How Selena Quintanilla Went From Music Icon to Deity

Star Tribune via Getty Images

Image Source: David Brewster / Star Tribune via Getty Images

As an East Coast Latina, I was a fan of Selena Quintanilla but didn’t realise how great her impact was on Latinx culture, especially Chicanos, and even more specifically Tejanos, until I witnessed how she was immortalised during a visit to San Antonio. I grew up in Connecticut and have lived in the New York City area for the last 22 years. So, of course, I was aware of Selena Quintanilla but didn’t really know her full story until the release of the 1997 biopic “Selena,” starring Jennifer Lopez. I mean, was I the only one?

While the movie gave me a deeper understanding of who she was and why she had such a big impact on pop culture and Latinx culture before and after her untimely death on March 31, 1995, I still wasn’t fully aware of the lasting impression Selena left on fans worldwide, and definitely in her home state of Texas.

During a visit to San Antonio in 2015, I visited a Mexican restaurant called Mi Tierra and was stunned to see a huge altar dedicated to Selena. Sure, we have altars for our ancestors and other things we recognise and worship, but this was more like a dedication and offering to a deity. Selena had been immortalised by her Tejano fans, and I wasn’t even in Corpus Christi, TX, where she grew up.

This restaurant reserved one corner for Selena. The altar was adorned with candles, flowers, and other offerings all around it from ceiling to floor. As people entered the restaurant, they would stop by the altar to give praise, as if attending a Sunday church service and kneeling before Jesus Christ at the entrance of the cathedral. I was mind-blown.

While I celebrate Selena’s achievements and the impact she made in her short lifetime, I wanted to understand what distinguished someone from an extraordinary human being to taking on that of an ascended master like Jesus Christ, Mother Mary, Vishnu, St. Germaine, or Buddha.

Selena was the optimal example of the power of seeing your reflection in a person of status and success. Latinas, especially those who are English-dominant like me, saw themselves in Selena. She was beautiful, smart, talented, funny, family-oriented, and a symbol of what perseverance, determination, and resilience can bring. Selena was a star! And for many, after she transitioned from her human life, she truly became a celestial being to be honored and praised far beyond her physical existence.

There’s a powerful beauty about it, really. While Selena’s grandiose altars may not be the norm for the average person who has passed, there are other examples of displays of worship for celebrities. Prince, Celia Cruz, and Biggie Smalls were all immortalised after their transitions through altars and murals across the United States and beyond. In downtown Jersey City, NJ, there’s a 180-foot mural of David Bowie adorned across one side of a skyscraper by Brazilian street artist Eduardo Kobra, whose works also include murals of John Lennon, Bob Dylan, and Abraham Lincoln.

These public displays of admiration and praise make sense to some degree, but what about noncelebrities who have changed the world in their own right? Would it not be beneficial for the world to also admire and praise them for their achievements and lasting impact on humanity? Or does something like an altar for Selena offer hope that there’s another Selena Quintanilla out there yet to be discovered?

The altar in that San Antonio restaurant felt to me like not only a way to immortalise Selena, but also a way to publicly display the heartache of losing her at such a young age to murder.

So, instead of the altars and other large public displays for Selena acting as sites of worship and honor of her untimely death, we can also have them symbolise the impact we can make in life in a short period of time.

While initially surprising, I do understand why these altars exist, but also recognise the layers of what they could mean. It’s praise and worship for a successful Latina who broke barriers in American music and as an entrepreneur. It’s also a physical reminder that when we live in our truth, revealing our true essence and unapologetically letting our light shine brightly, we immortalise ourselves. The things we did during our human journey leave a mark far beyond our last breath.

Selena Quintanilla’s heart still beats in the fans that keep her alive today in memory and public displays. Whether you agree that altars praising her like a deity are appropriate or not, she lived a life that inspired many to live their lives to the fullest by following their hearts, reaching for the stars, and learning to fly.

In the words of Selena herself, “The goal isn’t to live forever, but to create something that will.”

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