In 'Dreaming of You,' poet Melissa Lozada-Oliva reimagines Selena's legacy

Oct 24, 2021
Originally published on October 25, 2021 6:22 am

Selena Quintanilla-Pérez is having a moment — again.

Twenty-six years after her murder, the Tejano pop star's face still adorns T-shirts and hoodies. She's the subject of a new Netflix series and a podcast.

And now in a book by poet Melissa Lozada-Oliva, Selena is also coming back from the dead.

Dreaming of You is a new novel Lozada-Oliva describes as somewhat of a "rock opera" involving heartbreak, karaoke, celebrity worship and self-realization.

Lozada-Oliva talked with NPR's Asma Khalid on Weekend Edition about her early interest in Selena, her own identity, and imagining what would have happened if Selena had not been killed at a young age.

Interview Highlights

On being a fan of Selena and reflecting on her legacy

I think all of this kind of started with me trying to deconstruct it — what it meant for me to be a Selena fan. I feel like I grew up under the umbrella of her life, right after she died, and so much of being her fan was also wanting to look like her. And I remember just feeling so beautiful whenever I kind of looked like Selena. It's so weird, kind of falling in love with somebody and them being completely gone. And for me, something that really drew me to Selena is how she just fell in love so fast. How at the end of the day, kind of a lot like Princess Diana, actually, she was just this girl in love who was really innocent and giving.

I think today, for people looking back at her music, unfortunately, a lot of it is wrapped up in her tragic death. And I became really interested in: what if she lives, you know? Like what if she grew up and became older and problematic, and liked problematic tweets and made corny videos and made uncomfortable statements during tumultuous times? So she's forever stuck in this moment of being this 23-year-old girl who's extremely talented and beautiful, and it's almost like we love her there. And I don't know, that's weird.

On the main character, Melissa, and her quest to bring Selena back to life

She's having this identity crisis. She's really obsessed with being seen. She really is not feeling like enough and thinks that bringing back this pop star who she is obsessed with and mourning will somehow fix everything. Everyone's motives for bringing back someone to life are pretty messed up. I think generally, the consensus every time someone is resurrected, it's like — don't do it. She's just a woman who makes a decision, and that decision is a huge mistake. But in order to find out who she is, she feels like she has to do this.

On writing poems from the point-of-view of Yolanda Saldívar, the president of Selena's fan club who is serving a life sentence for the singer's murder

I still think the conversation about Yolanda Saldívar — who is a murderer — has been overwhelmingly not nuanced. So frequently I hear, "I am so happy that crazy lesbian is in jail." But I wanted to shine a complicated light on her, because it's too easy for us to be like, "OK, one is a hero, and one is a villain."

I think Yolanda and Selena for so long were — and [still are] — seen as this yin and yang, two forces of good and evil. And that's not true. They were just two women who were both deeply affected by patriarchy and acting as such.

On the messiness of Latinidad and representation

Because I came up as this Latina poet, I felt a lot of pressure to be this person that I wasn't or [to write] poetry that I didn't necessarily want to do. You know, I kind of just wanted to write horror stories. And these horror stories do inform my Latina identity and my intergenerational trauma, but I didn't want to be, like, capital R, "Representation Matters," because this is the thing about representation — sometimes it's not about being seen; it's about being sold. I don't want to do that with my art or my soul.

On growing up in Newton, Mass., and constructing an identity through Selena's music

I grew up in The Lake of Newton — which is often called the "armpit of Newton" — and it's a very Italian neighborhood. So my older sister is really responsible for my introduction to Selena. One of my first memories is her 13th birthday party, taking us to go see the Selena movie.

My mom didn't really let us out of the house because she was really afraid we would get kidnapped, so I became a writer because I had nothing to do. I'm writing a lot, and I also was watching the Selena movie over and over again and listening to Selena's songs. And then, you know, I think because Newton was so not diverse, I was clinging on to this image of the Latina of my life — who is Selena, who very much when we think of a Latina and what a Latina "should look like," we're thinking of Selena. I think that was a big, formative part of my identity. I'm also not Mexican, I'm not from Texas; my dad is from Colombia, my mom is from Guatemala. I didn't really come up like Selena, but I still saw so much of myself in her. But maybe just because I wanted to.

Isabella Gomez Sarmiento and Melissa Gray produced and edited the audio interview.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

Selena Quintanilla is having a moment again. Twenty-six years after her murder, the Tejano pop star's face adorns T-shirts and hoodies. She's the subject of a Netflix series and a podcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COMO LA FLOR")

SELENA QUINTANILLA-PEREZ: (Singing in Spanish).

KHALID: And now in a new book from Melissa Lozada-Oliva, Selena is coming back from the dead. "Dreaming Of You" is the new novel in verse by the poet and educator who joins us now from New York City. Welcome to the show, Melissa.

MELISSA LOZADA-OLIVA: Thank you for having me.

KHALID: So I have got to start by asking the obvious question. Is it fair to say that you are a Selena fan?

LOZADA-OLIVA: Yes, I am definitely a Selena fan.

KHALID: Tell me more.

LOZADA-OLIVA: Well, I mean, I think, yeah, all of this kind of started with me, like, trying to deconstruct, like, what it meant for me to be a Selena fan. I feel like I grew up, like, under the umbrella of her life right after she died. And so much of, like, being her fan was also, like, wanting to look like her. And I remember just feeling, like, so beautiful whenever I, like, kind of looked like Selena.

KHALID: And you're talking about, like, the big hoop earrings, the red lipstick...

LOZADA-OLIVA: Oh, yeah.

KHALID: ...The whole look, all of that, yes.

LOZADA-OLIVA: Yeah.

KHALID: So you are 29, right?

LOZADA-OLIVA: Mmm hmm.

KHALID: And because you are 29, I mean, that means that Selena has been dead for most of your life.

LOZADA-OLIVA: Yeah.

KHALID: And yet you've written this book all about her. So talk to us about what she means today to people who have no recollection of her music or her vibe from when she was actually alive - I mean, someone like yourself?

LOZADA-OLIVA: Yeah. I mean, it's so weird, like, kind of falling in love with somebody and them being completely gone. And it's so weird just having a person shape the way that you look at music and the world. And I think today, like, for people looking back at her music, unfortunately, a lot of it is wrapped up in her tragic death. And I became really interested in, like, what if she lived, you know? Like, what if she grew up and became older and problematic and liked problematic tweets and made corny videos and made, like, uncomfortable statements during tumultuous times? So she's forever stuck in this, like, moment of being this 23-year-old girl who's extremely talented and beautiful. And it's almost like we love her there. And, I don't know, that's weird.

KHALID: So I want to get to the book. Selena is a character in the book, but so are you.

LOZADA-OLIVA: Mmm hmm.

KHALID: So tell me about Melissa - the Melissa in the book. What is she going through, and how does she hope that resurrecting Selena will help?

LOZADA-OLIVA: She's having this, like, identity crisis. She's really obsessed with being seen. And, you know, she really is not feeling like enough and thinks that bringing back this pop star who she is obsessed with and mourning will somehow fix everything. Everyone's motives for bringing back someone to life, like, are pretty messed up. I think that, generally, like, the consensus - like, every time someone is resurrected, it's like, you know, don't do it (laughter). She's just, like, a woman who just, like, makes a decision. And that decision is, like, a huge mistake. But in order to find out who she is, she feels like she has to do this.

KHALID: Do you have the book in front of you?

LOZADA-OLIVA: I do.

KHALID: If we can go to Page 38...

LOZADA-OLIVA: Uh-huh, yeah.

KHALID: ...There's a section where you have a phrase in capital letters. Can you read that graph for us?

LOZADA-OLIVA: (Reading) In the future, I am not Spanish or Latina or LatinX. Instead, I am Hispaniced - -ed because past tense, because colonialism, as in my identity is something that happened to me. Panic to acknowledge crippling anxiety, LOL.

KHALID: I found that passage so interesting...

LOZADA-OLIVA: (Laughter).

KHALID: ...Because there are these moments when you're clearly engaging with contemporary discussions of identity. And it felt like there was this generational divide throughout the book. I mean, on one side, there's this '90s nostalgia for Selena.

LOZADA-OLIVA: Yeah.

KHALID: And then there's this very millennial - or maybe even I don't know if millennial is the right phrase, but younger even than millennial - tone with which you write about race and identity. And how do you balance those two dynamics throughout the book to find your own voice?

LOZADA-OLIVA: Yeah. I mean, because I came up as this, like, Latina poet, I felt a lot of pressure to kind of be this person that I wasn't or be doing - writing poetry that I didn't necessarily want to do. You know, I kind of just wanted to write, like, horror stories. And these horror stories, like, do inform my Latina identity and my intergenerational trauma, but I didn't want to be like capital R representation matters because, like, this is the thing about, like, representation is sometimes it's not about being seen; it's about being sold. And I - you know, I don't want to do that with, like, my art or my soul. You know, that passage is kind of just like a joke (laughter), but it also, like, sums up a lot of how I feel about the conversation with Latinidad. And, you know, you're not supposed to say Hispanic actually when you're talking about people with Latin American roots.

KHALID: When you say you're not supposed to, like, walk me through that, right? That is a conversation that people have been having.

LOZADA-OLIVA: Yeah. Well, I mean, Hispanic means, like, from Spain. But to say Hispaniced with a past tense is like acknowledging the colonizers that came to my parents' home countries. And to be like, OK, all of a sudden I'm, like, wrapped up in this messy ass thing that's been going on for 500 years, and I'm just in this body in New England (laughter) having, like, all of these memories inside of my body that I didn't ask for.

KHALID: I know the area that you're from quite well. I, myself, used to live in New England. You were raised in Newton, Mass., a suburb of Boston.

LOZADA-OLIVA: Mmm hmm.

KHALID: I was so struck by you talking about this obsession with Selena growing up in an area that, you know, let's be real, is not a particularly diverse part of the country.

LOZADA-OLIVA: Yeah, not at all. So I grew up in the Lake of Newton, which is often called, like, the armpit of Newton. It's a very Italian neighborhood. So my older sister is, like, really responsible for my introduction to Selena. One of my, like, first memories is her 13th birthday party, taking us to go see the Selena movie.

My mom didn't really, like, let us out of the house. I became, like, a writer because I had nothing to do. So I'm, like, writing a lot. And I also was, like, watching the Selena movie over and over again and listening to Selena songs. And then because Newton was so not diverse, I was, like, clinging on to this image of, like, the Latina of my life, who is Selena, who very much, like - when we think of a Latina and, like, what a Latina should quote-unquote "look like," we're thinking of Selena.

That was, like, a formative part of my identity. I'm also - you know, I'm not Mexican, I'm not from Texas. My dad is from Colombia. My mom is from Guatemala. So I think, really - I didn't really come up like Selena, but I still, like, saw so much of myself in her, but maybe just because I wanted to.

KHALID: That's Melissa Lozada-Oliva. Her new book is "Dreaming Of You." Thank you so much, Melissa.

LOZADA-OLIVA: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BIDI BIDI BOM BOM")

QUINTANILLA-PEREZ: (Singing in Spanish). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.