Inside the Impossible Task of Bringing ‘Selena: The Series’ to Life on Netflix
How creator Moisés Zamora faced off against the legacy of Latin music’s most beloved entertainer and Jennifer Lopez’s pitch-perfect film performance to create “Selena: The Series.”
Once again, Selena Quintanilla-Pérez is the most popular entertainer in the Americas.
Since its premiere last week, Selena: The Series has been the most-watched TV show on Netflix. It’s another indicator of the singer’s massive legacy, topping the streamer’s viewership chart 25 years after she was shot and killed by her friend and former manager when she was just shy of her 24th birthday.
Nicknamed the “Queen of Tejano” and “Tejano Madonna,” Selena is the best-selling female Latin artist of all time, and Dreaming of You, the English-language crossover she was recording at the time of her death, remains the biggest-selling Latin album.
The Texas-born singer’s carving of her own specific American dream was previously dramatized in Gregory Nava’s 1997 Selena biopic, which hit theaters just two years after her death. Jennifer Lopez’s performance as the magnetic entertainer catapulted her to superstardom, and the film remains as popular now as when it was released.
The Netflix series’ streaming domination is another testament to the intensity of fans’ devotion to Selena and to the public’s fascination with her Cinderella-story rise and tragic end. An obvious question anytime a beloved entertainer’s story is being told in TV or film is “why now?” As Moisés Zamora, the creator and head writer of Selena: The Series, says, it’s because Selena’s impact is as resounding in this moment as it’s ever been. In fact, it never went away.
“Her music is still in the top charts, and young women and young fans are still discovering her,” he tells The Daily Beast. While doing research for the series last year, he traveled around to local Selena-themed nights at bars and clubs. “I would find myself surrounded by young women who were so passionate and obsessed with her, but probably were born a few years after she passed away.”
Selena: The Series tracks Quintanilla’s life as the precocious lead singer of her family’s band in Corpus Christi, Texas, performing at weddings and bars more than a decade before she’d be old enough to drink.
The limited series is broken up into two parts, with this month’s Part One breaking at a climactic moment in her mainstream crossover. It chronicles her struggle with her Mexican-American identity, the sacrifices she made to perform at such a young age, and her push for independence from a family and record industry that had their own ideas of who she needed to be. Part Two will be released in 2021.
Mounting the series should seem like an impossible task. There is not just Selena’s legacy to measure up to, but there is also a classic film boasting one of the most electric star-making turns of the last 25 years with Lopez’s performance. That’s a lot of expectation coming from viewers before they even press play on Netflix.
“I don't think it's a negative,” Zamora says. “I think it's a positive. I think having that incredible film by Gregory Nava with that wonderful, incredible performance by Jennifer Lopez, it's not that you have to live up to it. I think just adds more to Selena's legacy overall. This is just another telling of her story.”
Zamora, who has previously written for ABC’s American Crime and Fox’s Star, was taking meetings after securing the life rights to Dafne Almazán, who, at age 17, became the youngest grad student enrolled at Harvard University in a century, when a former agent suggested he also take a meeting with the producers who held the rights to the Quintanilla family’s story. He hunkered down to create a pitch that zeroed on the story as an inspirational, family-friendly series, which won over the Quintanilla family and got him hired.
There were other Selena projects in the works at the time, Zamora says, that did not have the family’s backing, which in turn got the Netflix series fast-tracked into production. (In November, Moctesuma Esparza, who produced 1997’s Selena film, filed a lawsuit against Netflix and the Quintanilla family claiming he owned the life rights and had been shut out of the show. Asked about the lawsuit, Zamora says, “I'm not familiar with what that entails, so I have no idea what's going on over there.”)
“My vision for the show was a wholesome, inspirational approach,” Zamora says. “The Quintanillas’ hard work, compassion, and sincerity—those are values that are represented in my life growing up as an American and an immigrant here in the United States. So I really wanted that to be the antidote to a lot of the misrepresentation of Mexican Americans in this country, and the criminalization and demonization of them. So that was really what sold the Quintanillas, that wholesome, inspirational, for-the-whole-family approach.”
That means that the series does not deeply or grittily delve into what some fans might construe as the darker elements of Selena’s upbringing and ascent in the industry, whether it’s the domineering behavior of her father, eloping with her band’s guitarist while still a teenager, the commercial exploitation of her success, or the pressure to provide for her family and also stand for an entire population of an underrepresented people.
“Selena, if I would have done the version of The Crown, then perhaps I might have ventured into particularly unsavory territory,” Zamora says. But that’s not what this project was.
There were certain mountains to conquer, however. Chiefly, finding an actress to play Selena.
“Everybody knew that we needed to sort of turn every rock,” Zamora says. “Also there's pressure required to play this role. Jennifer Lopez did such an incredible job, right? So you want to have someone that can take on not just Selena, but also an entire series from different stages of her life.”
Actress Christian Serratos began sending in audition tapes from the Atlanta set of The Walking Dead, on which she’s played Rosita Espinosa since 2014. A mutual friend eventually set up a lunch between her and Zamora. She showed up wearing her hair pulled back with rosettes in it, in classic Selena style. Zamora was smitten immediately, but Serratos still endured the gauntlet of auditions. He says she sealed the deal when the entire casting room was in tears during her last audition.
Whereas the Selena film centered on the last years of the singer’s life, Selena: The Series, especially the first part now on Netflix, is more of a coming-of-age story about growing up in the ’80s and early ’90s while touring with her family as an aspiring singer. The production team curated a production bible with over 3,000 historical images and videos and about 600 pages of articles from the time to help recreate the singer's looks, as indelible a part of the Selena legacy as anything else.
The idea was that no matter how outlandish a particular hairstyle or performance costume seemed, a viewer would be able to do their own research online and see that it was as close to a replica in styling as the show could achieve. (As for the singing, the on-stage and in-studio performances are all dubbed with Selena’s actual voice. During a cappella moments, it’s Serratos who is singing.)
“She was of her time!” Zamora says, justifying the, as he calls it, “funky” fashion. “It just shows that she was an American teen first. She loved Jody Watley and Janet Jackson, and she was greatly influenced by Paula Abdul. She essentially developed those styles and made them in her own way.”
The series was largely filmed at Baja Studios, the so-called “Mexican Hollywood” in Rosarito, Mexico, about 25 miles south of the San Diego-Tijuana border. A predominantly Mexican and Mexican-American crew worked on production, and Zamora assembled a diverse writers’ room that was fully Latinx.
“The Quintanillas are from South Texas,” he says. “They're Mexican American, second- and third-generation. It's very specific. While they represent a Latinx dream come true, it's from a very specific part of America. When I put together a Latinx writers’ room, I also thought about how the Latinx population is not monolithic. Even within the Mexican American story of acceptance, there's a lot of diversity, whether it's first-generation immigrants, generations down the line, English-speaking only, Spanish-speaking only, or bilingual. All of that was really important for me.”
He has a personal connection to that part of Selena’s journey, with the singer having to learn to speak Spanish in order to achieve success in the Tejano and Latino community first, despite the fact that, being born in Texas, she didn’t speak the language well.
Zamora was born in Jalisco, Mexico, before moving with his family to the small town of Loyalton, California, at age 11. As a teenager, he helped his mother clean houses. His father was a doctor who treated farmworkers; Zamora later wrote about their experiences as migrant workers toiling under extreme conditions in American Crime. He was 19 when he came out as gay to his mother and brother, and told his father two years later.
He had a bicultural upbringing, but was educated largely in English. When he was finishing up studies at Brown University, he decided he wanted to become a writer, but didn’t see a path for himself doing so in English.
“I was sort of discovering my own Mexican American identity and my sexuality, and a lot of things were coming into play where I just didn't feel that writing in English was going to be successful for me,” he says. “I didn't see any role models of the literary world that really had that path. So I decided to teach myself how to write in Spanish. It's probably the craziest thing I've ever done.”
Finding success in the Spanish-speaking world paved the way for the career he wanted, just as it did for Selena. His debut novel, Susurros Bajo el Agua, published in 2005 won the Binational Literary Prize for Young Novel Border of Words. After its release, he moved to Los Angeles and began working at an advertising agency, where he gained the skills he says he uses to now run a writers’ room, and on weekends worked on the script that eventually got him hired for American Crime.
In addition to the second part of Selena: The Series coming out next year, he’s working with his own production company, Zone One, on elevating stories of people of Latin American, Indigenous, and Afro-Latin descent for a global audience. Despite the pandemic stalling things a bit, he brags that there are still several projects that are close to moving forward.
“It is a huge achievement for a small company with a very specific goal of storytelling to actually be able to put something soon on air, following Selena and following a pandemic and political upheaval and social reckoning,” he says. “And I think it's a little contribution to the big problem and elephant in the room of zero representation.”