I have very vivid childhood memories, and like most Mexican-American girls who grew up in the 90s in South Texas, many of those memories involved Selena Quintanilla. Selena was the soundtrack to my childhood, and was ever-present.
She was there when we had 10 play cousins crammed in a car meant for five (but we were small, so we could fit), singing bidi bidi bom bom. She was there when I was feeling brave one day, and pulled my shirt above my belly to look more like Selena. She was not there, coincidentally, when I was getting punished by my parents for doing that…nevertheless she was there during the happiest moments of my life – when I was laughing, pretending, singing, and dancing – being free. I saw Selena as confident, beautiful, funny, kind, and talented…and when was a kid, I wanted to grow up to be just like her.
However important Selena was to my childhood, she has become even more important to my adulthood. She helped shape, along with my mother and grandmother, images of what it meant to be a Mexican, Mexican-American, Tejana, Chicana woman – beautiful, kind, and capable. When I reached high school and college, I started to realize that the words I identified with being Mexican were not the words that the outside world, in particular educators and educational institutions, used to identify me. I was seen as: Low-income, underserved, underprivileged, at-risk, remedial, urban, qualified for free and reduced lunch – a minority. Y’all know the terms.
These educators, however well-intentioned, led with my deficits, and I believed them. I lost my confidence and sense of belonging. I no longer twirled, whirled and danced my way into spaces as I did when I was a child. Rather, I peered in, stood to the side, and restrained the sway of my hips as I walked into academic and professional settings. It was emotionally exhausting keeping it together like that; it took a toll on me. It was hard, and not sustainable. Then one day, Selena made a come back in my life. Big time.
I’m in a tiny New York City apartment, pacing the length of my small kitchen, which is just about six feet, in anticipation of my Fulbright interview with the selection committee in Mexico City. Minutes before I’m scheduled to hop on my Skype call with the selection committee, my roommate comes into the kitchen. She is worried about the pacing. She tells me I need to relax. As if possessed by some divine being, she knows exactly what to do in this situation. She turns on Selena and tells me to dance. And before I know it, I’m dancing. Then I’m singing, “Bidibidibombom.” Then I’m chanting, “Yo soy Selena…Yo soy Selena, Yo soy Selena!” I crushed the interview.
Since then, I’ve always pulled on Selena when times get tough and for personal inspiration. Her music and memory are like personal affirmations of my existence and worth in this world. So what keeps me going when my work gets hard? Selena. Even though I chant “Yo Soy Selena” to myself often. I know I’m not Selena. Not even close. What I’m really saying is: I’m strong, I’m powerful, I’m kind, I’m magical, I can do this, Let’s have fun.