To be honest, it was the whole image thing that roped in Luca Hassard at the age of 12.
Beautiful and famous, yet warm, down-to-earth and close to her family--that was the image of Selena Quintanilla Perez, the Mexican pop superstar who earned widespread admiration among fans in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands known as la frontera.
In the wake of Selena's murder seven months ago, Hassard and a growing number of Latina girls along the border have learned to imitate the Tejano superstar. But unlike the diminutive divas who don their sassy duds strictly in contest settings, Luca is a pro--earning as much as $250 a performance.
When she started her Selena act, Luca was far from your typical bubblegum, baggy-pantsed, Boyz II Men seventh grader. To begin with, she could barely speak English. She was also no slouch with a microphone. The daughter of musician parents who moved to Phoenix five years ago from the Mexican state of Sonora, Luca had already learned to croon the tunes of Mexican singers like Gloria Trev and Alejandra Guzmn.
Then she discovered Selena, a product of the borderlands herself.
Selena helped pioneer a modernized form of Tejano by spicing the accordion-driven TexMex folk music with flavors of hip-hop and cumbia. Her stardom mushroomed onthe strength of hits like "Dondequiera Que Ests" and "Amor Prohibido," and multiplatinum-album sales demonstrated a cross-generational appeal that was unprecedented in American pop music. Despite her massive commercial success, Selena continued to live next door to her parents in the Molina barrio of Corpus Christi, Texas--the neighborhood where she was born.
Neighbors said it wasn't unusual to see her bargain-hunting by herself at the mall or waxing her Porsche in her front yard. Selena's husband, brother and sister all played in her band. She was a Jehovah's Witness whose signature look was a bare midriff and glitter-studded bustier, and as her celebrity seeped into the mainstream press--one performance with fellow Tejano star Emilio at the Houston Astrodome drew 61,000 fans--she was dubbed the Latina Madonna.
Luca Hassard, in her South Phoenix home near Central and Southern avenues, was enamored of the star as an early teen and began to mimic her look and style. Selena didn't wear dresses that showed too much leg or sing lyrics that were overly suggestive.
"Gloria Trev did," the 15-year-old says now. "She said bad words in her songs. When I did that, I was 11 years old, so I didn't know it was bad."
Selena, who won her first Grammy two years ago, was on the verge of mainstream celebrity as 1995 began. At 23, she was recording her first English-language album, which included a tangy duet with former Talking Heads leader David Byrne.
However, Selena's blossoming career was cut short on March 31 when she was shot in the back by Yolanda Saldivar, the founder of her fan club. Saldivar, who had been fired from her position as the club's president because Selena's family suspected her of embezzlement, was convicted of murder two weeks ago and sentenced to life in prison. She maintains the shooting was an accident.
It was lunchtime at South Mountain High School when Luca heard the news on TV that Selena was dead. Students went teary-eyed, some boys lamenting that their girlfriend, their sister, had died, while others callously laughed, unable to understand. "I couldn't believe it," Luca says. "She was my favorite singer."
Selena's English-language album was released after her death. Although only four songs had been recorded before she was killed (the recording was filled out with reissues of some of Selena's Spanish-language hits), the album entered the Billboard charts at No. 1, selling 175,000 copies in a single day.
The show of grief that followed Selena's death caught middle America by surprise, the same way the death of Kurt Cobain lay bare an intergenerational chasm and perplexed baby boomers who couldn't understand how someone they knew so little about could be so important to so many.
With Selena, the chasm was a cultural one. In death, she exposed an undercurrent along lafrontera that was as invisible to people in Oaxaca and Guadalajara as it was to folks in Portland and Kansas City, and even to people on the other side of the tracks in Corpus Christi. The culture-within-a-culture is reverential in its devotion to the singer, because she had helped do what many parents could not accomplish on their own: bring their Americanized children back to Spanish.
In places like Harlingen, Texas, however, the battles among Selena impersonators have gotten ugly. Maniacal parents determined that their daughters will win the latest Selena look-alike contest have resorted topilfering song lists, driving their little bustier-topped, navel-flashing chiquitas to tears. Last month, a Houston newspaper reported that one girl earned a good spanking when she got home for failing to win a competition.
Luca, at 15, is above all that. She is her own little woman--standing about four and a half feet tall and conveying an unassuming confidence. She comes out of her house one morning in a poufy blue cap and wispy yellow blouse (navel exposed, natch), looking eerily like the slain singer. One of her Selena impersonator outfits? No, she says, this is just what she wears to school.
At first, no one believed that Luca could sing and dance, that she'd been performing since she was a member of something called the New Wave Kids at V.H. Lassen Elementary School in the Roosevelt School District. Now, students ask her to sing at school events, and her friends call her "Selenita," or "Little Selena." A sometime poet, Luca has even written a song of her own, called "LosDias Que Pasan," that she plans to record someday.
Luca's Selena-esque features come to her naturally. In a recent performance at a community festival in Hayden Park, near Seventh Avenue and Broadway, it becomes apparent to all watching that, for one thing, baby got back. An ample derrire is a vital element to any successful Selena impersonation, one that a couple of spirited parents in Harlingen, Texas, could debate for hours. Luca also has the dark hair and bronze skin, though her face is not quite as pouty and impish as her idol's. The glittery costumes that accentuate her natural assets are made by her mother.
Luca's parents, Maria Luisa and Orlando Hassard, are musicians who play lounges, weddings, quinceaeras and dances. Recently, they started taking their daughter along as an opening act. Requests for her shows have come from as far away as Farmington, New Mexico. She has played clubs and swap meets, and a picture of her as Selena on the wall of El Flamingo--a South Phoenix lounge where her parents perform--has turned more than a few heads.
At a show last month, Luca came out in a glittery gold top, tight black pants and heels. With her father operating the musicworks inthe background, she showed off the studied Selena looks and moves she learned by memorizing videotaped performances on Spanish-language TV--the extra-wide mouth, the swivel stutter step.
The wee kids watched from the pavement while the head-shrugging teens and curious adults took it in from farther away, underneath the trees and picnic ramadas. She looks like her, doesn't she? they said to each other.
Well, yes, but ... she doesn't sing that good.
Lookit, though, she has the butt.
Luca comes from the northern swath of Mexico, where, unlike parts farther south, people knew what Selena was all about: the fusion of cultures on the U.S.-Mexico border, Americans of Mexican heritage, Mexicans with American dreams. There are said to be booths at swap meets that sell only Selena merchandise, and mothers and daughters have been seen wearing matching shirts that bear her image. It's not that much of a stretch to think of the felled star as sort of a modern-day, regional version of laVirgen de Guadalupe.
The religious figure is a national symbol in Mexico, its ubiquitousness a sign of the Spanish-Indian racial/cultural union that birthed today's Mexico. Selena, whose posthumous fame has lent her an almost apparitionlike status, is a sign of yet another union, this one cultural and national.
"I just say, 'This is in memory of Selena,'" Luca says. "I'm not trying to copy her. Well, I do copy her, but I want to do my own style. I want to be me."
That could be difficult when she looks so much like the person she doesn't want to be. When her performance at Hayden Park is done, and she reappears from a back room on her way to her father's truck, the kids mob her. As she walks, miniature fans and paparazzi, armed with pen and paper and clicking cameras, swarm like dust swirling at her feet. Even one of the teens watching from afar breaks down and asks for an autograph of her own. It reads: Luca--Interprete deSelena.