American TV reporter without a hint of embarrassment.After she was murdered, nobody seemed able to place her culturally. Tom Brokaw called the U.S.-born Selena the "Mexican Madonna" -- and the Mexican music magazine "Furia" ran an article on how the American singing sensation couldn't speak Spanish all that well.The marketing effort for "Selena," Gregory Nava's new movie about her life and death, offers Selena as the archetypal American story. And by all accounts it was -- she was raised in the suburbs of Corpus Christi, and became the instrument of her father's frustrated artistic ambition. She had the dreamy exuberance of a suburban American teen. And, in the great American tradition of violence, her life was cut short by a bullet in the back.But to Mexican-Americans, Selena's story is also one of the burden of leading hyphenated lives, and of the need to forge a place for ourselves between the dismissive Anglo-American and Mexican mainstreams.Selena Quintanilla Perez was an American girl who preferred disco to rancheras. She made it big singing in Spanish but dreamed of being an English-language "crossover" star.Not too long ago, when Mexican-American identity was still defined more by its roots than by its branches, Latino cultural ambivalence was a source of shame for the children and grandchildren of immigrants. Mexicans called their English-speaking, "Scooby-Doo"-watching American cousins "pochos," which meant something like "watered-down Mexicans."But Selena's tremendous popularity, in both the U.S. and Mexico, is a sign of the times. In her life and success, "pocho" no longer connotes a marginal position in a culture that was never fully ours, but a growing pride in Mexican-American hybrid status, and the ability to sample and absorb the best from both sides of the border.The buzz in Hollywood is that a success with this movie of Selena's life will translate into more English-language, Latino-themed productions. Warner Bros. has spent more money trying to reach the Latino market with "Selena" than with any other movie in history, and the movie is opening nationwide on 1,500 screens.A box office hit, however, depends on the picture's appeal to all audiences. In those parts of the country that are rapidly Latinizing, Mexican-American hybridity is already reaching the mainstream. In Los Angeles, for example, English- and Spanish-language media are cross-pollinating -- the leading 6 o'clock newscast in Spanish advertises on a hip-hop station. The Galaxy, L.A.'s soccer team, runs English-language radio ads featuring accented voices.In the movie, Edward James Olmos, playing Selena's father, tells the young Selena how difficult it is to be Mexican-American. "We have to know about John Wayne and Pedro Infante," he says.Because of Selena's story, we may soon be watching movies starring the likes of a Pedro Wayne.PNS associate editor Gregory Rodriguez is a contributing writer to Los Angeles Magazine and the Los Angeles Eastside Sun.

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