Christian Serratos on Playing a Latina Icon, Facing the Critics, and What’s Next

“Sometimes I can’t decide if I like social media or not,” Christian Serratos says with genuine bewilderment. “It can really bring people together and inspire you.” She pauses, carefully contemplating what she’s about to say next. “But then also at times it just—it really gives people superpowers, doesn’t it?”

It’s early December, almost a week after the premiere of Selena: The Series on Netflix, and Serratos and I are chatting about the show’s early reception. It feels like a casual conversation between old friends; she’s dressed in an oversize vintage Disneyland sweatshirt while I am sitting cross-legged on my living-room floor. I ask how she handles the online chatter, suggesting sometimes people can get bold behind a smartphone. 

“I would be embarrassed being that mean, but I guess that’s beside the point,” she laughs. It’s a dig, though not at anyone or anything specifically. Her body language is conveying a familiar cocktail of resignation and self-assurance. She knows people will have their opinions, but she’s not letting the noise infiltrate her relative contentment. “I don’t know. I’m very sensitive, but I’m also 30,” she says. “I have a great husband, my family’s dope, my kid is awesome. And I feel very connected to my Mexican culture.”

Serratos, a Southern California native, quite literally grew up in the entertainment industry. She began figure skating at age three and signed with a modeling agency at age seven. She got her start in television as a Nickelodeon star playing Suzie Crabgrass in Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide and eventually made the leap to film with a supporting role in the Twilight movie franchise. In 2014, she landed a recurring gig on The Walking Dead and has been on the show ever since.

There’s no doubt Serratos’ star has been on the rise for the better part of a decade. But her shining moment didn’t arrive until just 32 days ago when part one of Selena: The Series premiered on Netflix. The highly anticipated show chronicles the life of Selena Quintanilla-Pérez, the beloved Tejano singer who was tragically murdered by her fan club president in 1995. She was just 23 years old.

Now, more than a quarter-century later, Serratos is playing the superstar in the series, a role she’s been unknowingly preparing for her entire life. “I had been performing her songs since I was four,” she shares. “I didn’t have many people that looked like me that I could look up to. Selena was one of those people for me. I grew up listening to her, admiring her, and kind of feeling like she was my friend or my family.”

I share with Serratos that I, too, am Mexican-American. I also love Selena and her music. But the similarities end there. The thought of even attempting to emulate the Latina icon is, well, incredibly anxiety-inducing to me. Serratos, on the other hand, describes the opportunity as an “homage” to one of her idols. “It was a way of thanking her for what she’s done for me, my daughter, our community,” she shares. “I knew that by being intimidated and having that fear a little bit, it was going to push me to work as hard as I could.”

There’s no tiptoeing around the fact that fans—Selena’s fans, in particular—can be very territorial. Possessive, even. I ask if she’s paid attention to any of the early reviews that have been coming in. “A little,” she tells me. “I won’t actively look for any, but people send me stuff or I’ll be on group texts. If I’m scrolling through Instagram and I see something, I’ll look at it. But for the most part, I try to stay away from it.”

What is “it” exactly? When you’re a young actress like Serratos stepping into the shoes of one of the most beloved performers of all time, it’s difficult to avoid reading about all the critiques and comparisons. “With Selena, obviously, it’s more of a vulnerable position that I’m in because of who this woman is,” Serratos says. “It’s my first time really leading a show in this way, so I stay away from it more just because I tend to be sensitive, and I want to focus on what it is that we did. I think the most important thing is telling the story of this Latin family.”

Some critics have argued that Selena’s story has already been told, most notably by the 1997 biopic starring Jennifer Lopez. Many fans don’t quite see the value in continuing to rehash all the traumatic details of Selena’s life and untimely death. “But that’s not what happened here,” Serratos says. “What happened is that we got the opportunity to tell the story again—” she stops mid-sentence to self-edit in real-time. “You know what? No. We’re telling our story for the first time. We have not seen this story.”

She’s right. We haven’t explored Selena’s story from when she was a child. The original film touched on it briefly but left out key elements of Selena’s formative years. When I watched the first few episodes of the series, I was struck by the level of poverty she experienced as a child. At one point, her family signs up for food stamps and moves in with Selena’s uncle. Selena, her parents, and her siblings all sleep in a single room, with the three Quintanilla kids squeezed together on the floor.

Peeling back the layers of who she was before she became a global icon is relevant because as much as people love Selena, how much do her fans really know about her? She was killed at such a young age, in such a Shakespearean way, that in death, she was almost reborn and transformed into an immortal deity. 

At times, the adoration for Selena can blur out the complexities of her upbringing, particularly her unconventional childhood of touring and attending school from a distance, long before “virtual learning” was even a thing. The series, Serratos believes, will not only offer a more complete narrative of who Selena was but will also introduce her to an entirely new generation. The oldest Gen-Zers were just being born when the 1997 film came out. “If we get to tell an elongated version of this family’s story, and it’s going to open the doors for other stories, then that’s absolutely appropriate and important for right now,” Serratos says. “We just got to support each other because if we’re not supporting one another, we’re not going to bring change in this industry.”

For part two of the series, which will be released sometime in 2021, Serratos opted to do her own makeup, which she divulges helped her dive deeper into the character. “It did make me feel so much more grounded in the universe of what I was doing, especially because Selena was her own everything. She was her own choreographer, her own stylist, her own makeup artist.”

Indeed, Selena was a master of DIY everything before the days of YouTube tutorials. In the show, she’s eager to create looks for her and her band, most of which she made using materials and tools like glitter and glue guns. Unlike their shared love of makeup, that crafty approach to fashion is not something Serratos can personally relate to. “I’m kind of the opposite,” she says. “But I love that she was so invested. She was her own creation, and that’s incredible.”

On the fashion front, Serratos has teamed up with stylist to the stars Law Roach, whose roster of celebrity clients includes Zendaya, Kerry Washington, Tiffany Haddish, and Priyanka Chopra. It’s a partnership she’s been scheming for more than two years. “The final straw [of] like, ‘Fuck it—I need to find who this person is,’ was when I saw Zendaya at the Met Gala in 2018. I just reached out to him. He’s a dream to work with. We want to have great moments in fashion and create amazing conversations. I’d rather let the fashion speak for itself. Let them interpret what my inspiration was on their own.”

Beyond wearing Selena’s sequinned jumpsuits and sky-high stilettos, Serratos also put on her producer hat for the series. After part two debuts (which she says will feature more of Selena’s iconic performances), she plans on exploring that side of the film and television industry further. “I love acting, but it means so much more when I know that I’ve invested more than just the actual act,” she shares. “I always want the best for everybody, but especially, obviously, Latinas. I just want everyone to succeed, and I want to see everyone do amazing work. And if I get to work with a bunch of incredibly talented Latinas for the rest of my life, I’d be so happy.”

Team Credits:

Photographer: Shane McCauley 

Stylist: Law Roach 

Hairstylist: Bryce Scarlett 

Makeup Artist: Jenna Kristina 

Manicurist: Thuy Nguyen

Creative Director: Alexa Wiley 

Video: Samuel Schultz 

Special Thanks: Blackheart Studio