Selena Quintanilla is the undisputed queen of Tejano music. Her vocal power still reigns on Texas radio, her MAC-inspired collections sell out in hours, and her images inspire art adorning the streets of Corpus Christi. But her legacy goes far beyond the Lone Star State. Even 25 years after her passing, she continues to inspire a new generation of multicultural talent. It was, after all, her eponymous biopic that introduced us to J. Lo.
Selena’s formidable legacy acts as the background of Selena: The Series. It also created a challenge — a challenge Moisés Zamora and his team tacked head-on when they aimed to (re)introduce audiences to Selena before she was a multigenerational icon. Through research and the help of her family (Selena’s father and sister, Abraham and Suzette Quintanilla are producers on the series), Zamora presents Selena’s early years marked by financial struggle, hardship, and a seemingly unbreakable bond with her family.
In an interview with Awards Daily, Zamora discusses crafting the show, his personal connection to Selena, and honoring her once-in-a-lifetime talent.
Awards Daily: I wanted to start with your relationship with Selena. I’m from Texas, so she was such a big part of my upbringing. She is, still to this day, such an icon of the culture and music here. She really looms large. What’s your relationship with who she was and her legacy as an artist?
Moisés Zamora: Well, for me, it was personal in the sense that her music, who she was, was part of growing up as well. It was my tias, my aunts, who were dragging me to the dance floor at a wedding or a Quinceañera because her music was playing. It was that kind of natural, organic part of the existence of just being Mexican-American.
When she passed away in 1995, I was a junior in high school; that was a moment where my worlds collided. She was such a part of my Mexican-American identity. As the English album, and Dreaming of You, came out and was all over the radio, I had friends who were not familiar with her, who were not Mexican or Latino, who were all of the sudden singing along. It just felt like my worlds colliding. And I had never experienced that before, which spoke a lot to my own identity. It just felt disorienting, and at the same time, magical because it sort of built this bridge. And I think that’s the power that she has as a music artist that comes from both of these worlds.
I can’t even fathom growing up in Texas and her presence. I had a little taste when we did a lot of research, and some of the Texans in the writer’s room were able to show just how big she was. That’s been incredible to discover. What I’ve learned is a lot of us, from different perspectives or places, have a different kind of relationship to who she was and her music. And ultimately, a good relationship as a role model that you admire, who is still paving the way for younger generations. It was incredible to share that and discover that in the room with the different perspectives provided.
AD: Selena’s fans are famously protective of her and her legacy. First of all, what kind of pressure did that put on you? And what would you say to Selena’s fans who may worry about the show doing her proper justice and may be a little trepidatious about watching?
MZ: Well, I think two things were really clear in my mind. I knew there was no way to make everyone happy. You just can’t. You know, if you could replicate Selena today, we’d have Selena back. It’s impossible. She’s one of a kind.
But I wanted to make sure that we conveyed who she was as a person— that generosity of spirit, that spark. She was so kind, charming and playful, and respectful. She was always smiling. Everyone, when she was alive, her contemporaries, agreed that she was an incredible person.
She was also like that to her fans, stayed for two hours after shows to talk to them, to interact with them. She appreciated her fans. She did it for them. And she was very humble. In all the research I put together, that it seemed to be the constant.
The one thing that I knew I wanted to achieve with this show was to do her justice as to who she was as a person.
With all the research that the family shared with us, the second part was to replicate what it was like to be in South Texas during that time. The Tejano music; that environment; and the gigs, from Texas to Idaho, to Michigan, to Oregon; her family; and living on the bus. What kind of journey was that?
And her evolution as an artist. They made their own outfits, she changed her hair so much, and I wanted to be as faithful to that as possible. I believe we shared over 3000 images and videos with the crew, the team, the director, and the costume designer to make sure that we would get those elements and details of her early days right. So that even her fans who love her would discover some things that they did when their first album came out— or what she was wearing, or the fact that she was already starting to design her outfits and then sketching that fashion as a teenager. I wanted to make sure all of that was portrayed and not shy away from that time and era.
AD: One thing that struck me about the show is how hopeful it is, even though we know what happened to her. And it’s difficult to watch, in that sense, because you know that the tragedy is looming, but it’s also very joyful. How did you strike that balance?
MZ: Well, I think she was a joyful human being. She carried on those set of values throughout her life. As much as you want to manipulate the tone, knowing that the tragedy is about to happen a couple of years down the road. And we all know how awful and heartbreaking that was. I just couldn’t go there without showing how joyful that journey was, despite the struggle. They had a lot of struggles that they had to survive as a family to make ends meet and step up when they needed to. And they were very close, and they still are. But you know, I didn’t want that ending to create this sort of darkness throughout the series. I always saw it as something joyful and inspirational, and wholesome.
And when the time comes to delve into that part, I hope that we’re able to succeed in creating that balance —still keep the joy, even though it’s a heartbreaking thing that happened.
AD: Obviously, we don’t want to give anything away, but have you had conversations with Netflix about continuing forward with the story? And is that something you’re currently working on?
MZ: Yeah, I mean, as far as I know, we can confirm that this is a two-part series. So, you will see the second part of it. There are episodes to come.
AD: I have to ask you about casting. Selena is such a challenging role to capture—you have to find someone who can sing, dance, and has that undeniable star quality. And, of course, we have this Jennifer Lopez performance that is still so iconic.
Talk me through that in terms of what you were looking for in your Selena and what you ultimately found in Christian Serratos.
MZ: Well, you know, going back to who she was as a real person, I was looking for that spark. I think and the producers, the casting director, agreed that it would be very difficult to find Selena because she had such a charm. And J-Lo was able to give us that. I think it’s an incredible performance.
We needed to find that actress, but someone who had that depth and the layers and be able to carry that role from her teenage years to the powerful superstar that she becomes. We knew that it was going to be a challenge. Christian, I met her through my partner’s friend who set that up. She showed up to the last meeting with her red lipstick channeling Selena. It was wonderful to see that Christian was coming through with her own charm and her spark. And I saw that in Christian, that generosity of spirit— I’m a big fan of her talent.
But, you know, we did have to go through that arduous casting process to make sure that we turned every rock and put that work into the search. Ultimately it was Christian, who with her talent and work, earned that role. She deserves it. Her whole audition inspired us. Everyone got emotional, and it was just so wonderful to experience that. I think everyone realized that she was the one.
AD: You’ve talked about wanting to create a show that people can binge-watch easily and find inspiring. And I think you absolutely did that.
MZ: I’m just honored and grateful to be able to tell this story, alongside the producers and the family, because to me, it’s so personal. It tells the story of a family a Mexican-American family working so hard to achieve that American dream. I think that that’s the whole point— that the Mexican-American dream is an American dream. And that we’re part of the fabric of this country and the culture. Making that case, through a story as incredible as Selena’s, and the Quintanilla family is an honor. And it’s very humbling, and it empowers me to continue my own journey because I see a lot of things that they did that my family relates to. We struggled financially. We had to clean houses. I slept on the floor in a bedroom at my grandma’s when I got here with my family as an 11-year-old.
Sometimes we don’t get the time and space to tell that story that many people, Latinos, immigrants, can relate to. And I think that Selena does that, and she’s going to do that. And I’m just so happy that I could be part of that legacy and hopefully continue, as she still does, to inspire others to achieve their dreams. That’s the bottom line.
AD: You mentioned the Quintanilla family. How closely were you able to collaborate with them? How involved were they in the process?
MZ: They were very much involved. I interviewed them. We got a lot of anecdotes and things that they remember. A lot of that stuff that you see on screen, things that we tried to replicate, they shared with us. So, they were part of the entire process, which is exciting because that doesn’t happen very often. We couldn’t believe it. Suzette shared really specific things about who she was. I was freaking myself out when I was able to see her own journal entries —a whole page of Selena practicing her signature, lyrics that she wanted. I saw a little window and a little glimpse into who she was as a teenager.
It was incredible to discover because it just shows you that she was an American teen first, she was listening to Janet Jackson, and then she was able to explore that other identity, her own Mexican identity, her roots, through music. And that, to me, is the essence of the show.
AD: One of my main hopes is that people watching will discover Selena’s music again, or for the first time. So, I have to ask you what your favorite Selena song?
MZ: [Laughs]. I have two different favorite songs for two different reasons.
AD: Please tell me!
MZ: Okay, my favorite song, I love all of them, but the one that got me through the entire process every morning was Bidi Bidi Bom Bom. That was my alarm! [Laughs].
AD: That’s my favorite, too!
MZ: It immediately puts you in a good mood. It’s fantastic, you know, how a heartbeat sounds in Spanish. I love it.
The other one, which I think is closer to my Mexican ranchero roots, I have two, but the one that I gravitate towards for karaoke is Que Creias. It’s just so passionate and dramatic. It’s about a breakup and an ex-lover, and I just get down and dirty with my emotions, even though I sound awful. [Laughs]
Selena: The Series is hitting Netflix on December 4th.