Christian Serratos can’t name the first time she heard Selena Quintanilla. It’s harder for her to remember an age before the Mexican American star: Selena’s music was ubiquitous in the late 1990s, as present in Serratos’s life as a close family member. She “was always around,” the 30-year-old actor told Vanity Fair.
Over the course of her short but formidable career, first as the vocalist of Selena y Los Dinos and later as a solo artist, the “Queen of Tejano music” thrilled audiences in the United States and Mexico; to date, her albums have sold more than 60 million copies worldwide. In 1995, at the height of her hard-earned success, Quintanilla was murdered by her close associate Yolanda Saldívar. She was only 23 years old.
Thanks to heartbreak anthems like “Como La Flor” and melodramatic cumbias like “Si Una Vez”—not to mention her forward-thinking fashion and bicultural appeal—Quintanilla has become a full-fledged icon, particularly in the Mexican American community. Any actor would have qualms about trying to embody such a towering figure. “I thought about it very seriously, whether I felt confident playing her, what I was going to have to go through to play her, and if I was prepared for what was going to be said if I played her,” said Serratos. Once she decided to pursue the role, Serratos found her own dialect and vocal coaches, just in case she wound up being cast. An extreme measure, maybe—but not for someone who’s vying for the part of a lifetime.
Serratos did wind up getting the title role in Selena: The Series, premiering on Netflix December 4—but the show doesn’t paint a portrait of Selena as a larger-than-life diva. Instead, Selena’s Mexican-born creator, Moisés Zamora, actively wanted to demystify a woman who’s earned near-mythic status by zeroing in on the singer’s offstage reality.
“I was very adamant to have it be inspirational and wholesome, a story about the family and all the struggles that they’re facing,” he said, “as well as Selena’s coming of age—how she went from a very humble, sweet girl to becoming a powerhouse.”
The limited series’s first nine episodes—a second season has also been completed—jump between different time periods, following the music legend from her birth in 1971 to the 1990 release of her second studio album, Ven Conmigo. As she moves from performing at her family’s restaurant to headlining sold-out venues, Zamora’s series navigates Selena’s bond with her siblings, the influence of her firm father, Abraham Quintanilla Jr., and the beginning of her romantic relationship with guitarist Chris Pérez.
“What’s great about our show is that we start off with her being so young, and we get to see that Selena wasn’t just an icon; she didn’t just come out of thin air. She was a hardworking woman, and she dedicated her life, and much of her childhood, to accomplishing this dream of hers,” explained Serratos. “She was ever-changing and creative. She experimented with her looks, with her sound, and how she presented herself onstage.”
Selena’s story has been told before, perhaps most famously in Gregory Nava’s 1997 biopic Selena, starring Jennifer Lopez. But Selena: The Series goes deeper. Zamora’s production interviewed the singer’s family at length; they constructed and consulted a 500-page research packet. (For months, “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom” served as Zamora’s morning alarm.) Serratos, meanwhile, spent hours watching footage to learn Selena’s mannerisms and perfect each dance step. “You have this idea of how somebody sounds and moves, and then you try it, and you’re either doing too much or too little,” she said. “It wasn’t necessarily that I didn’t have any dancing experience, but I was just homing in on who Selena was specifically onstage.”
Selena is remembered for her flamenco-influenced artistry. As a teenage girl, though, she gravitated toward mainstream American pop stars like Paula Abdul and Michael Jackson, and only discovered Spanish-language performers like Rocío Dúrcal later in life. By watching the series, Serratos said, fans will “learn so much more about her and the creative liberties she took. They’re also going to hear all these songs they’ve probably never heard before.”
Serratos related to Selena on a profound level—as a Mexican American woman, and as one actively trying to tap more deeply into her heritage. “[In certain scenes] Selena was a kid working on her Spanish, and I felt like I was working on mine. That felt completely honest,” she said. Shooting in cities like Rosarito and Tijuana also allowed Serratos to spend a year connecting with her grandparents’ homeland.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Serratos is a fan of the 1997 Selena movie. Zamora knows that his show will be compared to the film, but hopes that his team’s more comprehensive vision will set the series apart. It helps too that like the film, Selena: The Series also had the Quintanilla family’s involvement and blessing. Lopez, who was nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance, has also been supportive of this new iteration on social media.
Just as Nava’s movie did, Selena: The Series will also have to address the singer’s tragic death. Zamora says that her murder will be tactfully touched upon during the show’s second season, but not dwelt on. “We don’t want to focus on that tragic event because she was much more than that,” he explained. Production has already started on those subsequent episodes focusing on Selena’s prolific final years, during which she released her chart-topping studio albums Entre a Mi Mundo and Amor Prohibido, as well as the posthumous Dreaming of You. Before her life abruptly ended, “she was on the cusp of becoming the Mexican American Beyoncé,” Zamora said.
For Serratos, Selena’s legacy is untainted, despite the circumstances of her passing. “This story is about this very talented, very loved family[-oriented] woman, and the reality is that she was stolen from us,” the actor said. “But I just want people to watch this and see her and see how talented she was. She created something that will honestly last forever.”
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