Telling (or retelling) the story of the life of Selena Quintanilla-Pérez in a limited series would be a daunting task for even the most seasoned TV producers—the late singer-songwriter and fashion designer, dubbed the Queen Of Tejano, remains a beloved Latinx icon 25 years after her death. Not to mention that Selena’s rise to super-stardom and creative independence was previously captured with great affection in 1997’s Selena, which saw Jennifer Lopez overcome an initial wave of doubt to portray the genre-fusing artist to nearly universal acclaim. Any new endeavor would operate in the long shadows cast by the singer’s legacy and Lopez’s performance.
But first-time showrunner and TV creator Moisés Zamora is undeterred about his imagining of Selena’s and the Quintanilla family’s early years in Selena: The Series. The American Crime and Star alum executive-produced the series along with Campanario Entertainment’s Jaime Dávila, in addition to writing several episodes. So he knows better than just about anyone what challenges the limited series, starring Christian Serratos as the “Tejano Madonna,” will have to overcome—the memory of Nava’s film, the glut of programming, as well as the “Netflix bloat” that even the most succinct storytellers have trouble avoiding. Zamora is confident that his series will be a “breath of fresh air” for viewers mired in darker dramas, as well as Latinx audiences eager for intimate and relatable storytelling (and just about anything of the non-cartel variety.)
The A.V. Club spoke with Zamora in November about seeking out the untold chapters in Selena’s history, bringing a relatable yet one-of-a-kind Latinx family to a TV landscape mostly bereft of them, and why he’s always connected to Selena’s rancheras and dramatic flair.
The A.V. Club: How did you come to collaborate with Campanario Entertainment and Netflix on the show?
Moisés Zamora: I knew how important Selena’s story was—not just for me, but for a lot of Latinos in the United States and Latin America—and how her legacy goes on. I gathered as much research as possible to construct what the vision for the show would be and met with [Campanario]. It was a two-hour meeting, but it wasn’t supposed to be that long. [Laughs.] But I more or less pitched the vision of the show. They got to know me and realized how thoroughly I knew Selena’s trajectory and career. I got the job the next day. Then I put together a pitch deck with beautiful images and organized the logline, characters, and ideas for season one and season two. We flew to meet with the family, and they approved the wholesome, inspirational approach to their story and Selena’s life. That same pitch deck also ended up in the hands of Netflix.
AVC: Something that’s nearly as well known as Selena’s music is how very protective her family is of her image and her legacy. The breadth of the show meant you would need access to things that previously might not have come to light or people might not have been aware of. How did you approach working with the Quintanilla family and getting that kind of unprecedented access?
MZ: Well, we knew that if we wanted the family on board, we had to work with them. This is a story they want to put out there because they want to focus on the positivity of what Selena’s life was, not so much the tragedy itself. I always thought, and based on what I researched and discovered about the Quintanilla family, is that it’s a very inspiring American dream story: their struggles, all the things that had to do and overcome in order to pursue that music dream. I always wanted to focus on that. And I think that’s what made them really buy into this series, is that they also wanted that. Frankly, there was so much story we could have told from the early years, but you only have so much time—you have to cut it down in order to get to certain places sooner. It’s always challenging to write a story about people that are still living and communicate to the family. Because you want to create something compelling, but also stay true enough and authentic to what really happened.
A lot of what you see on the screen really did happen, from the peach cans to the way that they would target certain shows. We did our best to be as authentic as possible, to match the spirit of Selena. She was really sweet and compassionate, and she held those values throughout her life. I do feel that’s why she is still loved, because she was that kind of authentic, genuine person while being a superstar—just a regular woman with dreams.
AVC: How did you go about finding your Selena for the show? Talk about a tough role to cast.
MZ: We knew that whoever was going to take this on, it would be a lot of pressure. Jennifer Lopez did an incredible, beautiful job in the film. And it’s a big part! I had met Christian Serratos at a lunch that was set up by a friend shortly after the announcement was made that this was happening, and she was wonderful. I was familiar with her work already—I always thought she was very talented, especially on The Walking Dead. So when she showed up, she had her hair pulled back and had on some red lipstick, and I was like “Mm-hmm [affirmative] okay, I know what she’s doing.” [Laughs.] But it was just incredible to really get to know her, because she did have also that spark that Selena had, that sort of genuine sincerity. I thought she might be a great choice to play Selena, and I met with the producers and the director to talk about that possibility. But everyone had agreed that we needed to go through a very rigorous casting process in order to make sure that whoever plays this iconic role was a right person. And Christian worked her butt off. She gave it all, 150%, and she’s so talented and professional that toward the end, when it had been narrowed down to a few, she just killed it. She touched everyone in that audition room, a few tears were shed. I’m not going to lie. She earned that. She came out guns blazing, and she got the role and she just started dancing. I am so proud and I admire her work. She’s a true professional, very talented.
AVC: Along with Christian’s performance, the writing and the direction helped mold this version of Selena. You wrote a few episodes, but what’s the make-up of the rest of your team? I believe I saw that Hiromi Kamata is one of the directors in this first half of the season.
MZ: The intention originally was to recruit a few directors. We had agreed from the get-go that it had to be a Latina director—as a Latino man, I knew we needed to have that Latina female voice present and be part of the process, that the writers in the room were majority women and the directors, too—we needed to make sure that we were really paying attention to that. But Hiromi Kamata came in very passionate about this work and creating the directorial vision for it. And it just turned out that she directed actually 75% of the episodes of the entire series. So without really planning for it, she essentially became a series director. There’s another director that directed three episodes, a Latina director, Katina Moreno. But Hiromi’s a machine, just incredible. She took on that whole project herself, and we were happy with that, because you can see that there’s a consistency that came very naturally for her and for Christian and the cast. It was wonderful to have Hiromi as a partner.
AVC: With a lot of biopics or biographical dramas, the approach can be to focus on the “greatest hits”—a highlight reel with some early childhood moments. But this show feels much more like a family drama. There’s so much space given to the rest of the family members. Did you always plan to approach the story as more of an ensemble?
MZ: You’re right that it’s mostly an ensemble family drama, at least for this first part, because it was very important to show how Selena was actually a part of a bigger kind of endeavor. She was 11 when they started going on the road and doing those gigs. So a lot of times, even though she did love the work, it was the father [Abraham Quintanilla] that was making those choices because he had had the same dream for himself when he was younger. Early on, her success comes from working with her brother, who’s writing the songs and producing the music, and her sister Suzette, who plays drums and is her best friend. Their dad was the manager, and their mom was the emotional pillar for the whole family. It is definitely a family drama, a group effort—they achieved their dream collectively. We wanted to show that it started as a family thing, and then eventually get to the place where Selena comes into her own and has the power to create her own destiny and career.
AVC: You mentioned already being really familiar with Selena’s story when you started working on the show. Was there a particular performance or event that you were really excited about including in your series?
MZ: Well, yes, but we’re not there yet. [Laughs.] There are two songs where it was really cool to explore how they came about or how they were produced—the inspiration behind them. The first part of the season gradually explains how “Como La Flor” came about. It was inspired by a little girl that was selling those light-up roses. To me, those moments and really specific facts about how the songs were produced, they’re really wonderful to tell because they come with a lot of emotion. There’s another song that will come later—“Bidi Bidi Bom Bom.” And the title is sort of the sound that a heart makes when you’re in love. It’s kind of a made-up word, in an onomatopoeia sense, and the way that came about also was to me wonderful. It was happenstance, but at the same time, it was such a creative, genius way of putting it together. Those kinds of things really excite me as part of this story and learning the little facts.
AVC: I can’t think of any other way to phrase this except to say that I’m very excited about the number of Mexican Americans in the cast of a show about a Mexican American family, set in places like Texas and California. It’s still a rare occurrence in Hollywood productions.
MZ: Yeah, that’s why I was thrilled to be part of this. It’s life-changing for me, because it gives me and the many other people that have worked on this project an opportunity to see ourselves in a different light and context, but also to embrace the story as their own, because our dreams as Mexican Americans and Latinx people are also American dreams. They’re a part of the fabric of this country or we’ve been, and that is the best type of project you could ask for.
AVC: There’s a moment in the series where Abraham tells Selena that she represents two cultures, two countries, and two languages that echoes that memorable press conference scene from Gregory Nava’s film. Selena’s first crossover success was in moving from an English-speaking context to a primarily Spanish-language one. That resonates on multiple levels, because there’s this idea that you have to learn a part of your culture. But the fact that she was positioned as a crossover artist in the first place, despite being Mexican American and steeped in English-language pop and rock music, is also very telling.
MZ: Absolutely. I think you’re 100% right about making that distinction. By the time she was crossing over to English, she probably had crossed over many more margins. She crossed over into Mexico. That’s the biggest crossover, the first crossover when she started growing a huge fan base across the border in Mexico. The second probably would be Latin America—you’ll see that later in the series. And then of course the ultimate one, which is the mainstream America. But at the same time, we didn’t want to shy away from the fact that she was an American teen, listening to Janet Jackson and Jody Watley. She also grew up with Spanish music because her dad used to sing in a band. I think she was in both worlds, and this is the time where she started to discover what a lot of us discover, that we do live in two cultures, sometimes more, and that the more we embrace them and acknowledge them, the more that we become part of a bigger sort of story. It’s important. Mexican Americans are all so different—some only speak English, some speak both languages, some people only speak Spanish. I love that diversity and how we touch upon that throughout the show. There are different generations represented here, too, and it just shows that within the Mexican American community or Latino community, we’re very diverse when it comes to language and backgrounds.
AVC: The fact that Latinx people aren’t a monolith became a topic of discussion after the election results, but there are also shows like Vida and Gentefied that remind you that, even when you’re focusing on a specific group like Chicanos in Los Angeles, there are so many nuances there. And Texicans especially are a group unto themselves.
MZ: Absolutely. And I think that was one of the family’s requests, that we write about the Tejano experience, the south Texan experience. It’s different from Chicanos from L.A. or Chicago, for example. The specificity–the food, the culture, the Tejano music—all of that was part of building that identity. We did have, I think, a total of four Texans in the [writers’] room, so we always asked, “Does this sound Texan enough for you?” to make sure that we were capturing that Latino identity from Texas. That was really wonderful to discover.
AVC: Have you been bracing yourself for the inevitable comparisons to the film from the ’90s?
MZ: Oh, no, no, no. We’re making our own show. Gregory Nava’s movie was incredible. It’s a classic. I mean, you can’t take that away from Gregory and Jennifer Lopez—what they did together, it was phenomenal. This is just another telling of Selena’s story, with its own unique angle. Hopefully, there’ll be more coming up because I think it’s worth revisiting this story again and again. She’s here to stay, and I’m just grateful and honored that we get to tell this version, and that the people that worked so hard get to see it on the screen, on Netflix. I’m sure people are going to compare, but I don’t mind, it’s fine.
AVC: One last question: What is your go-to Selena song for karaoke?
MZ: [Exclaims.] Well, I can’t really karaoke some of those high belts, but I love her super-dramatic, emotional rancheras. So I love “Que Creías,” because she’s basically telling an ex-boyfriend off. I love “Si Una Vez,” although that’s really hard for me to do in karaoke. But when it comes to karaoke, the more dramatic and emotional, bring it.
AVC: I’ve just found that a lot of fans have a very specific, I don’t want to call it an impression, but the same way that people do like a little bit of Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston, a lot of people definitely have their take on Selena.
MZ: [Laughs.] Absolutely. I definitely go to the rancheras and dramatic because I grew up with that. And it’s just right for a gay Mexican immigrant.