“Serving Lewks and Puro Class,” Tus Tías Explore the Legacy of Selena
Selena Quintanilla Pérez. The queen of Tejano music. The pride of Corpus Christi. Or, as so many lovingly call her, Selena.
Even in 2023, Selena retains her staying power. To say Selena is a cultural force that extends far beyond the Latine community would be an understatement. Perhaps this strong legacy is due to the biopic Selena (1997) starring Jennifer Lopez in her breakout role or the continued presence of Selena on the small screen via vehicles like Netflix’s Selena: The Series (2020-2021). Or maybe it’s because of the way that Latines have passed down Selena’s legacy from one generation to another; much like Frida Kahlo, Celia Cruz, and Gloria Anzaldúa, Selena remains as ever present in United States popular culture today as she did when she donned the purple jumpsuit and performed her infamous last concert on 26 February 1995 before 66,994 people at the Houston Astrodome for the Livestock Rodeo, an event that was televised live on Univision and preserved in a live album: Selena Live! The Last Concert. While Selena had seemingly just begun to break through into the mainstream radio airwaves, her life was abruptly cut short. A month later, Selena was shot and killed on 31 March 1995. That summer, her crossover album, Dreaming of You, debuted atop the Billboard 200, making Selena the first Latine recording artist to accomplish this feat. Songs such as “Dreaming of You” and “I Could Fall in Love” became easy listening staples. Tejano songs like “Como la Flor” and “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom” became classics. Three decades later, Selena remains one of the most influential Latin artists of all time.
Selena’s cultural import was on full display at the Latinx Theatre Commons (LTC) Comedy Carnaval from 9-11 June 2022 in Denver, Colorado. By showcasing a wide spectrum of Latine comedy, the Comedy Carnaval invited Latine artists to position comedy as a strategic tool of self-representation to push against the harmful stereotypes of the Latine community that proliferate throughout United States culture. During the short-form comedy session, Comedy Carnaval attendees were treated to The Invocation of Selena by Tus Tías, the brainchild of Jessi Realz and Marilet Martínez. In their own words, Tus Tías “always bring the chisme, fun, and fierceness!” Indeed, as Jessi and Marilet demonstrated, The Invocation of Selena is fun, fierce, and puro chisme.
The stage is part ofrenda and part fan clubhouse.
The Invocation of Selena blends elements of sketch comedy, cabaret, theatre, and drag shows to speak to how Selena has influenced the Latine community and, in particular, Latinas and queer Latines. The show’s eclectic mix of monologues, drag, dance, song, audience participation, and comedy explores the nuanced ways that Selena influences daily Latine life. Jessi and Marilet highlight this when they quote one of the Selena film’s iconic lines, saying they will do “anything for Selenas”—including developing this show.
Although The Invocation of Selena is very much still in the early stages of development, this show has legs and the potential to become part of the Latine theatre canon. The idea for the show came to Jessi and Marliet as they were wanting to explore Selena as a cultural figure and as someone who has inspired the duo in their professional lives. The production is part homage, part love letter, and part reconciliation based on Jessi and Marilet’s repeated conversations about their love for Selena. Of course, this was the Comedy Carnaval, so what better way to ignite this exploration than through laughter? After performing the piece as a one-off at the Annoyance Theatre in Chicago in 2019, Jessi and Marilet used the Comedy Carnaval as an opportunity to re-approach the script and expand it.
The show begins with some brujería. The sounds of the Houston Astrodome cheering on Selena fill Su Teatro. The stage is part ofrenda and part fan clubhouse. There is no shortage of purple or sparkles. A disco ball starts to spin. The audience is ready to get their Selena on. But this isn’t the Selena Gomez Show. Girl, please. We are here for another Selena, the OG Selena. You know, the Tejana Queen who, as Jessi and Marilet tell us, “gave us some of the biggest bops of all time while serving lewks and puro class.” Tus Tías pulls out their Book of Spells to find the perfect spell to summon Selena. At the end of the incantation, Selena miraculously appears, but this is not exactly the Selena we’ve come to love and know. This Selena is a larger-than-life drag queen. From there, Tus Tías take audiences through a series of sketches that explore Selena’s cultural import from various entry points. While some are more fleshed out than others, each serves a purpose in conveying how Selena was anything but a one-hit wonder. The ways that she influenced and continues to influence Latine (and other!) communities is anything but one-note. In any case, every sketch showcases the comedic chops of Tus Tias and the widespread cultural import of Selena.
Comedy Carnaval attendees revealed Selena’s role in their lives and, as such, collectively eulogized the Tejana Queen.
In one sketch, Marilet runs on stage. She’s in East Los Angeles, California running from people who are trying to kill her. Marliet is, of course, playing the legendary Lupe Ontiveros, who portrayed Selena’s killer Yolanda Saldivar in the Selena film. Dedicated Selena fans are trying to kill Lupe because they mistake her for Yolanda. As she tells us, since the film came out, “I can’t go anywhere without getting death threats.” Later, we meet the Bidi Bidi Bom Boms, a Selena tribute band. The lead singer, played by Jessi, just got dumped, so she is… going through some things. Times is tough. Throughout the band’s short set, the covers of the songs are influenced by her anger and sadness over her ex-boyfriend, a TikToker from Los Angeles. The Selena lyrics double as her feelings. Selena is relatable. Sketches like this demonstrate the cultural capital of Selena. Part of the humor is in how the audience not only immediately recognizes the lyrics, but relates to them, inevitably seeing how those lyrics relate to their own relationships.
Perhaps the most touching moment of the show is the final sketch in which Jessi and Marilet bring in the audience’s feelings regarding Selena. Notably, before the show, audiences shared their memories of Selena and what she means to them. As audiences entered Su Teatro before the short-form comedy session, members of the LTC steering committee offered them pieces of paper to write about the role of Selena in their lives. In this finale, Jessi and Marilet turn to these little slips of paper: “We’ve shared a lot of how Selena has influenced us, and now we want to share how she has influenced all of y’all.” The familiar sound of “Dreaming of You” begins to play, and we are all immediately transported back to 1995. As the familiar sounds of Selena played throughout the theatre, Jessi and Marilet pulled the papers from a massive vase-turned-urn before reading them out loud. In this moment, Comedy Carnaval attendees revealed Selena’s role in their lives and, as such, collectively eulogized the Tejana Queen. For many, Selena has been a key figure in their lives. They grew up alongside Selena. They came of age with her. Her tragic death remains one of the pivotal moments in their lives. For young folks, Selena has lived in memory, nostalgia, and the lingering question of just how big Selena would have been had her life not been cut short at twenty-three. Even this gringo got a little emotional.
As Jessi and Marilet continue to develop The Invocation of Selena, the duo wants the show to be bigger and gayer; they want it to have more sparkle. And it’s worth noting that they want the show to include a wider plurality of Latine voices. They want to bring more people into the process to begin to unpack Selena’s impact on Afro-Latinas, Asian Latinas, Indigenous folks, etc. Currently, Jessi and Marilet are in talks with a well-known Latine theatre company about further developing the show. Their goal is to present the show later this year before bringing it across the country to Latine centers like Los Angeles, California; Phoenix, Arizona; and Texas where Selena has had such a widespread cultural influence. As Tus Tías revealed throughout The Invocation of Selena, they will do “anything for Selenas,” including putting on a kick-ass show.
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