Joining pop culture icons like Madonna and Beyoncé, Tejano music legend Selena Quintanilla will be the subject of a first-of-its-kind course this coming fall at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
Students will study various aspects of Selena, the undisputed queen of Tejano music, in the class created by Sonya M. Alemán, Ph.D., an associate professor of Mexican American Studies in the university’s Race, Ethnicity, Gender and Sexuality Studies Department. The course is titled, “Selena: A Mexican American Identity and Experience.”
Alemán, a native of Cotulla, a community south of San Antonio, brings a unique and insightful mix of personal experiences and scholarly interest in Selena that make her background ideal as the first professor to teach a collegiate course in Texas about Selena.
In addition to seeing several of Selena’s performances, Alemán spent 11 years in Salt Lake City at the University of Utah, as a student and then, professor, where she experienced firsthand just how little mainstream America knew about the Mexican-American culture. Beyond the personal, Alemán has a passionate scholarly interest in how Selena’s life and career help articulate a deeper understanding of the Mexican-American perspective in Texas and beyond.
“Selena was my contemporary as a young adult,” Alemán said. “We were approximately the same age as she came into the peak of her career so I grew up in the height of the Tejano music industry.”
For Alemán, Selena and her career provide the perfect vehicle for an exploration of what it means to be a Mexican American and to straddle the borders of two cultures and all that entails.
“It doesn’t seem odd that we could sing an entire song in Spanish and maybe not know all the words but appreciate it, love it and then turn to our friend and have an entire conversation in English,” Alemán said. “I just think that’s a beautiful thing and (Selena) personified that. So I think there are rich, untapped opportunities to ask questions why, to better understand, and to not feel ashamed of that legacy.”
Eventually, Alemán hopes the course is one that could be taught by other professors in the department and sees the course evolving as there are so many aspects of Selena that warrant deeper study. A top priority, however, is to engage students and highlight the importance of the Mexican American culture.
“It’s a way to get students to realize that there’s beauty, value and knowledge from being Mexican American in this part of the world,” Alemán said. “There’s a history attached to it.”
Throughout her adult life, Alemán said she always related to Selena as they both dealt with crossing borders and barriers as Latinas.
“I kind of always carried her story as part of mine in terms of growing up, my memories of being a young adult, and being a Chicana,” Alemán said.
The idea of a course about Selena was not just a recent decision but one that Alemán has thought about and planned for over a span of years.
“Even when I was a professor in Salt Lake City at a predominately white campus with predominately white students, I thought wouldn’t it be so awesome to do a course that would center on (Selena’s) experience and that used her experience as a springboard to talk about what (Mexican-American) identity is like,” Alemán said.
While in Salt Lake City, Alemán remembers that for the first time in her life, she was the only Latina in her class and recalls how it “became clear to me how little people understood somebody like me.” As a South Texas native who earned her bachelor’s degree from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio and her master’s at the University of Texas at Austin, living in Utah was an eye-opener for Alemán.
She recalls questions about her language skills, such as how she managed to speak English so well and do so without an accent and says she felt shocked by the reality that mainstream America did not understand or know about the Mexican American culture.
“The community had no idea of what was like to be somebody like me and that there was another reality besides what you saw on television about who a Latina was or who a Chicana was,” Alemán said.
Alemán also recognizes how Selena’s story remains relevant even for younger generations who weren’t even born when Selena was alive.
“Something about her resonates with them so that’s what I want the course to try to explore as well because I do think that there are specific reasons for that that has to do with how little we see that image of ourselves,” Alemán said. “Chicanas in this part of the world and Tejanas in this part of the world celebrated and on a stage in that way that has a celebrity kind of status just doesn’t happen.”
To Alemán, if people think about Selena’s life as just a tragic one because she didn’t live to achieve her full crossover potential only overshadows all that Selena did accomplish in her brief life.
“That’s such a disservice to her actual career because she crossed borders all the time,” Alemán said. “She was a woman in a male-dominated industry. She took Tejano music outside of Texas and the U.S., internationally, which very few had done before her. And she did so as a non-native Spanish speaker so she had to overcome that barrier of being accepted in Spanish-speaking communities and countries who often looked down at those who have Latino heritage but aren’t fluent in the language. She had to do all of those things.”
Alemán said some of the specific topics that the course will explore include her music, language, Selena’s image and how it’s used, Selena’s body type and shape, and even a look into how superstar Jennifer Lopez’ career developed following her portrayal of Selena in the biopic.
“I want to do (the course) right for a number of reasons,” Alemán said. “One, because (Selena) deserves it, right? And there are so many people who have a connection to her.”
As Alemán prepares for the launch of the inaugural Selena course, she added: “I’m going to dream about it. I’m going to think about it all the time and really hope that we do right by her with this class.”
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