In the moments leading up to Selena Quintanilla’s final televised concert, in February of 1995 — just weeks before the singer was shot and killed at a motel in Corpus Christi, Texas — the reigning Queen of Tejano music rode into the Houston Astrodome in a white horse-drawn carriage. Twenty-three years old and at the height of her fame, she waved regally to over 60,000 screaming fans before belting her way through songs like “Baila Esta Cumbia,” “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom,” and “Como la Flor,” new Tejano anthems that had taken the young singer from state fairs and quinceañeras to sold-out stadiums and world tours seemingly overnight.
But earlier this year, more than two decades after Selena’s murder, Brooklyn’s Amor Prohibido took the stage for the very first time in a drastically different setting. Though the setlist remained largely unchanged — the same songs of love and longing once sung sweetly by Selena twenty years earlier — the room was now filled with the sounds of distorted guitar, wailing vocals, and dozens of sweaty punks all shouting and raising their fists in unison.
Named after the final album released before the singer’s death, Amor Prohibido is perhaps the first group in New York City to bill itself distinctly as a Selena punk rock cover band. And though, over the years, Selena’s legacy has come to be that of a counterculture icon and beloved figure in the LGBT community, inspiring drag shows and tribute concerts across the country, at last it seems her songs have been given some of the raw angst and energy they justly deserve.
“Amor Prohibido, it means forbidden love,” says Shomara “Shomi Noise” Terceros, the band’s lead singer. With a couple of hours to kill before practice, Terceros and her bandmates are huddled around a small table at Champs Diner in Bushwick, idly sipping mugs of tea and black coffee. “She’s singing about being in love with someone who might not be from her same social status, but she’s like, ‘I don’t care, we love each other.’ And to me, that’s punk as fuck.
“You can even give it a queer spin,” Terceros adds. “It’s like, ‘Oh, we’re queer and we love each other. Who cares?’ ”
Born in Lake Jackson, Texas, a small city some 300 miles northeast of the Mexican border, Selena would go on to both celebrate her Chicana identity and also transcend racial, cultural, and linguistic lines through her music. Though today Amor Prohibido has made Bushwick its de facto home — rehearsing at the Sweatshop on Meserole Street and performing regularly at Don Pedro, a punk club nearby on Manhattan Avenue — its members originally hail from all over Latin America. Raised in Bolivia, Terceros first heard Selena on the radio as a little girl and fell in love almost immediately. After immigrating to West New York, New Jersey at the age of twelve, she used the singer’s music to cope with feelings of isolation and otherness despite her neighborhood’s burgeoning Latino population.
“I listened to music to get away from bullying and all that, and Selena was just a really great role model. Her music is so positive,” Terceros, now 33, explains. Over the years, she’s documented her personal journey as a young queer immigrant and woman of color in a series of zines titled Building Up Emotional Muscles. “I think for me it has to do with genuineness. Selena was very genuine and true to herself and this comes across so clearly in her music.”
Later in life, punk and DIY culture would provide Terceros with a similar catharsis, emboldening her with a sense of community and a means of rebelling against her surroundings. She discovered the queercore scene, learned to play guitar, and began listening to riot grrrl bands like Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, and Lunachicks. And while punk is often still associated with white suburbia — even when it comes to the genre’s more inclusive iterations — for decades the Latino punk movement has found deep roots across the U.S. and Latin America.
“There are people who say Latin Americans don’t have any other option but to be punk, because you’re so broke all the time and so against everything,” says Nico Behncke, Amor Prohibido’s bass player. Born in Argentina, he found punk through the Buenos Aires–based band Dos Minutos and, like Terceros, immigrated to West New York during middle school. “There are political systems against you; the International Monetary Fund is on top of you; the U.S. Army is all over South America, so you have no other option but to protest everything, to become punk.”
In the 1997 biopic starring Jennifer Lopez, Selena’s father, played by Edward James Olmos, barks, “We are not a disgusting punk rock group!” after his daughter’s guitarist and future husband, Chris Pérez, trashes a hotel room on the road. But despite the denunciation in the film and the persistent image of the singer as a polished pop star, there is perhaps something inherently punk about Selena in 2015. For decades, the performer has been lauded for blending seemingly disparate genres like country, cumbia, reggae, and r&b into her music. But today she is also lionized across generations for her independence, nonconformity, and status as a sex symbol. (Terceros and the band’s drummer, Maria Toro, occasionally honor Selena’s style onstage by donning her signature rhinestone-studded bustiers.) Her rise to fame took place during a period in American history when the country’s Latino community was rapidly transforming under controversial government policies, and many immigrant families saw Selena as a representation of their own hopes and aspirations.
“She died at a point in 1995 when there were tremendous changes in the landscape for Latinos in the U.S. In 1996 there’s immigration reform and welfare reform, and NAFTA had just been instituted in ’94,” explains Deborah Paredez, an associate professor at Columbia University’s School of the Arts and author of Selenidad: Selena, Latinos, and the Performance of Memory. “At the same time, there’s also this moment where Latinos are kind of being celebrated or discovered as a cultural phenomenon through Latin music.
“People found [in their grief for Selena] a really important and vital space to mourn their own losses,” she adds. “She embodied the tragedy that many Latinos face, which is death at a young age.”
Selena and punk rock are perhaps able to coexist because they represent two separate worlds that nonetheless shaped the lives of many young Latinas in America. For years, bands like Me First and the Gimme Gimmes have made careers out of turning pop songs from Madonna and Diana Ross into punk anthems by laying on the distortion and speeding up the tempo. But with Amor Prohibido, there seems to be a deeper cultural observance taking place.
The band was largely formed around Riot Chica, a monthly party founded by Terceros in the hopes of creating a safe space for queer voices and women of color in the punk scene. And while Terceros has long performed in New York City as a DJ and tastemaker — also hosting Telenovela, a dance party featuring Latin oldies from the Forties and Fifties — the response to Amor Prohibido in particular has so far been overwhelming.
“When we played that first show, we saw that this is a lot bigger than us. The crowd was excited and they were going to love it even if we were bad, even if we were really bad,” says Emma Rock, the group’s keyboard player. Born to a Jewish family in South Brooklyn, she began listening to Selena this year after meeting Terceros and asking to join the band. “When that happened, I realized that we’re part of a bigger cultural celebration of a hero to the Latino/Latina community.”
Twenty years after her death, Selena’s legacy indeed continues to flourish and evolve. On December 19, in celebration of the two-year anniversary of Riot Chica, Terceros and her bandmates will once again play through the singer’s greatest hits at Don Pedro. And though her songs were perhaps never meant to be played in double-time on a beer-soaked stage, Amor Prohibido is carrying on the spirit of Selena and Tejano music all the same by continuing to chart new territory nearly 2,000 miles away from Corpus Christi, in Brooklyn.
“There is something about Selena that’s punk in her kind of DIY aesthetic,” admits Paredez, a Tejana herself from San Antonio. “If she hadn’t seen it done before, then she was just going to make it happen herself.”
Amor Prohibido play Don Pedro on December 19. For more information, click here.