11th June, 1994
There are at least five takes on this song battling each other to get out of me, so let's see how well I can juggle.
First let's talk about Selena. We already have, a bit, but those were only voices crying in the wilderness make straight the paths. Here she is herself, incarnate, not mediated by other voices, other scripts, other genres. (Of course, since she wasn't actually divine — more's the pity — this too is mediated, particularly by her producer and older brother A. B. Quintanilla III and frequent colaborator Pete Astudillo. But more about that below.) But this is not only Selena having greatness thrust upon her, this is the achievement of greatness by a woman who has worked very hard for many years and has made a breakthrough that is as much artistic, personal and cultural as it is commercial. She's sung rings around the Barrio Boyzz already, but that was as though to prove she could, matching a genre and a sense of place that isn't hers. Because although at age twenty-three she has lived anywhere in the Spanish-speaking US that she could perform, from quinceañeras and state fairs to nightclubs and dancehalls to video shoots and awards banquets, she is a Texas girl at heart, with all the many meanings that phrase can have.
There were Texans long before there was a Texas, and she has roots that go back farther than Sam Houston or even Cabeza de Vaca. Her beauty is not just the high-contrast drama of the chola (though there's that too), but the imperious impassivity of the indigena, and she has always been royalty. And the music she makes is Texan: planted square on the ground, grounded in traditional identities even as it races forward into technofuturism, and bigger and better than anything else around. The word is tejano, which means Texan and was there first, and the rhythm is cumbia, and it's been the rhythm of poor latinoamericanos since at least the 1950s, when it first spread from the coasts of Colombia, where it was invented by Africans, Europeans, and Indians working together even though only one of the races was not bought and sold and killed like property.
And this is where it gets personal, because I, who am not descended from slaves whether African or American, first heard the cumbia rhythm as the celebratory music of poor Latin Americans when I lived in Guatemala, not a boy but not yet a man, and I took against it from the first. I am ashamed to write these words, ashamed of the repulsion my virgin white mind felt — still feels on occasion, when I don't trample it down and snarl through gritted teeth to listen, dammit — because I experienced poverty in those days as an Other, a brown and crippled and foul-smelling horror which I would do anything to get away from. With its stiff, poky gait, cumbia became a visceral representation of my colonial disgust with native life and culture. This is me calling myself racist. And this is me reminding myself that the previous sentence doesn't get me, or anyone, off the hook.
It wasn't until investigating Argentinean music earlier this year (for entirely unrelated reasons) that I learned to hear cumbia as the tropical rhythm it is — not a million miles from one-drop reggae, in fact — instead of as the undifferentiated, droning, dull party music of poor Mayans in the Sierra Madre highlands I originally took it for. And even then, it took a modern indie-pop version before the penny dropped.
The Texan version of cumbia, which has been running strong since the 1970s, owes a little more to Mexican norteña and American country, and it might help unfamiliar ears to think of Selena as the Mexican-American equivalent of Faith Hill or Shania Twain, riding a retrofurbished boot-scootin' boogie to gleaming modernist pop ends. And the cumbia rhythm makes "Amor Prohibido" that rare encounter in this travelogue, a midtempo song, neither baile nor balada, but pop, with a funky drive to the beat that makes it nearly impossible not to sway along even if it's not fast enough for athletic dancing. Traditional cumbia dance, with its short, intricate steps, does in fact require boots to scoot; it was originally a working-class courtship ritual.
Finally (and speaking of ritual!), the lyric deserves examination. The title translates as "Forbidden Love," and if the phrase doesn't have quite the same charge in Spanish as it does in English, where connotations of closeted homosexuality have accreted over the years, it's still a rich pop vein to mine. Selena, perhaps appropriately for her big, splashy introduction to the wider Latin Pop world, takes a Romeo And Juliet tack. The chorus runs:
Amor prohibido, murmuran por los calles
Porque somos de distintas sociedades
Amor prohibido, nos dice todo el mundo
El dinero no importa en tí y en mí
Ni en el corazón
Oh oh, baby
Which, before I provide the translation, I should point out is the Spanish of someone for whom Spanish is not their first language: this is a very basic lyric in both vocabulary and ideas, and perhaps all the more successful for it. (Not everyone who listens to Latin Pop in the US is as comfortable with Spanish as their parents or grandparents were. And not everyone who speaks Spanish is educated in it.) Translated, it runs:
Forbidden love, they whisper in the streets
Because we are from different societies
Forbidden love, says the whole world to us
Money doesn't matter to you or to me
Or to the heart
Oh oh, baby
This entire travelogue has taken place in the shadow of another, much larger pop scene just beyond the borders of this one. We have encountered it here and there — Los Lobos, Jon Secada, and Gloria Estefan all crossed the border regularly — but for the most part Latin Pop has been a shadowy, underrepresented underclass, and the Anglophone Pop which sits by it on the radio is bigger, louder, more violent, and in its wholesale domination of the discourse, as colonial and even oppressive as anyone who wanted to make the two pop scenes a metaphor for the two (for which read multiple) societies could wish.
If I used blasphemously Christological language about Selena earlier, it's precisely because she was uniquely positioned, for a brief period, to bridge that gap. For many people, in fact, she did; and one reason that I've spent so much (so much!) time talking about her is that she's still one of the Names that even people who don't know anything about Latin Pop know. We'll have plenty more opportunities to talk about what exactly was lost; "Amor Prohibido" by no means sums up her contribution to Latin Pop — fuck that, to Pop, punto y final. But it's a fantastic best foot forward, a progressive anthem of racial and cultural (and sexual, if you want it to be) unity taking its cues from traditional sounds that might even play as hokey to some ears. She would fly yet higher; but I'm not sure that she ever burned brighter.