It didn’t take long for the world for Selena Quintanilla to become a household, first-name only icon. Breaking numerous barriers in the music industry, she quickly became the Queen of Tejano Music and went on to leave an amazing legacy before her untimely death. With Netflix’s Selena: The Series (dropping December 4), show creator Moises Zamora dives deep into Selena’s life and music in a family drama that puts the spotlight on the Mexican American experience in South Texas that, in turn, tells the story of the American Dream.
Many may know the 1997 movie Selena starring Jennifer Lopez, but the new series takes its time to paint a detailed portrait of the Quintanilla family. Zamora has been working with Jaime Davila’s Campanario Entertainment for over two years to bring Selena’s story to life.He said that they wanted to approach this series through a wholesome and inspirational lens.
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For Zamora, who comes from a Mexican immigrant family, Selena’s story hits close to home and was important to him. He couldn’t believe that he had the opportunity to pitch the series.
Zamora realized it might be difficult to pitch a whole series about Selena’s story because of her tragic ending. He figured that execs wouldn’t think this would go beyond three or four episodes. He pitched 20 episodes. “I saw that we could really just see the journey that this family takes,” he said. “We can also see, piece by piece, the making of Selena.”
Netflix responded well to the pitch and everything was set towards the end of 2019. They launched the writers room and a team filled with Latinx talent to bring authenticity to the story. Production started but was interrupted by Covid-19, which means that only the first half of the series will drop December 4. As for the second half, Zamora kept his cards close to his chest. “That’s up to Netflix’s discretion to say how many more,” he said.
The series stars The Walking Dead‘s Christian Serratos, who steps into the titular role with an uncanny resemblance and spirit. It also stars Gabriel Chavarria, Ricardo Chavira, Noemí Gonzalez and Seidy López. Davila and Zamora serve as executive producers alongside Rico Martinez, Hiromi Kamata, Suzette Quintanilla and Simran A. Singh. Zamora serves as creator. Don Todd (This is Us) serves a consultant.
Deadline spoke woth Zamora about the journey of the series, the importance of Selena’s story when it comes to Latinx representation and how she changed the face of music — and pop culture.
DEADLINE: After such a long journey, how does it feel to finally see the fruits of your labor — especially a series about a musical icon?
MOISES ZAMORA: I saw a billboard go up on Sunset Boulevard, for the show, and it’s just like, oh crap. That’s so tangible, you know? It feels a little surreal to me, because I’ve been involved in the project for a long time and there are more episodes to come after this part. I don’t think it’s hit me… I’ve been part of the process for so long and so emotionally involved, that everyone on the team has put so much work and effort and given 150%. It’s also Selena, so it has that added layer of passion.
DEADLINE: Since it is an icon like Selena, how do you navigate the pressure and responsibility to tell her story?
I think what really made me empowered to take on this responsibility of leading 14 Latinx writers to craft the story was working along with Campanario to make sure that this hybrid international production where the crew and the directors were Mexican.
Early on I knew that I needed help and surrounded myself with a great team. I think that’s one of the reasons why Netflix and everyone felt comfortable with giving me this responsibility. In that, I was aware of my weaknesses and my strengths. It’s really important to be self-aware of where you’re lacking, and where you need help. I was in corporate America for eight years and I was able to manage a team and all of that, so I think those skills came into place because it actually becomes more of a corporate job when you are co-showrunning and leading the room.
DEADLINE: The 1997 movie starring Jennifer Lopez was a classic, and there’s no escape from the comparison. Did you make a mindful effort to separate the series from the movie?
ZAMORA: I think there was a specific effort. We all loved the movie, that’s the thing. We separated ourselves because the approach was a little different. We were spending more time in her early years. We call it the “caterpillar time of her life.” Where her hair is awkward, the outfits were not entirely there but they’re really fun. She’s getting to know who she is and we see the struggles the family is facing. The way we were handling the story, the way we were working with the family, the inspirational angle, and light-heartedness was going to separate us a lot from the movie. We’re just exploring them a lot more.
We live in these early years a lot longer and as she becomes an independent woman, she’s empowered to make her choices, and I think you see that especially as she falls in love with Chris [Perez]. As we all know, that’s how that works out. And the following episode, she fully takes in the reigns of who she wants to be and how she wants to present herself to the world, as this emergent superstar.
DEADLINE: How much creative license did you take with Selena’s story?
ZAMORA: I think it was interesting to what places in the story we could take creative license. A lot of it was just to edit the story down because we actually did so much research that there was a lot of storylines we wanted to include but we couldn’t. It was very clear to us that this was a family drama — at least the first part — because she started so young. So, in a way, those licenses were taken because we needed to pick a moment to live in — which was where Abraham and the family see this talent, nurture that talent and pursue this music dream for her. I think that there’s no Selena without her family. In later episodes there’s more of an ability to go deeper into what that meant…what that means to be your own person.
I think the vision for it was to be always close to what the family was sharing with us that felt genuine and authentic. But also, trying to re-create some of the performances that we have available on grainy video or photos, where it’s really authentic when it comes to subtext in the late ’80s.
DEADLINE: Considering it’s a huge part of her life, how did you want to incorporate Selena’s cultural identity into the series?
ZAMORA: I really wanted to show what that Mexican POV was. There was a risk of mainstream media not really, perhaps connecting as much with the conjunto and cumbia music because it’s just so different from the music a lot of people connected with Selena. I really want to show what it’s like to be in this world, to come and be an American teen, but be from a Mexican working-class family of immigrants — the same people they performed for early on. That was part of the strategy. I wanted to show that because you can’t show the glitz and glam of Selena later on without taking a look at that foundation — and that foundation comes with cowboy hats and warehouses in Idaho.
DEADLINE: What was it about Christian Serratos that made you choose her to play Selena?
ZAMORA: I think Christian is the one because she earned that. She worked so hard and she has incredible talent. Her experience and her professionalism, and she came through. My partner’s friend, designer Christian Juul Nielson, who dresses her, introduced us early on and I’m a big fan of her on The Walking Dead — and Selena is a big leap from that. The idea was just to meet her and she was wearing lipstick when we went for lunch — she was already channeling Selena. So, I was like, “OK, all right, I see it. I see it.”
Once I got to know her, we kept in touch. I knew that she had that sort of professionalism, talent, and also that spark, sincerity, and sweetness that Selena was known for, onstage and off. She was so well-liked because she treated everyone with respect and was generous in spirit and I really saw that in Christian. I just thought she would make a great Selena. There was a month-long audition process and we reached out to a lot of places. Ultimately Christian went through that process and earned that role. She worked so hard and was at a level where people were tearing up in the room. So, with someone that is going to take on such an iconic role like this, you do need to set unwavering professionalism and she brought it. I admire her for that and I’m so happy that she’s playing her.
DEADLINE: What was it like for you when you first saw her in full Selena regalia?
ZAMORA: Her eyes. Her eyes resemble Selena’s eyes. The shape of them, I don’t know if it’s the indigenous roots, but something about those eyes matched. Once I saw that eyeliner and that red lip, it was just, one of those moments where I thought, “This is the one. She’s definitely channeling Selena.” We were all awestruck. She’s a little different but we’re not going to get a perfect replica of Selena, because if we ever find a perfect replica of Selena the world is going to end. It’s probably Selena herself, coming back. (laughs)
We did some test photos of Christian in Selena’s attire and look and I think it was Jaime that dismissed them and said: “Why are you showing me more pictures of Selena?” So it was almost like, at a quick glance you can’t even notice that it’s Christian. That’s when we knew. It was exciting to see that not only could she channel her physically in a way that many actresses that we auditioned couldn’t, but at the same time, she came with a huge enormous amount of talent.
DEADLINE: It is very much a narrative of a Mexican American family. Did you find it difficult to make it universal?
ZAMORA: No. The background, stage and even the music may feel like something you don’t typically as an example of the American dream. The struggle, the fact that they never gave up — that’s the American dream. We see an American teen that was listening to Jody Watley and Janet Jackson and adjusting in order to achieve the American dream.
I’m just showing something that we’ve seen a lot through the eyes of different families working together in order to get a piece of that pie. That was always intentional. We want to show a family doing what they need to do in order to achieve the American dream because a Mexican American dream is an American dream.
I just want to make sure that we make that case because who doesn’t relate to sacrifice? People work so hard to make themselves become something. That’s very universal. It shows the opportunities in America and that people work really hard for something that’s worth fighting for. That’s why it was really personal for me. I’m an immigrant kid that came here at 11 years old. My family struggled when we got here just to make ends meet. My family slept on the floor and all stuffed in a one-bedroom at my grandma’s. We went through similar situations that the Quintanilla family went through in order to survive as a family. For me it became my heartfelt passion and goal to portray that.
DEADLINE: We have seen a severe lack of authentic Latinx representation in film and TV in the past couple of decades. You were also part of an open letter to Hollywood demanding to end “#EndLatinXclusion in Hollywood.” Why do you think there is this massive void of Latinx narratives in Hollywood?
ZAMORA: Well, I think to me, as a Mexican-American living in the United States, I see a couple things — especially because I also worked in Hispanic advertising for eight years. I was sort of familiar with all the markets and the sections, and as you know, a Latinx is kind of a tricky term because it includes a lot of backgrounds and cultural stories that are different.
Mexican-Americans are two-thirds of this Latinx community of purchasing power. We need to understand that there is diversity and generational diversity. Third or fourth-generation Mexican-Americans from Texas are not the same first-generation immigrants from California. You have a lot of unique points of view that you could cater to so you can’t just all put them all under the monolith of Latinx and I think that’s why it’s so difficult to crack, because who do you cater to? Which stories do you take that will resonate with everyone?
For me, the way that I approach these things is, because we’re so different and so unique I would rather lean into the uniqueness. If it’s a Mexican story that takes place in Southern California let’s lean into that. The other solution is how do we make the universal and global. Is it through genre? Is it through music? Is it through other universal storytelling themes that resonate across the globe, and I think that is the challenge. To get very specific and authentic, but also bridge to a global base where it could bring more people who are not Latino to experience Latino stories. I also think if Latinos are showing up to the movie theater as the biggest group, do we really change anything? Because we already have that market with what little they give that. It’s like, “Great we don’t need to do more because they are showing up.”
So, there’s that Catch-22 that you’re trying to prove that it’s a good business to expand. What I like about Selena and Netflix is that global reach is teaching people that specific Latinx stories that have global appeal — not just for Mexican-Americans in Texas or Latinos in the U.S.
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