House Hispanic Caucus Formally Endorses ‘Selena’ for National Film Registry

In our nation’s capital, even in the midst of a month that has brought both the chaos and violence of the January 6th Capitol insurrection, as well as the Biden inauguration and transition, another unprecedented event has occurred. It involves the National Film Registry, the ongoing and prestigious list of America’s most culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant films curated by and preserved at the Library of Congress. The House Hispanic Caucus has endorsed the 1997 film, Selena, for induction onto the Registry. The film tells the life story of popular Mexican-American singer Selena Quintanilla-Pérez, played by Jennifer Lopez. Despite fame, accolades, and a promising career, Selena was ultimately shot and killed by a friend and former manager in 1995, at the age of just 23.

Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX), chair of the House Hispanic Caucus, made his case for the film’s inclusion in an open letter. The letter is addressed to the Librarian of Congress, the wonderful Dr. Carla Hayden, as well as members of the National Film Preservation Board, which meets annually to determine new Registry selections. “We write to you today respectfully asking that the National Film Registry work to increase its number of films that focus on American Latino experiences, or that highlight the artistic and technical accomplishments of American Latinos in the film industry,” Castro’s letter states.

When talking about the merits of Selena specifically, the letter states that “the film has become a beloved icon of Latino culture and has found widespread mainstream success, proving once and for all that Latino stories are American stories. Given its importance as a work of Latino cinema, we believe it is deserving of preservation at the Library of Congress.” The letter concludes by saying “We trust you will give Selena careful consideration, and hope to see it included in the titles added to the National Film Registry in 2021.”

To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time that any member of Congress has endorsed any specific movie being added to the Registry in the over 30 years of the Registry’s existence. In fact, Congress seems to have had a pretty “hands-off” approach to Registry-related issues, preferring to defer to the professionals at the Library of Congress and the National Film Preservation Board. While this letter has led to news coverage and speculation about its potential impact, I am a little worried about the precedent that this sets. It’s one where individual Congressional caucuses, and perhaps even individual members of Congress, could feel the need to lobby for specific movies in their capacity as legislators. There are many congressional caucuses, representing things as varied as political ideology, racial and ethnic background, and there’s even a Congressional Bike Caucus. It doesn’t take much to think about how much more topsy-turvy it would be for the public discussion surrounding the Registry if every caucus felt compelled to endorse a specific movie for inclusion.

If Selena does indeed make it on when new selections are announced in December, it would raise a worrying question as to whether or not Rep. Castro and the rest of the House Hispanic Caucus had a disproportionate influence on the selection process by writing this letter. I tend to trust the National Film Preservation Board, which is made up of film industry professionals, critics, and scholars, more than I tend to trust the whims of lawmakers engaging in acts of political theater. The board currently comprises members such as legendary directors Martin Scorsese and Christopher Nolan, actor Alfre Woodard, and film critic Leonard Maltin. Shouldn’t the people who have committed their lives to and are immersed in film culture, and were appointed to further the Registry’s mission, get the final say instead of elected officials?

Based on what Rep. Castro stated in the letter, the choice of Selena seems to stem from the popularity of the music of the real-life Selena. However, Selena’s music has already been honored on a different registry of the Library of Congress. The Library is also responsible for the National Recording Registry, a collection of significant music and audio recordings that works in a similar way and serves a similar purpose to the Film Registry. Last year, Selena’s second album, Ven Conmigo, was added to the National Recording Registry. Having an entire album selected for the Registry is a high honor, as many musicians are only represented on the Registry by an individual song. If part of the purpose of the endorsement of this film is to honor Selena and her music, as Rep. Castro seems to imply, the Library already did that a year ago, thus making the recommendation of Selena a more confusing one.

However, I have always advocated Americans nominating and voting for their personal choices for the Registry and letting their voices be heard. The House Hispanic Caucus’ letter is certainly a part of that great tradition. I would have preferred that the House Hispanic Caucus present a list of films that they would endorse rather than rallying over one specific, individual movie. The letter is not wrong in stating that gaps do exist regarding Hispanic inclusion on the Registry, and perhaps this is a step in alleviating some of that. But the emphasis should always be on educating the public, including racial minorities, about the purpose of the Registry and advocating for them to nominate and vote for their personal choices. The National Film Registry cannot be allowed to devolve into what an individual lawmaker or caucus thinks is politically fashionable, even if they have the best intentions at heart.