I don’t think there are words to accurately describe the impact Selena Quintanilla had on my life. She was Tejana like me. Selena didn’t speak Spanish fluently, like me. She was an icon within my community that shattered glass ceilings and graced our offrendas during Dia de Muertos. For many Mexican Americans, her story is vital to our own. Those are the reasons why I was initially excited for Selena: The Series. And it’s those reasons that I wish it was so much more.
Selena: The Series is a Netflix Original biographical series that brings us through Selena Quintanilla’s life, created by Moisés Zamora. We begin in Lake Jackson, TX, and over the course of nine episodes, we see Selena (Christian Serratos) and her family rise to stardom. We see them move from a small-time band playing in their father’s restaurant to a band with a gold album, a record deal, and climbing the Billboard charts. Selena: The Series was always going to carry the burden of representing an icon and competing with a beloved film, but one way it stands out is by choosing to tell elements of Selena’s journey that hasn’t been focused on in media before.
The opening of the series is its strongest. Focused on their life when they were children and just starting out, Madison Taylor Baez as young Selena is perfection. She has charisma and joy that helps the opening episodes come in extremely strong. The same can be said for Juan Martinez and Daniela Estrada who play young A.B. and Suzette respectively. The series shows more of the childhoods in the Quintanilla family and as it transitions to Selena’s teen years, the strength is maintained before it begins to wane as they go on tour.
The series as a whole is a story about the Quintanilla family and with nine episodes and a part two already in development, this makes sense. Additionally, Noemi Gonzalez and Gabriel Chavarria who play Suzette and AB respectively do an amazing job in their roles. While Ricardo Chavira as Abraham Quintanilla, Selena’s father, has the lion’s share of moving forward the series’ narrative, he is up to the task. But in making the series more about the world Selena is living in, we lose the importance of the character herself. This isn’t a Selena series at heart. It’s a Quintanilla family series, and while that’s okay, Selena becoming an inconsequential character in something that carries her name is frustrating.
While Selena: The Series does a good job with its extended cast, creating a series set in the 1970s and 1980s is a hurdle that it doesn’t clear. Ultimately the series misses big when it comes to costuming. From ill-fitting period outfits to wigs that make you double-take, it’s frustrating, especially coming from a platform that has produced series like GLOW and Stranger Things that nail the time periods’ aesthetics. But the largest missteps is in Selena’s outfits.
In replicating some of her iconic looks, the series nails some looks, particularly those photographed for her album covers. But it misses large on many of her concert outfits. How you may ask? The bustiers. Instead of showcasing beadwork and the stylization that Selena was known for, the costume designers on this series choose plain lace bras that are clearly lingerie and not meant to wear as costumes. The reason that this is a huge misstep is that Selena sewed and beaded much of her costuming and poured love to them. Instead, we’re given basic bras that don’t highlight Selena’s skill and make the costumes Serratos is wearing seem cheap. This is even more apparent when the series aims to redo some of the iconic scenes from the 1997 movie.
But of all of its failings, Serratos as Selena is the worst. I understand that playing Selena is no small task. That said, Serratos had to change herself greatly to play Selena in this series and this makes me question why she was cast. Her very thin frame slims Selena down significantly. But to offset this, there is a clear use of padding for her thighs and butt, leaving her to look like a caricature of Selena instead of the Queen of Tejano who was known for her curves. Further, Serratos alternates through three speaking voices.
The first is an obvious attempt at Jennifer Lopez’s voice in the iconic 1997 eponymous film where she played La Reina. The second is an attempt at Selena’s genuine speaking voice. The third is an unrecognizable Texas twang that I can say I have heard no Mexican Americans in my community speak with—I’m from Central Texas. This is accentuated when we hear Selena’s songs, which were authentic. The lip-synching is frustrating mainly because nothing that Serratos brings to the character resonates with Selena’s real voice nor look. Additionally, to accommodate Selena’s ever-evolving style, Serratos wears a number of wigs that don’t clear any bar. From short and curly to full and long, all of the wigs that Serratos wears feel too heavy for her petite frame.
While I try not to critique looks when it comes to actors and the roles they’re portraying, Serrato’s transformation into Selena and her casting itself must be pointed out because it removes much of Selena’s ethnic features and essentially calms her aesthetic to the point that she fades into the background of every scene. Effectively, by choosing to thin this version of Selena down, and to choose a lighter-skinned actress, the series whitewashes Selena to makes her more in line with a beauty standard that privileges whiteness and discards anything remotely Latina.
It detaches her from her Mexican American identity and the physical features we see in ourselves. This version of Selena conforms to a beauty standard by not accurately representing her voice, her speech, and her loud energetic presence. Instead of smashing through stereotypical beauty this series kowtows and thus ignores Selena’s impact on the fashion industry and our culture. Serrato’s Selena is on auto-pilot and ready to be packed and sold to non-Latinx viewers.
Selena in this series is docile. She isn’t boisterous or charismatic. Serratos and her thin frame in visible padding shrink even in scenes where she is supposed to be centered. In some performance scenes, she is dwarfed by Julio Macias’s character Pete Astudillo. She fades into the background in a story about her life and that is the most devastating disappointment of the series. This is further exaggerated by the show’s forced focus on her father Abraham. Desperate to paint him as an intelligent leader who made all the right decisions, it misses Selena’s struggles to focus on his.
While the story of her father is important to her story overall, it’s widely recorded that it wasn’t as happy as it’s portrayed in the series. In fact, Selena’s story comes second in almost every way to the men that surround her, with A.B. and Abraham taking center stage and Selena becoming a doll that’s just moving through her own story. The men in this series shine at Selena’s expense.
In truth, I am desperately trying to find good things to say about this series. Selena is not only one of my favorite singers, but she was monumental in my life. As a young girl, learning about Selena’s life and career was a way for me to see that you could make something of yourself. With the biopic, I got to see that Selena, a Tejana like me, was worthy of having her story told. I wanted another generation of young girls in Texas to see this series and find that inspiration. But instead, I’ll suggest they just watch the film.
Selena: The Series is the largest let down of 2020. It took a larger than life personality and made her into a mousey character whose moments of strength are fleeting and who’s famous smile is nearly nonexistent. This series is painfully mediocre and while not every Latinx story in media has to be perfect, taking the story of an icon and presenting it in the calmest way misses every reason why people are still inspired by La Reina today. The fact that the series seemed more focused on padding Serrato’s body than capturing Selena’s joy, energy, and power speaks volumes from the male team behind the series. If you’re looking to show someone a snapshot into Selena Quintanilla’s life, show them 1997’s Selena instead.
Selena: The Series Part 1 and Part 2 are available exclusively on Netflix.
Selena: The Series Part 1
Selena: The Series is the largest let down of 2020. It took a larger than life personality and made her into a mousey character whose moments of strength are fleeting and who’s famous smile is nearly nonexistent. This series is painfully mediocre and while not every Latinx story in media has to be perfect, taking the story of an icon and presenting it in the calmest way misses every reason why people are still inspired by La Reina today. The fact that the series seemed more focused on padding Serrato’s body and not capturing Selena’s joy, energy, and power speaks volumes from the male team behind the series. If you’re looking to show someone a snapshot into Selena Quintanilla’s life, show them 1997’s Selena instead.
Kate Sánchez is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of But Why Tho? A Geek Community. There, she coordinates film, television, anime, and manga coverage. Kate is also a freelance journalist writing features on video games, anime, and film. Her focus as a critic is championing animation and international films and television series for inclusion in awards cycles.