You can find Selena’s face on prayer candles, tote bags, and coin purses; coffee mugs, ’90s-style band tees, and poster prints; throw pillows, air fresheners, and baby onesies. MAC Cosmetics created a limited edition Selena collection in 2016, featuring lipsticks in her signature cherry-red stain, as well as makeup pouches in the shape of her indelible rhinestone-encrusted bustiers. There have been reusable grocery bags sold by the Texas supermarket chain H-E-B, a juniors’ apparel line at JCPenney and Sears, loungewear from Forever 21. I could go on.
The branded knickknacks and cutesy homewares tell a more sinuous—and sinister—story of Selena. They reflect her status as an icon, forever young, shot dead at 23 by a resentful employee. To some, she has become a saintly figure free of complexity and contradiction. But of course, the Tejano star’s life was far less neat and digestible than that.
Amor Prohibido, the last album Selena released before her death, is her magnum opus. It has soundtracked quinces, barbecues, and rough breakups, harnessing the kind of romantic suffering that leaves you weeping on your bedroom floor. Amor Prohibido distills Selena’s legacy, but it’s also a statement about the boundless aesthetic potential of Tejano, a once-maligned working-class folk genre, whose touchstones include the accordion, the bajo sexto, and rhythms from Czech and German genres like the polka and the waltz. Over 11 tracks, she and her band Los Dinos stretch the limits of Tejano and cumbia, warping elements of R&B, reggae, and electronic music into eminently catchy songs of love and loss. Amor Prohibido was a commercial blockbuster, and it remains the best-selling Tejano album of all time. But more importantly, it is a glimmer of all the corners of pop music that Selena was beginning to explore—both in English and Spanish.
In 1993, Selena’s brother and go-to producer A.B. Quintanilla III was in a bind. A year earlier, he’d co-written his sister’s breakout hit “Como La Flor,” which propelled her to fame in Mexico and Latin America. By then, Selena was already a superstar in her home state of Texas. Mexicans across the border, along with non-Mexican Latinx groups in the United States, had long stigmatized Tejano as too old-fashioned, too blue-collar, or too gringo. Selena’s previous album, 1992’s Entre a Mi Mundo, helped dismiss skeptics by updating the genre’s templates while preserving its working-class allegiances. The next challenge was to write an album that would safeguard her authenticity and simultaneously introduce her to new audiences across the U.S.
More than simply venturing into different stylistic territory, or ushering Tejano into the pop realm, Amor Prohibido lands as an avowal of Selena’s mutability. On “Techno Cumbia,” A.B. arranges explosive synths and guacharaca scrapes into a command to get your ass onto the dancefloor. Here, Selena raps, growls, and beckons. She berates all the losers at the party, instructing them to toss their chairs aside and sweat. In the early ’90s, it was rare for any mainstream Latinx artist in the U.S. to experiment with dance music, hip-hop, and traditional genres in a single production. But Selena was constitutionally intrepid. She was a child of the border region, born to seek out hybrid contours in the music she called home.
There is the part of Selena that knows how to bottle anger, too. “Si una vez dije que te amaba, no lo vuelvo a hacer/Ese error es cosa de ayer,” she sings on “Si Una Vez.” If I once said that I loved you, I won’t do it again/That was yesterday’s mistake. Selena delivers these lines with pure rasp, in a voice that sounds like it’s been forced to constantly defend itself against betrayal. She longs to remain in the tides of resentment, far from the waters of forgiveness. In her rage and disaffection, Selena invites us to cultivate a discipline of self-worth.
Several of Selena’s vocal performances (and the lessons they contain) feel forged from the anguish of women who came before her, including ranchera legends like Chavela Vargas, the musical doyen of love’s agony. On “No Me Queda Más,” Selena conjures that inherited endurance in flashes, entering a kindred mode of performance as she searches for relief. “No me queda más/Que aguantar bien mi derrota/Y brindarte felicidad,” she sings. I have nothing left but to withstand my defeat/And toast to your happiness. Her voice, husky and melismatic, exhibits the kind of breath control only the most technically skilled ranchera singers and rappers can. When she sings “Y aunque vivía enamorada/Y totalmente equivocada, no me importa,” the word “importa” gushes out of her lungs like a bloody wound, transforming into desperation itself.
But Amor Prohibido suggests the grief doesn’t have to be suffocating. There is always the remedy of movement. “Fotos y Recuerdos,” a cover of the Pretenders’ 1983 single “Back on the Chain Gang,” retains the original’s looping new wave melody, but Selena’s version doesn’t possess the same kind of melancholy; cumbia pulses and dapples of steel drums nourish the production. Instead of feeling like an embittered farewell to a partner, “Fotos y Recuerdos” puts the subtle joys of cumbia front and center. It’s as if she wants to remind us that these lilting rhythms are embedded with exactly what you need to feel good again.
Amor Prohibido was as much a claim for broader industry appeal as it was an ardent request for a Latina star to be seen as multivalent, contemporary, and capable of constant reinvention. Selena packs the album with genre-crushing experiments: “Techno Cumbia;” the wispy R&B jam “Donde Quiera Que Estés,” featuring New York’s Barrio Boyzz; the reggae-inflected bounce of “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom”; and the rock grit of “Fotos y Recuerdos.” But the press often overlooked her artistic complexity, instead presenting Selena as both an archetypal “good girl” and a gorgeous seductress. Profiles and interviews from that era referenced her “innocence” and “immaculate purity” at the same time that they labeled her exotic and sensual—in part because of her sparkly bustiers, the cultural fascination with her butt, and her signature “washing-machine” choreography. All the while, journalists lauded the way she deferred to her elders and offered “positive comments about any subject thrown her way.”
These flattening portrayals should come as no surprise. The impulse to deny young female pop stars the luxury of self-determination and depth is a longstanding American tradition, one that was acute in the ’90s, especially for Latinas. But Selena’s presumed virtue wasn’t absolute; it wasn’t even a fact. Consider the title track of Amor Prohibido, which tells the story of two young lovers from different sides of the tracks who fall for each other in spite of their parents’ disapproval. Co-written by A.B. and backup vocalist Pete Astudillo, “Amor Prohibido” was inspired by Selena’s grandmother, a maid in a wealthy Mexican household who fell in love with the son of the family.
“Amor Prohibido” has come to represent much more than family lore. The song’s narrative is uncannily similar to Selena’s own story of forbidden love; in 1992, she famously eloped with band member Chris Pérez, ignoring her father’s objection to their partnership. Over the years, many fans have reinterpreted the song as an anthem for other kinds of verboten relationships, especially queer ones. When Selena sings,“Qué importa qué dirán, también la sociedad/Aquí sólo importa nuestro amor” (“Who cares what they say, society too/Here, only our love matters”) over those moonstruck synths, it doesn’t feel like a story of generations past. It resembles the quotidian acts of defiance that embody queer dissent.
Plenty of Anglo critics overlooked the innovation of Amor Prohibido, instead focusing on its commercial performance and Selena’s looming crossover. Headlines reminded readers that “just a few years ago, hardly anyone knew of Tejano,” and journalists wondered if she would be able to duplicate the lofty career arc of Gloria Estefan, apparently the only referent for Spanish-language music back then. The label expectations surrounding what would become Selena’s first posthumous album, Dreaming of You, only fueled the media obsession with her crossover. In an interview for La Prensa de San Antonio, A.B. said that at first, the label sought to assume control of the forthcoming English-language album, choosing songs on behalf of the group. “We said, ‘Hey, wait a minute. It’s not like we’re some small-time group that hasn’t sold any records.’ We’ve proven ourselves,” Selena later explained.
So much of Selena’s place in the collective imagination is framed through these pressures of legibility. For the belittled or the slighted, the chance to finally be understood is seductive. Some of us have spent our lifetimes softening our edges to settle on a version of self that is breezy, simple, flat. The fantasy of crossing over offers freedom from pigeonholing, and the potential to be whole and unfettered. In this rosy paradise of recognition, the crossover is another item in the long checklist of qualifiers that might make us feel like we belong.
The martyrization of Selena was practically instantaneous: At her public funeral in 1995, a crowd of more than 50,000 fans assembled to mourn the artist at the Bayfront Convention Center (now the Selena Auditorium) in her hometown of Corpus Christi. There were candlelight vigils in San Antonio, roses and placards outside the motel where she was murdered. A high school near where she grew up called in guidance counselors to console grieving students. People, Entertainment Weekly, and Texas Monthly all released tribute cover stories in the months after her death. A Tampa Bay Times article published in the fall of 1995 felt prophetic: “She is the fallen one…and an industry of mythology is perpetuated.”
Amor Prohibido has been cemented as Selena’s masterwork and a watershed moment for Spanish-language pop, in part because Selena and her band sought out fresh and versatile ways of sustaining Tejano. And instead of chronicling the genre’s familiar, masculinist tales of female infidelity and deception, the album gave a language to the scars that patriarchal love leaves behind. For the dozens of other Latina stars who followed in her footsteps, including Jennifer Lopez and Shakira, Selena’s trajectory became a blueprint for navigating the demands of a world that couldn’t contain your multiplicity.
Yet that legacy has become inextricably bound to Selena’s sanctification. There are the aforementioned mementos; the Netflix series; the Gregory Nava biopic starring Lopez; and a recent album of previously released material, digitally manipulated to age Selena’s voice. Part of that worship, as the scholar Deborah Paredez has written, emerges from the historical context of Selena’s celebrity. In the ’90s, corporations sought to capitalize on what they perceived as a “Latin boom” in culture and business, even as the country experienced a nativist panic around immigration. As Paredez notes, Selena became a symbol for Latinx communities’ longing for a brighter future.
In the almost three decades since her death, the image of Selena as a martyr has intensified, often yielding omissions or elisions about her life and beliefs. Selena grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness, a denomination that would have strictly prohibited her deification. In the Texas Monthly cover story that followed her death, even Selena’s father made it clear the veneration was unwelcome. “She believed worship should go only to the Creator…I don’t think Selena would be pleased to be part of any form of idolatry,” he said. Retellings of Selena’s story, whether by fans or in screen adaptations, often skip over her conservative views on abortion and premarital sex, “in favor of focusing on the way she embraced her sexuality on stage,” as Cat Cardenas noted in a 2021 article for Texas Monthly. When we perform Selena’s memory like this, it creates a space of possibility—a utopia where our communities’ social and cultural conventions might disappear. But this is a dismal kind of victory. All that is left is an impression of a star that is static and flawless, rather than human.
Pop martyrdom is an easy and reductive kind of devotion. It creates an alluring simplicity, and eliminates the discomfort of multiple truths and multiple realities. It allows the palimpsest of an artist’s legacy to overshadow the music itself. But if you peel back the layers, you’ll see that Amor Prohibido begs us to consider Selena beyond her mythos. The album doesn’t paint her as some fixed totem so much as it exhorts us to consider all the possible creative directions she may have explored if she’d survived. It forces us to remember Selena on her own terms, in all her intricacy, and not through the imagined liberation of a crossover. As the critic Margo Jefferson reminds us, “goddesses belong to myth, not history.” To render Selena an idol, rather than a person, only distracts us from fully immersing ourselves in the joy and originality of her music. We, and Selena, deserve all that and more.
Additional research by Deirdre McCabe Nolan.