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Selena Quintanilla's Legacy in Memes

Creators on social media remember Selena Quintanilla using memes and digitally-altered photos of the Tex-Mex icon.
Creators on social media remember Selena Quintanilla using memes and digitally-altered photos of the Tex-Mex icon.

Mexican-American music icon Selena Quintanilla has been gone for more than a quarter century, but she's still living life to the fullest online thanks to dedicated fans on social media. Nearly 26 years after her tragic murder in 1995, the Recording Academy recognized Selena with a Lifetime Achievement Award during the 63rd Annual GRAMMY Awards on March 14. While the award looks back at what Selena achieved in her short lifetime, fans have helped Selena release new albums, speak out for social causes and even age gracefully thanks to memes and Photoshopped images shared on social media platforms unimaginable when she was alive.

A new podcast from WBUR and Futuro Studios called Anything for Selena takes a deeply-reported but also personal look into Selena’s legacy, including an entire episode on how the icon is remembered online. As host Maria Garcia puts it in an episode called “Selena and the Internet,” the Selena web is “a place with its own rules, its own norms, its own culture. It’s a textured place worth studying.” Breaking down “the Selena web” into 8 categories, Garcia explains what the meme-ification of Selena shows us about the singer’s lasting appeal and attempts to make sense of the void she left behind.

Along with interviews with Selena’s notoriously guarded father, Abraham Quintanilla, and featuring rare archive tape, Anything for Selena weaves the story of the singer’s rise to icon status with host Maria Garcia’s intimate story of finding her place in the world as a first-generation Mexican-American fronteriza. Garcia shows us how Selena’s music, beloved interviews and the 1997 Selena biopic starring a young Jennifer Lopez have become the inexhaustible source material of memes and digital content on Instagram, TikTok and Twitter.

1. Selena and Yolanda

A photo of Selena and her murderer Yolanda Saldívar has been remixed again and again to depict the battle of "good versus evil" in the eyes of meme creators.
A photo of Selena and her murderer Yolanda Saldívar has been remixed again and again to depict the battle of "good versus evil" in the eyes of meme creators.

A bittersweet meme for fans, this is the meme that keeps on giving. A picture of Selena with Yolanda Saldívar, the friend and fan club manager responsible for her murder, has become a standard template for many Selena memes. The stark black-and-white contrast provides the perfect backdrop for communicating anything meme creators see as a battle between good and evil, from “my plans” and the year 2020 to Latinos and Latino Trump supporters.

In this meme, Selena is a stand-in for Texans and Gov. Greg Abbott is represented by Selena's murderer. The meme circulated shortly after Abbott lifted the state's mask mandate and ordered Texas to open completely despite the ongoing public health crisis.
In this meme, Selena is a stand-in for Texans and Gov. Greg Abbott is represented by Selena's murderer. The meme circulated shortly after Abbott lifted the state's mask mandate and ordered Texas to open completely despite the ongoing public health crisis.

Far from just a funny (if also foreboding) meme, the continual remixing of this format to speak to issues of the day is a testament to fans' enduring devotion to the singer. Memes in this format are often political, despite Selena’s well-documented reticence in life to discuss her political views (she was a devout Jehovah’s Witness).

Another take on the popular format. Here, the meme is a commentary on the high percentage of Cuban-Americans in Florida who voted for Donald Trump in the 2020 election.
Another take on the popular format. Here, the meme is a commentary on the high percentage of Cuban-Americans in Florida who voted for Donald Trump in the 2020 election.

That fact hasn’t stopped fans on the right and left from claiming her to their side, vying for the validation that would come with Selena’s blessing and cultural clout. These memes also reveal how palpable contempt for Saldívar remains among Selena’s fans. Imprisoned in 1995 and eligible for parole in 2025, she frequently features elsewhere on “the Selena internet” as the eternal villain, portrayed alongside Latinx mythical monsters and demons like El Cucuy and La Llorona.

2. Social justice memes

A scene from the 1997 Selena biopic starring Jennifer Lopez is remixed with a social justice message.
A scene from the 1997 Selena biopic starring Jennifer Lopez is remixed with a social justice message.

Selena’s image has also been mobilized for social causes, both online and in real life. Held up in life and death as a role model and vanguard for Latinx representation and visibility, Selena’s image and music has been recruited by social justice causes like Selena for Sanctuary, a benefit concert series to raise funds for immigrant advocacy. In Anything for Selena, host Maria Garcia ponders this impulse to connect Selena to today’s social movements, wondering, “Would she have spoken up for Black Lives Matter? In defense of kids in cages?” While we’ll never know, that hasn’t prevented meme creators from imagining that she would.

One of the most-quoted lines from the 1997 movie was inspiration for this meme.
One of the most-quoted lines from the 1997 movie was inspiration for this meme.

This is best illustrated by Selena memes that went viral on Instagram in summer 2020 on the now-defunct account SelenaYLosDichos. In an interview, co-creator Vicente Garcia said he was inspired to link Selena to social justice after the George Floyd protests meant he and others were fighting against racial justice and police brutality all during a pandemic. “It’s exhausting,” he said, paralleling one of the most-quoted lines from the 1997 Selena biopic in which Selena’s father Abraham says, “We have to be more Mexican than the Mexicans, more American than the Americans, both at the same time. It’s exhausting!”

3. Remixing old photos

Fans frequently take portraits from classic Selena photoshoots and re-imagine them as artwork for imaginary new albums.
Fans frequently take portraits from classic Selena photoshoots and re-imagine them as artwork for imaginary new albums.

While some of the biggest Selena fan accounts on platforms like Instagram strive to serve more as digital archives of every Selena photo ever taken, others take it upon themselves to remix old content. Given that Selena lived only 23 years, and was a beloved, well-documented public figure for less than half of that time, Selena fans contend with the fact that at some point they will have seen every photoshoot, every interview, every ad, and every music video blooper. Thankfully, given the singer’s timelessness and the fact that a new generation of fans is discovering her online and passed down through their OG-Selena-fan parents like cultural heritage, new content is always cropping up.

A Selena photo edited to take the singer from Texas to Paris.
A Selena photo edited to take the singer from Texas to Paris.

Remixed again and again from available source material from the 80s and 90s, Photoshop-assisted memes help fans imagine alternative album covers (some with explicit content labels!) and concert appearances in international destinations Selena never had the chance to see.

4. Selena memes that imagine, "what if?"

Here, Selena is on the cover of an imaginary issue of People, reflecting on her career "10 years after her retirement."
Here, Selena is on the cover of an imaginary issue of People, reflecting on her career "10 years after her retirement."
Selena imagined at the 2019 Billboard Music Festival with a modern hairstyle.
Selena imagined at the 2019 Billboard Music Festival with a modern hairstyle.

Perhaps the memes and images that take the most dedication are also the ones that are most poignant and heart-wrenching. This category of Selena internet content attempts to fill the void Selena left behind, and lets fans imagine what should have been. From Photoshopping Selena into a graying viejita looking back at her career on an imaginary cover of People, to editing photos of Selena and her husband Chris Perez with the family they didn’t get to have, this category takes the most skill to create—and the most heart. Others, however, have taken a more light-hearted approach, like these Tweets that predict a world where Selena was never taken away before her time would be a utopia complete with flying cars and futuristic cities.

Want to learn more about the other 4 major categories of Selena memes? Check out Anything for Selena out now on Apple Podcasts.

Related:

Kristin Torres Twitter Associate Producer
Kristin Torres is an associate producer in WBUR’s podcast unit.

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