03-selena-082707-Just finished my intensive summer course in Beginning Spanish 1A the week before last, and next week Spanish 1B is already looming. Thank Jobs for iTunes and iPods, because I wouldn’t have even squeeked out the B+ I got without access to iTunes Latino. Specifically, downloads of the wonderful Pop and Cumbia star Selena Quintanilla. Yes, she was tragically assassinated in 1995, only 23 and on the verge of her big Pop mainstream breakthrough, but go into the Mission here in San Francisco. If airplay is any indication, Selena lives!

Perhaps you know a little about Selena from Jennifer Lopez’s breakthrough role in the movie of the same name. Or you can refresh yourself on her story here. But you probably haven’t heard a lot of her music. As they used to say on the old American Bandstand “It’s got a great beat and you can dance to it.” That is if the Cumbia is your dance of choice.

But the best thing about Selena, from a beginning Spanish student’s perspective: she sings clearly, pronounces every syllable and you can understand the lyrics which are mostly in the present tense. Honestly, her greatest hits album should be issued along with Spanish textbooks.

In the interest of full disclosure, studying with Selena wasn’t my idea. It came from Dube our Guatemalan (or Guatamalteca, I should say) cleaning lady. She was very excited that I was learning Spanish. Less so when I tried to practice it on her. I explained that, while I found the course determination to expose us to all the different “Spanishes” of the New World laudatory, in practice it was a nightmare. Part of the course included hours and hours of audio study where we listened to native speakers and had to write (in Spanish) answers to questions about what we’d heard. Fine if the speaker is Mexican. That dialect I can get. Colombian, not so easy. Cuban and Puerto Rican, absolutely beyond me. As a Berkeleyite of a certain age, our professor had also assigned us to learn the words to some of Joan Baez’s Spanish folk songs. I like Joan, all right, but I wasn’t really feeling the Spanish stuff.


Selena’s costumes, which she designed, often paid tongue-in-cheek homage to her Latina heritage. Here, she rocks the Vaquero look.

That’s when Dube stepped in with the Selena suggestion. “You should listen to Selena records. She was a Tejano and she didn’t even speak Spanish. She learned it to sing in Spanish. So she sings just like you would, with an American accent.” Hmmmm. Gringo Pop. Intriguing. So off to iTunes Latino I go to download her greatest hits. Fantastic. Easy words. Lots of repeated choruses. And it has a great beat and you can dance to it.

I was hooked. Some called Selena “The Mexican Madonna”, which I think is wildly inaccurate. Sure she was sexy and she was in constant dancing motion during her concerts. But she was American born and bred. Her Mexican father convinced her to learn Spanish and sing to that constituency. But even less Madonna-like, she always projected what she was, a very nice, sweet Tejano girl. Not rebelling against anything, just singing great music that you could dance to. Instead of rebelling against her heritage, as Madonna did against Catholicism, Selena embraced her background, although sometimes with a twist. The costumes of her bandmates and herself, all her own designs, often took playful license with her Hispanic heritage. There were bolero jackets, matador pants, ponyskin chaps and vests, Senorita ruffles. I wonder how many invitations she got to be the headliner at various Hispanic or Latino Heritage Festivals. She would have been perfect.

Selena became my refuge after too many hours trying to unravel long audio discussions of Puerto Rican history in rapid, incomprehensible dialect. When all seemed lost, I could fire up a Selena song and feel as if I was learning something.

Then came the final exam, part of which required a 500 word essay on the topic of something we enjoyed doing. First panic. I didn’t think I’d learned 500 words of Spanish in the intensive six week course. Then the inspiration: I’ll write about listening to Selena. Do you know how many Spanish words you can get out of the way just by listing the names of four of your favorite Selena songs?

So thanks, Selena. I’ve got you uppermost on my iPod in a Playlist called “Learning Spanish”. You and Los Lobos and Santana, some Tish Hinojosa, a bit of Joan Baez. But mostly you. Thanks again for the study help. It all has a good beat and I can dance to it.

For the rest of you, the available video of Selena doesn’t have the best audio, but this should give you an idea of her talent. Watch it, then download Selena’s greatest hits.

Ready for more? La Carcacha or “The Jalopy” is one of my favorites and on a subject some of my old car aficionado friends can get behind. It’s about a girl whose boyfriend drives an old beat up car, her friends laugh at him, but she doesn’t care, she loves him still because he “treats her like a Queen”.  As Selena says, “Saborcito…manos arriba!” Give it a little flavor, put your hands up!