Welcome to Cancionero Latino, a new column in which we discuss the hits that shaped the History of Latin Pop and their contribution to the evolution of our musical culture. For our first installment, we talk about the absolute queen of Tejano music, Selena Quintanilla, and her timeless classic “Como La Flor”.
Being Mexican-American is tough … We got to be twice as perfect as everybody else! … Our family has been here for centuries, and yet they treat us as if we just swam across the Rio Grande. I mean we got to know about John Wayne and Pedro Infante. We got to know about Frank Sinatra and Agustín Lara. We got to know about Oprah and Cristina! … Japanese-Americans, Italian-Americans, German-Americans: their homeland is on the other side of the ocean. Ours is right next door… and we have to prove to the Mexicans how Mexican we are, we got to prove to the Americans how American we are. We got to be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans. Both at the same time! It’s exhausting! Damn, nobody knows how tough it is to be Mexican-American!
That quote is from the 1996 biopic Selena, starring Jennifer Lopez as the legendary titular character, but it’s a piece of wisdom that rings true to every immigrant community. Latinos have our set of cultural heroes — those artists, athletes or politicians whose mainstream appeal transcends their culture of origin, and act as our official representatives at the same time — yet, we still have to view them in relation to their (White) American counterparts. Selena Quintanilla was, and still is, our queen, not only because she achieved a level of success in the Regional Mexican scene that was unparalleled at the time, having conquered Mexicans on both sides of the Río Grande/Río Bravo, but because she broke the gender barrier, being a powerful woman in a business dominated by men, right in the middle of the culture of machismo itself. Even better, she had the tunes to back it all up.
“Como la Flor” was the song that started it all. After a very successful first couple of records, the 1992 release of Entre a Mi Mundo brought her into a whole new audience of Spanish-speaking listeners, and this song’s release as a single accomplished what was seemingly impossible for a woman, a Tejana, and a Mexican-American in general: The coveted #1 spot in Mexico’s Grupero charts. “Como La Flor” turned a regional style and made it International overnight. The song itself was written by Selena’s brother and creative director A.B Quintanilla III, and Pete Astudillo. It is a romantic cumbia norteña that tells the story of a relationship falling apart, comparing it to a flower that slowly withers. What makes it so special is the way that it centers on melody, Selena’s voice always front-and-center; the call-and-response hook and the chord progression have a certain 60’s feel (no surprise, considering the Quintanilla family’s deep love for girl-groups) and there’s a pop sensibility all throughout the track, but it’s the refrain “ah, ah, ay, cómo me duele” what connected with everyone. It honors that tradition of joyful lamentations that we can find in Mexican music, and the melodic line is catchy enough to be sung in stadiums around the world. It is instantly anthemic.
Selena tragically died at the age of 23, on March 31st, 1995, at the hands of the leader of her fan club, Yolanda Saldívar. It was a promising career cut short since she was already working on her debut English-speaking album, with the crossover in mind, but her contributions to the Latino music world opened the door for a new generation of stars to follow, some of them actually managing to cross over to mainstream America. Without her, musically, there’d be no Ana Bárbara, no Alicia Villareal, no Jenni Rivera; without the critical and commercial acclaim of a Latina like her, the industry wouldn’t trust a Ricky Martin or a Shakira to try their luck in the broader American market, and yes, without that aforementioned movie on the Tejano legend’s life, there’d be no J-Lo. Let’s acknowledge such a legacy; it’s important in our fight for representation.