Resurrecting Selena“Dreaming of You” Is a Lyrical Journey Through Grief

The book cover pictured shows a Latina with brown hair in her bed, surrounded by masks. She's looking up at a framed photo of another woman and the window, where there are dismembered hands reaching out to her.

How much of a person’s identity is stitched together from collective memory? Who are we, if not the sum of the images we wish we could be? In Melissa Lozada-Oliva’s Dreaming of You, autofiction and confessional poetry collide to explore questions about the toxicity of fame, the demands of womanhood, and society’s definitions of victimhood. The novel in verse follows Melissa, a young Latinx poet living in New York City who decides to resurrect the iconic Selena Quintanilla-Pérez from the dead. Selena’s reanimation is followed by the resurrection of Yolanda Saldívar, the former fan club president who was convicted of the singer’s murder in 1995 (she’s actually still alive, IRL). The cast of characters includes an omniscient group called Las Chismosas (referring to gossipers), who break up the narrative to comment like a Greek chorus, and a character (or group of characters) referred to as “You.” This use of the second person, “the consumer” of “the consumed,” creates an immersive reading experience that mimics the voyeuristic nature of fame. In the case of Selena, her celebrity has become intertwined with her tragic death. As with R&B singer Aaliyah or Laura Palmer of Twin Peaks, Selena’s legacy is also a reflection of our culture’s obsession with bright young dead girls, vulnerable to our projections and fears. After a ritual involving Fabuloso, lipstick, a USB drive, and a pot of period blood, Selena’s resurrection quickly turns into a disaster and Melissa begins to slowly disappear. For Lozada-Oliva, Selena serves as both mirror and cloak, an enigmatic double and wayward mother. In death, Selena represents an unattainable ideal, magnifying the flaws in Melissa’s performance of womanhood.

Stories can help us make sense of the world, and in the storytelling context of pop culture, celebrities often serve as either role models or cautionary tales. We look to the stars to influence the “truths” we tell about ourselves. In the opening poem, Melissa explains, “This is a story of mirrors,/ Or what happens/ When you bring the mirror/ Back from the dead and when/ You look in it you see yourself/ Eating yourself.” Throughout the narrative, Selena is depicted as a larger-than-life symbol. Melissa, the narrator, is feeling trapped, paralyzed by her own insecurities. Selena is the opposite of this slippery sense of self; Melissa perceives her as a woman of certainty. She is likened to being a missing piece of Melissa, who wonders, “Is Selena the hole that’s been carved out for me?” The connection to Selena extends beyond personal admiration. Selenidad, as coined by author Deborah Paredez, is more than an expression of fandom. It’s a deeply cultural experience for the Latino community, who according to Paredez, “remember[s] Selena not just to deify a singular figure but to forge a sense of community among ourselves across the borders of our national, linguistic and regional diversity.” Living in a white supremacist capitalist society means that beauty standards are politicized and conform to a whitewashed, exclusively able-bodied definition of desirability. Selenidad creates a space to push back against stereotypes and foster inclusivity. Dreaming of You infuses this fandom subculture with the characteristics of a haunting—the past permeates the present, always on the cusp of breaking through the veil separating the living and the dead.

Selena’s influence has permeated Melissa’s life well into adulthood. In “I Watch Selena’s Open-Casket Funeral,” Melissa recalls watching Selena’s open-casket funeral with her mother. Melissa’s thoughts lead to her own hypothetical funeral, and she says, “I can see myself crying over a body but also being the body.” Melissa finds comfort in imagining herself made up and resting in a casket: “I am so safe.” Being a woman is to be constantly vigilant. To paraphrase Margaret Atwood, men are afraid that women will laugh at them; women are afraid that men will kill them. If that’s the case, are we truly safe only in death? Selena’s resurrection shows that even in death, women are often unable to escape the narratives the world has imposed upon them.

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Selena’s memory has never truly died. In 2017, she was honored with a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. That same year, the National Museum of American History featured a Selena exhibit. After a successful Change.org petition created by Patty Rodriguez, MAC launched a Selena makeup collection in 2016. Official Selena merchandise has popped up at Forever 21, Target, Macy’s, Urban Outfitters, and more. According to Billboard, “six Selena albums have gone to no. 1 on Billboard’s Top Latin Albums chart since her death, the most recent in 2012.” Yet fans have fiercely debated the narrative that her family has approved. They do not agree with how the family has handled her legacy, in particular her father Abraham Quintanilla’s tendency to threaten suit against impersonators and his prior legal battles with Selena’s widow, Chris Perez. In May 2021, Netflix’s Selena: The Series premiered its second season. The show, which is produced by Quintanilla, has come under harsh criticism by Selena fans for its characterization of the star, or rather, the lack thereof. Fans think that Selena’s vibrant personality is dimmed down, unrecognizable even from Jennifer Lopez’s portrayal in the 1997 movie. For a show named after the star, it’s heavily focused on her father’s struggles. Quintanilla, who is a Jehovah’s Witness, told Rolling Stone that he doesn’t understand the public’s memorialization of his daughter. “It’s crazy. It grows every day with events everywhere, but we’re not organizing them. Our family never got together every year on the day of her murder, because there’s nothing to celebrate, and this year won’t be the exception,” he said.

The Selena of Lozada-Oliva’s Dreaming of You is more Frankenstein’s monster than Lazarus reborn. A man at a Halloween party describes Selena as “a fuzzy version of a girl.” In part two, Selena initially can’t communicate, so Melissa teaches her history through a Netflix binge-watching session. Later on, after hopping up on stage and stealing the microphone at one of Melissa’s poetry readings, Selena becomes a certified superstar (again). When Yolanda escapes her prison cell, she tries to earn redemption and dismantle her reputation as a cold-blooded monster. Lozada-Oliva insinuates that Selena’s murder was the result of Yolanda’s jealousy and love, an accident caused by a “woman weak/ With want.” Over the years, the real-life Saldívar has been mythologized as a deranged, possessive devotee reminiscent of the protagonist of Eminem’s song “Stan.” A former nurse, Saldívar was fired from her role as president of Selena’s fan club and boutique manager after she embezzled more than $60,000. In a 1995 People article published after Selena’s death, it was reported that Saldívar had transformed her home into a “virtual shrine” complete with “a life-size cardboard Selena cutout over which Saldívar draped backstage passes from her concerts.” Saldívar, who will be up for parole in 2025, has said that the shooting was accidental.

As Selena’s fame regains traction, Melissa finds that she has less in common with her idol and more in common with her idol’s killer. They are united by their grief and loneliness and the fact that Selena has left them behind. If Selena lives, Melissa can’t survive. Reduced to her pain, Melissa travels through the city raw and exposed: “It hurts to touch anything but maybe in a few days/ All I will know is the hurt/ And how it defines me.” Yolanda eventually betrays Melissa and visits Selena’s hotel room wearing Melissa’s skin, but she’s not there. In her failure to confront Selena a second time, albeit in borrowed skin, Yolanda is still chained to her role as a villain and Selena stays “a saint/ Who loved too hard, trusted too deeply.” For Melissa, her round-trip journey to the afterlife represents the hard-earned triumph of carving out space for oneself in a hostile, colonized world. Hell resembles an endless karaoke bar and Melissa must sing through her anxiety and embarrassment, even without the presence of an audience. In order to assert ownership over her identity, Melissa must return Selena to the land of the dead. Writing for NPR in 2021 to commemorate Selena’s 50th birthday, Deborah Paredez says, “To lay claim to Selena is to reclaim so much of what we’ve lost as a result of centuries of colonialism and cultural appropriation.” Selenidad offers a way to challenge the media’s one-dimensional narratives, which keep Selena locked into the role of a beautiful, murdered martyr. This subculture, as Paredez notes, is “the space where we gather to mourn the losses we’ve suffered and to dare to dream of future possibilities in the midst of our tragedies.”

A traditional ghost story typically ends with the ghost being vanquished or set free. Evil spirits tend to be punished, and good ones are guided into the light, having finally resolved their unfinished business. By the epilogue of Dreaming of You, Melissa learns that some things aren’t meant to be revived. Selena is no longer viewed as a mirror but as a portal. She occupies an undefinable space where sadness and desire meet, a self-contained suspension of reality. For Melissa, Selena’s resurrection proves to be a short-lived out-of-body experiment. It’s only through the process of losing herself to both Selena and Yolanda that Melissa is able to reclaim her autonomy, filling a God-shaped hole.

 

Vanessa Willoughby, a light-skinned Black woman with long, black, curly hair, looks at the camera
by Vanessa Willoughby
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Vanessa Willoughby is a writer and editor. Her bylines include but are not limited to the New York Times, Allure, BookPage, Hello Giggles, The Toast, and Bitch. She hopes to one day publish a book.