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American Pie

Culture-watcher Himilce Novas on Selena and the Mexican-American dream

By David Templeton


Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This time out, he sends noted author and lecturer Himilce Novas to see the reverential new bio-pic Selena.

Though its initial box-office blaze has dwindled somewhat since its bright debut a few weeks back (15.6 million the first weekend; 6.1 the next), the charming biographical film Selena continues to be greeted by its audience with a sense of reverence and enthusiasm usually reserved for major cultural events.

Which--of course--it is.

Selena Quintanilla Perez was the dynamic, Grammy-winning Tejano singer from Texas who electrified the nation's Mexican-American community and was on the verge of crossover success when she was murdered at the age of 23. As a representative of a significant portion of the country's population--a group woefully underrepresented on the big screen--Selena has become a symbol of the dreams and promises of all Americans, Latino and otherwise.

The audience with which I saw Selena was full of families--huge families, 10 or 15 people strong, from babies to grandparents--many dressed up as if for church. For many, it is clear, Selena is more than just a movie.

"I met Selena," says author Himilce Novas, speaking on the phone from her Santa Barbara home, where she saw the film the night before. "She was a natural stage person. And she was inordinately strong."

Novas is the author of numerous books on multicultural issues, with an emphasis on Latino culture (Bananas, Mangoes, and Coconuts: a Cuban Love Story; Everything You Need to Know About Latino History; Everything You Need to Know About Asian-American History; and The Hispanic 100). She has also written two biographies: Secada! (Penguin Books, 1997), and Remembering Selena: A Tribute in Pictures and Words (St. Martin's Press, 1995). She is a popular lecturer, hosts her own radio program (The Novas Report, KQSB 990-AM, and in RealAudio on the web).

According to Novas, Selena--the movie--though successful on the basis of its subject's undeniable charm, is perhaps a bit too reverential, suffering from the possessive involvement of Selena's father, Abraham Quintanilla.

"Honestly, is she a saint yet or what?" she laughs. "Is it fair to make her seem so spotless? Do we really believe she kept that figure on a diet of pizza? That she didn't go to Mexico twice a year for liposuction treatment? Every performer does that. What's to be ashamed of?"

Though the movie is less than frank as a biography, Novas agrees that Selena's event-status is justified.

"I was sitting there, watching this movie," she tells me, "thinking, 'how many times do some people sitting in this theater get to see people who look like them, playing parts in movies other than maids, killers, or cocaine-sniffing drug addicts in East L.A.? That, I think is tremendous. To see your own face on the screen, to see your culture represented, is a very powerful thing."

In the film, Selena (well played by Jennifer Lopez) is lectured by her father (Edward James Olmos) on the difficulties of being Mexican and American. "We have to speak perfect English or the whites think we just came over the border," he says. "And we have to speak perfect Spanish or the Mexicans look down on us. We have to be twice as perfect as anyone else."

"I think it's a very interesting piece of information for those who've never thought of that, people who just think of Mexican-Americans as Mexicans," Novas observes. "I think the point that they tried to make--that these people are Americans, that they've been here for many generations, sometimes for more generations than European-Americans who are considered truly American--that's true, and it's important that it be said.

"Selena was very important to the Mexican-Americans, because she struggled and rose above all that. She's a wonderful role model. She was beautiful, she was talented, and, as an American, she insisted that she was entitled to the American pie."

The singer was also important to the Tejano form of music that catapulted her to fame.

"It really took off because of her," Novas says. "She was able to take Tejano music and force it three notches up by not being afraid to introduce other influences, Latin and Caribbean sounds.

"The real Tejano music is a cross between ballads--which are called corridos--and it's that German influence, the Texas polka feel. Corridos are folk songs that have been traditional in Mexico for centuries, songs that tell a story. They were used instead of the radio to communicate news and information. For instance, when JFK died there were hundreds of corridos written. It's a beautiful musical form, and it continues today. The Tejano music has a lot of the corrido feeling to it.

"Selena's importance goes beyond that, though," she continues. "She was important in bringing different groups of Latinos together. She did not belong only to the Mexican-Americans anymore. Now she's every Latino's."

Selena's growing popularity illuminates another point: that American tastes are changing to reflect the influences of an expanding minority base.

"The numbers speak for themselves," Novas confirms. "By the year 2000, Latinos will be the largest single minority in this country. And by the year 2025, if the present demographic trends continue--which they will--one out of every three Americans will be Latino.

"There's you, me, and someone else, and one of us is a Latino. Imagine that. In fact, the entire Social Security system will be supported by these people. Because they will be the workforce. You can't help but see it. Go to the supermarkets. Look up and down the aisles. Our taste in food is changing. Everybody is eating hot these days.

"We talk about the great American novel," Novas laughs. "I always say that the great American novel of the 21st century will probably be an ethnic novel. Just you watch and see if it isn't."

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From the April 10-16, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent

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