By Terry Ross (Flickr: Selena Memorial at 1AM) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
The summer I studied abroad in Madrid, I lived with a host family in a small apartment near the Plaza de Toros. It was a working-class neighborhood outside of the city’s center, and while that neighborhood was fine for exploring—certainly exotic to my American senses, with its corner bars and its dirt-grounded park—it wasn’t exactly the Spain I had come to see. To see that
Spain, I took the metro nearly every afternoon after class to the Huertas district near the Teatro Español. I did so because a line in my guidebook said that Huertas was Madrid’s “literary” district. I had no idea what that meant, but as an aspiring writer I figured I should be there.
I didn’t know what to do in Huertas, either. I had some beers, found some good bookstores. Mostly I wandered around by myself with a little green notebook, waiting for the area’s literary-ness to settle on me like the dust of the streets. But though I sometimes felt silly, I never worried I was there by mistake—I was sure that Huertas was the best part of Madrid, and that it was meant to be my home in the city. And to prove it, I could point to the statue of Federico García Lorca opposite the theater on the Plaza de Santa Ana.
Lorca was one of my favorite Spanish writers then; the following year, I would write my senior thesis on two of his plays. But I recognized a certain irony in Lorca’s commemoration: Lorca, a gay author, wrote bitingly about Spain as a patriarchal tomb, depicting in vivid, sometimes surreal detail its machista culture, its backwardness, and its absurd nationalism. He was killed in 1936 by Falangist soldiers, reportedly shot through the buttocks as a final humiliation for his queerness.
Lorca lived beyond the acceptable limits of Spanish society, and paid for it with his life. In his death, he became an institution. This is always what happens, I guess: Huertas also boasts a statue of Calderón de la Barca, another author who critiqued Spanish culture and who, four hundred years later, is seen as a foundational figure in that culture.
But normally you don’t get to watch the institutionalization in progress, and Lorca, then, was modern enough I could still feel the shock of the shift.
I thought of the Lorca statue recently while I was in Corpus Christi, Texas, home to one of my favorite tourist attractions, the Mirador de la flor. The Mirador de la flor is a pavilion on the city’s seawall dedicated to the memory of Selena Quintanilla-Pérez, the Tejano singer and pop-culture sensation who was murdered by her fan club president in 1995. If Lorca with his modern suit stands out among Madrid’s more traditional statues, the Selena statue at the heart of the Mirador de la flor is even more jarringly contemporary. She wears bronzed electric guitar earrings, a leather jacket open over what appears to be a jewel-encrusted bra, and skin-tight pants. Dedicated in 1997, the memorial is one of a handful of memorials to popular musicians that have appeared in Texas cities in recent years. Lubbock has had a Buddy Holly statue since 1980; Austin installed a Stevie Ray Vaughan statue in 1994 and a Willie Nelson statue in 2012.
It’s interesting to think about whom cities choose (or not) to memorialize. Of course cities want to associate themselves with the celebrities who were born or lived within their limits. But statues are also places where, to borrow a phrase from Eula Biss, “a city’s imagination resides.” In college in Austin, I loved to take visitors by the Stevie Ray Vaughan statue to show them: See? This is a different kind of city. The kind of city where we memorialize guitarists in ponchos.
By that I meant that it was a counter-cultural sort of city, sort of my Huertas in Texas. But can a city really define its culture as counter-cultural? And does something get lost in the act of institutionalization? I’m not sure. There are spaces, like Huertas and Austin, that do genuinely foster difference, and those spaces need to cultivate their own memories. On the other hand, there’s something about the bronze of a statue, the gravitas it’s meant to imbue, that undoes the whole attempt.
Maybe that’s why I love the Mirador de la flor. The Selena statue is bronze, too, but there’s no gravitas in the memorial’s include-everything aesthetic. A large white rose (the singer’s favorite flower) is carved into the pillar on which Selena leans, surrounded by a colorful tile mosaic; the singer’s ‘90s synth-pop Tejano plays on a loop while a female narrator relates her story in both English and Spanish. It’s a spot where hundreds of tourists stop nightly to take grinning selfies on the way to Joe’s Crab Shack or Landry’s Seafood. Because of the music, people dance and sing. You’re not sure, looking at it, whether you’re at a solemn memorial or a tourist trap; though the visitors’ affection for the late star is real, the scene has the air of Graceland.
But I also love the Mirador de la flor for this reason: out of all the statues dedicated to musicians in major cities in Texas in recent decades, it’s the only one that commemorates a non-white star. In a state as diverse as Texas, that matters. I’ve written before about Fort Worth’s lack of a statue, or any real memorial, for Ornette Coleman, and the way that lack represents a failure of the city to acknowledge its black population. That failure—the failure to embrace a non-white identity—is one that even Austin shares, as cool as its Stevie Ray and Willie statues may be.
Writing about the Fiesta de la flor, Corpus Christi’s annual celebration of Selena, Lexi Pérez notes that “our collective mourning not only brings us closer together, but also generates a Latina/o identity that can stand firm against the injustices of the past and look onward toward the future, to a place where our group identity not only holds meaning, but also holds potential for change.” In defining itself through Selena, in other words, Corpus Christi does something truly counter-cultural: it embraces its latinidad.