Who is the first celebrity you think about when you ponder over the idea of Latinidad, the term author Melissa Lozada-Oliva uses to refer to Latinx identity? Whether you’re a member of the Latinx community or not, most of us think of Selena Quintanilla Pérez, the Mexican-American queen of Tejano music. Lozada-Oliva is no different. In drafting a collection of poems to depict Lozada-Oliva’s confusion regarding her femininity and Latinx identity through a fictionalized version of herself, she brings the iconic Selena back to life in “Dreaming of You,” spiraling into a world of chaos and insanity.
Before the novel-in-verse itself even begins, Lozada-Oliva prefaces the text by introducing a diverse and creative cast of characters. Included, among others, is the aforementioned fictionalized version of Lozada-Oliva herself, as she specifies in the character description, and You — that is, the reader. The fictionalized version of the author depicted throughout the novel is named Melissa. She loosely employs autobiographical details — such as her job as a poet — into the protagonist’s characterization. I will refer to the author as Lozada-Oliva and the character in “Dreaming of You” as Melissa.
Melissa is eventually described as a young, lonely, heartbroken poet who, one day, decides to bring Selena back to life. She accomplishes this through a series of steps she takes to become Selena, such as “(purchasing) chunky gold hoops” and “(buying) some bright red lipstick that will stain,” ending with Selena sitting alive and well in her Brooklyn living room. Although the narrator’s intention to bring Selena back to life was initially positive, she ends up living under Selena’s shadow while grappling with various other issues.
Through interesting yet misleading prose, Lozada-Oliva recounts distinct experiences Melissa has, like a soul-shattering crush, panic attacks and other struggles with mental health. We even witness her attending a prom full of dead celebrities. At times, it is unclear to the reader whether Melissa’s crush is Selena, You or a separate character. Although a chapter near the beginning of the novel titled “Crush Sonnets” clarifies that You is the crush Melissa is talking about, a specific interaction between Selena, You and Melissa contradicts this confirmation. In a matter of two pages, Melissa explains that “it scares (her) to look at (Selena),” a feeling anyone who’s had a crush understands all too well. Yet, when Selena and You meet, “You (does) not say anything to (Melissa).” Does Melissa have a crush on Selena? On You? On both? On neither? I think I can safely say that, in the end, You is Melissa’s crush, but the fact that I’m still left doubting signals a major clarity issue in the novel.
Selena is inarguably an adored celebrity. This is shown in the novel when, the moment she’s brought back to life, Selena’s contacted by a representative to go on tour after a mere appearance in Melissa’s poetry reading. She was, in a way, made for the spotlight. This representative’s immediate gravitation toward Selena’s talent is similar to the infatuation many of her fans developed with her, one of these being Yolanda Saldívar, whose fictionalized version claims to “think about (Selena) every day.” Sadly, Saldívar’s adoration eventually became toxic and dangerous, tragically leading to Selena’s death and inquiries about whether the murder was a crime of passion or personal interest.
The mere figure of Selena in a book about Latinx representation is empowering and Lozada-Oliva’s use of Spanish and English provides non-Latinx readers with a sneak peek at what Latinidad is, albeit in a stereotypical way. While Latinidad is different for every member of the Latinx community, it is a universal experience at the same time, an interesting particularity I feel “muy excited” about, as Selena’s character in the novel would say.
The novel’s title, “Dreaming of You,” is a callback to one of Selena’s songs with the same title. The tune is a love song with a melancholic, romantic tone, as the singer paints an image of herself late at night dreaming about a mystery love interest referred to as “You.” Lozada-Oliva adopts this personification in her novel, making “You” a character. In dreaming of “You,” she refers to the crush that consumes her throughout the entirety of the novel. One could even go as far as to say that Melissa also dreams of being as compellingly and exquisitely Latina as Selena is, hence the song title adopted as a novel title. Selena presented herself in a way that made every Latina want to be just like her. From her iconic style to her unique voice to her culturally Latina look, it is no surprise that, growing up American with Latinx roots, Lozada-Oliva wanted to imitate every facet of Selena’s being, much like other Latina girls. Overall, the novel touches on a variety of themes — such as celebrity life and adoration to the point of obsession, Latinx representation and the real meaning of Latinidad — all topics that are succinctly encapsulated in the novel’s title.
It is important to note that, although undeniably a quintessential Latina icon, Selena was largely Americanized throughout her life. She grew up speaking English in Texas and began learning Spanish by including it in her songs. Nonetheless, it’s understandable why she became such a beloved figure for the Latinx community, especially for Latinxs that grew up in the United States, as she embraced both her Mexican and American identities and refused to shy away from the pride she felt in her biculturalism. Moreover, the true story behind Selena’s death makes her even more captivating as an artist and public figure, as she was shot by her close friend and president of her fan club, Yolanda Saldívar.
Lozada-Oliva’s writing is captivating and her poems are strikingly beautiful, but the novel as a whole is confusing. In connecting Latinidad to figures like Selena in order to communicate how identities like the Latina pop star’s are unattainable for most, Lozada-Oliva creates a disorganized expression of her own Latinidad. While it is totally understandable to try to come to terms with one’s own identity, Lozada-Oliva does so in a stereotypical way. For instance, while including Spanish words in English phrases is exciting for Latinx readers, we are tired of an inaccurate representation of Spanglish. The inclusion of expressions like “mi vida” and “cuídate” (which Lozada-Oliva misspells as “cuidate”), although exciting, is the bare minimum, and not accurate of the reality of Spanglish speakers.
Even so, as a Latina woman, I must admit I felt seen by some lines in the novel. When Lozada-Oliva writes “Maria’s singing ‘Gasolina’ by Daddy Yankee / because it’s the only song they have in Spanish / and also, weirdly, she likes it,” I felt instantly transported to the experiences I’ve had as a Latina studying in the United States. When an anonymous interviewer misspells Lozada-Oliva’s name as “Melissa Losado-Oliviana,” I felt her trying to play off the misspelling as an honest mistake, but repetitive misspelling and mispronunciation can hurt until one becomes numb to it. Although stereotypical, these are universal Latinx experiences that are relieving and exciting to see represented in popular culture.
Aside from stereotypical, surface-level representation, the novel does little for the Latinx-American experience. Although a quick read, the writing can be very misleading due to the use of confusing and vague language, making it easy for the reader to get lost frequently. Additionally, the romanticized version of Yolanda that Lozada-Oliva develops throughout the novel is immensely problematic. This is not to say that Lozada-Oliva directly excuses Yolanda’s crime; she has Yolanda admit to the crime by saying “I killed her, okay. I killed her just to see myself better.” However, the fact that she portrays Yolanda’s journey to murdering Selena as a coming-of-age in itself doesn’t sit right with me, and will probably make other readers uncomfortable as well.
I went into this novel looking to feel seen. Did I feel seen? Yes. Would I recommend it to other Latinx people looking for relatable media that reflects their identity accurately? No. Lozada-Oliva is an excellent poet. Her poetry is captivating and creative, and it enamors the reader with just a few lines. I understand why she felt compelled to write a novel entirely in verse — her poems definitely deserve to be read, and what better way to put them out into the world than as a compilation of poems that tell a full story? Notwithstanding, she has to refine the way in which she portrays Latinidad. In seeking out the figure of Selena and trying to bring her back to life through pages and ink, Lozada-Oliva complicates both the reality of Latinidad, as well as Selena’s legacy.
Daily Arts Writer Graciela Batlle Cestero can be reached at email@example.com.