In March of 2017, young concert promoter and artist manager Doris Muñoz decided to organize fundraising dance parties to help young immigrants traverse the legal and bureaucratic morass on the road to citizenship for themselves or their families.

Just over a year later, Muñoz has organized seven other music events in Los Angeles to support Dreamers and other immigrants, including several wildly successful "Selena for Sanctuary" concerts that, in addition to supporting immigrant rights, also celebrated the late Tejano pop star Selena Quintanilla-Pérez. In a free concert Thursday, July 26, Lincoln Center Out of Doors presents the first such concert outside of Los Angeles.

Speaking from Los Angeles via phone, Muñoz describes how a tribute to Selena to support immigrant relief was a natural choice: "Selena is so legendary to our community, especially within the Chicano community," she explains, paraphrasing a line from the movie Selena, which starred Jennifer Lopez: "'We're not Mexican enough, we're not American enough.' Selena represented a beautiful middle ground in the process of being an immigrant. She really set an example—it was the ultimate form of representation for a little niñita like me to see a Chicana on stage."

Poised for crossover superstardom before her untimely death, Selena was the first female Tejano performer to win a Grammy for best Mexican-American album, singing in both English and Spanish, although she did not grow up speaking Spanish and learned her first songs phonetically. Her resonance continues decades later, says Muñoz, because first- and second-generation youth living their America—being called pocho, a derogatory term for Mexican Americans who cannot speak Spanish well—still identify with an artist who represented a successful bridge between two cultures.

The free Lincoln Center Out of Doors event opens with dembow-bodega urban soundscapes created by Ecuadorian-Lithuanian DJ Riobamba, followed by a stellar line-up of Latinx artists—Mon Laferte, August Eve, Nina Diaz, Gaby Moreno, Omar Apollo, and Cuco—who'll each add their own surprising nuances to the Queen of Tejano's repertoire. The evening also promises a guest appearance by Chris Perez, Selena's widower and the lead guitarist for Selena y Los Dinos, as well as an all-artist finale.

As the concert's music director, Austin-based, Grammy-winning multi-instrumentalist Adrian Quesada coordinated a house band that includes fellow members of the border-town funk-rock band Brownout, as well as musicians from Brooklyn's own Antibalas—all seasoned artists who can be counted on take on any tune with an intelligent, jazzy flair. He invited each guest artist to suggest their favorite Selena songs, a rich inventory that includes tracks from Selena's fifth and final studio album, Dreaming of You, released posthumously in 1995 (and, until last year, the best-selling Latin album ever in the United States). The possibilities include "Tú, solo tú," a longing-filled cover of a classic track by Mexican legend Pedro Infante, as well as the bouncy, dancefloor-friendly "Techno cumbia," which was ubiquitous at family get-togethers, quinceañeras, and weddings in the late nineties, or perhaps the delicately romantic, vulnerable Spanish-language "Como la Flor ("Like a Flower") that describes the withering petals of a flower as a metaphor for lovelorn loss.
 

Creating a Safe Space through Music: Selena for Sanctuary
Illustration by Cynthia Cabrales
Selena for Sanctuary Event Poster

Several nonprofit organizations, including Voto Latino and Make the Road New York, will have a presence at the event to show support for immigrant rights and undocumented communities. It's about successfully creating a safe space, says Muñoz, a concept that also went into the design of the event poster created by L.A.–based, first-generation Latinx illustrator Cynthia Cabrales, which depicts Selena merged with another beloved Mexican icon, the Virgin of Guadalupe. Combining two powerful symbols, explains Muñoz, draws on a "Santa Selena" motif that plays on the etymology of the word "sanctuary" as well as the protectiveness of the Virgin, highlighting Selena as an artist who can inspire immigrant and bicultural communities to embrace their identities proudly.

Using the music to create a sanctuary where one can move freely without fear is a form of activism, says Muñoz. The idea is to come together to convivir—live together—in a space where the music amplifies the message of becoming strong in the joy of being surrounded and supported by the community, all the while summoning the energy of future and possibility.

The very first "Selena for Sanctuary" took place at what Muñoz calls "a dinky 300-cap club in Los Angeles." And now, she exclaims, "We brought it to Lincoln Center!


Catalina Maria Johnson is an international radio broadcaster, bilingual cultural journalist, and music curator.