It took 25 years, but late musical icon Selena Quintanilla now has a Texas college course exploring her life and career. Beginning fall 2020, the University of Texas at San Antonio will begin offering Selena: A Mexican American Identity and Experience. The course will employ the pop star’s image, use of language, and the media coverage surrounding her career and death to map out the historical trajectory of Tejana/o Mexican-Americans in Texas.
“When I got to UTSA five years ago, I was surprised that someone hadn't already done a class like this,” says the course’s instructor, Dr. Sonya M. Aleman, associate professor of Mexican American studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
“To me, it makes perfect sense that there would be [a class] where Selena's the springboard to talk about issues of representation, identity, and race and racialization. “
Though complex and far-reaching, Aleman believes the course’s focus is best encapsulated by an iconic line from the 1997 biopic Selena starring Jennifer Lopez. In the film, actor Edward James Olmos, portraying Quintanilla’s father, Abraham, laments that Mexican Americans have to be “twice as perfect as anybody else.”
“We got to be more Mexican than the Mexicans,” Abraham says in the movie, “and more American than the Americans, both at the same time!”
Aleman expands on this idea, saying: “The experiences that come from being bicultural, bilingual ... blending those two and being something else — a third hybrid option — deserves to be studied as much as any other subject."
Originally from Cotulla, Texas, the academic believes San Antonio is the ideal city to host her course. “Here’s a place Selena was rooted in, a place that shaped her, uplifted and supported her going international."
However, that doesn’t mean students are guaranteed an easy A. “In returning to UTSA, I see students who have not had the opportunity to engage in any kind of Mexican American Studies curriculum through their K through 12 [education]," says the professor. "My hope is for students to transfer the love they have for Selena into a better appreciation for their own identity and the history of struggle that their community is rooted in.”
Aleman views her upcoming class as the flagship course for UTSA’s newly established Race, Ethnicity, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department, which will begin its second academic year as an officially recognized department this fall.
“I see the Selena course as advocating for the value my discipline produces,” she says. “Look to the current moment. These conversations we’re now having about police brutality rooted in racial profiling. Our society hasn’t equipped itself to deal with these issues. Departments like mine are places where students can get the language and know-how, and have the context for why these movements happen. For me, Selena is the perfect kind of starting point.”