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This fall, a group of University of Texas at San Antonio students will be the first to take a new class examining the enduring legacy of Selena Quintanilla.
The new course, titled “Selena: A Mexican American Identity and Experience,” will be offered by the newly established Department of Race, Ethnicity, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (REGSS) in the university’s College of Education and Human Development.
The course’s creator and teacher is Sonya M. Alemán, an associate professor of Mexican American Studies. The class won’t so much cover the life and work of the beloved Queen of Tejano music – whose career, persona, and 1995 murder still loom large in the memories and imaginations of many in South Texas and beyond – as it will “invite people in who have an interest in her, and then use their fandom or affinity for her to engage issues around identity.”
The course will explore Selena’s role in the rising political consciousness of the Latino community, the formation of identity in relationship to the way Selena’s image is subtly manipulated, and the role that imagination and memory play in creating a sense of home and belonging.
Recalling a memorable line from the 1997 biopic Selena, Alemán said that Mexican Americans often feel pressured to be “more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans.”
“This course,” she said, “will tease apart why that is, what systems exist in which that was a reality then and a reality now for people who identify as Mexican-Americans.”
Alemán’s interest in Selena began in fandom, if not necessarily adoration. Growing up in Cotulla, just a few years younger than Selena herself, Alemán said that she loved Selena, but mostly because she loved Tejano music, a staple in her home from a young age.
She remembers having seen Selena five or six times in concert, including a show in San Antonio, while Alemán was an undergraduate at St. Mary’s University, just months before the young star’s untimely death.
Meanwhile, Alemán’s ambitions in academia go back at least as far as her affection for Tejano. She remembers a formative interaction with one of her mother’s friends, a “strong and exciting” Chicana who was pursuing a doctorate, stirring her academic passion at age 7.
“She just talked in a way that was really exciting to me,” Alemán said.
“She told me ‘not a lot of Chicanas have [a doctorate],’ so of course, I was like, ‘Oh, then I’m going to get one.’”
Barely knowing at the time what the endeavor would entail, she was insistent from that moment on that she would earn a doctoral degree.
“I didn’t really know what that was until she explained it, but I knew that she was talking about girls that looked like me,” Alemán said.
It wasn’t until many years later, however, that the threads of her interests, in academic study and in Selena, would intertwine.
Alemán said that she had the first vague notions of a course like this about 10 years ago, while teaching at the University of Utah, where she earned her doctorate in 2010 and taught in the Department of Communication and Ethnic Studies from 2010 to 2015.
She said her thinking about Selena began to shift from that of “a true fan of this regional music, someone who, in some ways, sees herself in someone like Selena … to someone with a scholarly interest … because what my academic journey led me to was to look at issues of race, class, and gender identity and the role that the media plays in helping shape how those identities are formed or how we picture those in our heads.”
Selena “can provide a very powerful entrée” into such identity studies, said Alemán, because of the enduring power of her image and persona.
Ever since she came back to Texas to teach at UTSA in 2015, Alemán has been refining her thinking about the course. Last fall, the inaugural semester for UTSA’s REGSS department, Alemán pitched the course and got approval to move ahead with it this fall.
Marco Cervantes, an associate professor of Mexican American Studies and the interim chair of the REGSS department, said that the course can serve as an intersectional point between the areas of focus in the department, a kind of “political and cultural overlap.”
“She is a global icon and treasured in Mexican American communities and by the world,” Cervantes said of Selena. “There is much to gain by reading and analyzing her style, music, performances, marketing strategy, language, identity, and more. She continues to transcend borders and generation gaps, and it helps to understand how and why.”
As far as what she hopes students will gain from this course, Alemán’s chief goal is that students “take away a deeper appreciation of their own identity.”
For Alemán, pop culture figures, especially those as beloved as Selena, are rather natural subjects for the kind of inquiry she is interested in.
“The academic conversations that I’m a part of very much recognize the impact and influence of pop culture,” she said. “We live in a media-saturated world, so we feel connected in an odd way to these names and faces. … We feel like we know them. … We have to realize the importance of trying to make sense of how those relationships occur.”