IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

‘Selena’ 25th anniversary: Iconic Latino movie rereleased in theaters

The film about the life and death of the “Queen of Tejano Music” is in the National Film Registry and decades after it was made, its showing in theaters is highly anticipated.
Jennifer Lopez in "Selena."
Jennifer Lopez plays the lead role in the 1997 movie "Selena," which is being re-released in theaters Thursday.Warner Bros.

The iconic 1997 movie "Selena" is celebrating its 25th anniversary by showing in 500 theaters nationwide on Thursday.

The movie, starring Jennifer Lopez in a career-changing role, was released two years after the tragic death of Selena Quintanilla, who was fatally shot by the president of her fan club at the peak of her career at age 23.

The re-release is giving “Selena” lovers a chance to see it on the big screen, while introducing new audiences to the “Queen of Tejano Music.”

Yuliana Pantoja, 40, took her teen daughter and younger son to an afternoon showing at the Starlight Whittier Village Cinemas in Whittier, California.

“I wanted to show my kids something that was part of me growing up,” Pantoja said. She wanted her children to see the story of Selena's success and how Selena's parents worked so hard for her to reach that.

"I was in high school when that happened, and I'm happy that my daughter is now a fan and enjoying her music too," she said.

Veteran Mexican American filmmaker and "Selena" director Gregory Nava has a simple explanation of why the movie has stood the test of time.

“It’s a testament to the magic of Selena that the movie is coming back,” Nava told NBC News. “It surprised all of us; it's more popular today than when we originally made it. It means so much to everybody.”

Nava's musical biopic did more than only tell the inspirational story of a young Mexican American from Texas who overcame obstacles with her family's support, breaking barriers in a male-dominated music genre and writing hit songs in English and Spanish.

The movie also helped immortalize Selena’s legacy following her untimely death, becoming a cultural marker for Mexican Americans and other Latinos who saw their own bicultural family experiences reflected in her life story.

'I've never experienced anything so emotional'

Nava said he remembers holding Lopez and weeping after filming the movie's powerful opening scene, one of the most memorable in the film.

Lopez was in her dressing room, still wearing her Selena costume, after re-creating the singer's last concert in the Houston Astrodome in front of 35,000 people who filled the stadium for free, Nava recalled.

"There's no visual effects on that scene in 'Selena.' Those are all real people, really filling that stadium," Nava, who turns 73 next weekend, said. "As a director, you're sitting in front of this huge crowd. Jennifer comes on stage, and she performs amazingly. The crowd went crazy; they're crying, and they're celebrating. Her family was there."

Gregory Nava
Director Gregory Nava speaks at the 2018 Roger Ebert's Film Festival.Timothy Hiatt / Getty Images file

"I've never experienced anything so emotional in my life, in any film I've ever made," Nava said, adding that her "spirit was with us when we made that film."

Lopez commemorated the film’s anniversary with a heartfelt Instagram post last week. Portraying Selena catapulted the Bronx, New York-born Puerto Rican singer and actor to stardom.

“Today we celebrate and honor Selena’s legacy and music. This movie means so much to me,” Lopez wrote. “Selena and her family mean so much to me, and I was so lucky to be chosen to play her. I’ll never forget this time in my life and it’s an honor as an artist to have been part of the magic that is this movie.”

A chronicler of the Latino experience

Before making "Selena," Nava had already established himself as one of the nation’s most renowned Latino filmmakers with movies like "El Norte" and "My Family."

"El Norte" — which earned Nava and his co-screenwriter and former spouse, Anna Thomas, an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay in 1985 — follows the perilous path of two siblings from Guatemala who have to leave their Indigenous community to escape the brutal civil war tearing their homeland apart in the 1980s.

The movie shows in searing detail their journey crossing the Mexican border to get to Los Angeles. Once in the U.S., the siblings realize the wealth and safety they yearned for is not guaranteed, as they navigate a foreign culture and an unknown language and try to evade immigration officials and find work in precarious places like sweatshops or the back of a restaurant.

About 35 years after the movie premiered, "El Norte" was restored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and re-released for a series of special showings in theaters and digital formats in 2019.

In "My Family," Nava depicted the lives and experiences of two generations of a Mexican American family who have been living in Los Angeles since the 1920s. Described in a review as "the great American story," the film's all-star cast includes Edward James Olmos, Constance Marie, Esai Morales, Jimmy Smits and Jennifer Lopez.

Lopez, Marie and Olmos reunited two years later to make "Selena" alongside Nava.

The cast and director of the new film "Selena"
Cast members Jon Seda, Jennifer Lopez, Edward James Olmos and Constance Marie pose with director Gregory Nava, behind, at the premiere of "Selena" in 1997.Fred Prouser / Reuters file

Both "Selena" and "El Norte" have been inducted into the National Film Registry for preservation — cementing through his movies some of the most defining experiences of being Latino in the U.S., including struggles with assimilation, being bicultural and code-switching, the practice of alternating between two languages or cultures.

“It turns out that that message resonates with everybody,” Nava said. “If you tell the truth about who you are, you really tell a universal story for everybody.”

Nava also worked as a screenwriter on “Frida,” the acclaimed biographical film about Mexican painter and artist Frida Kahlo, starring Salma Hayek.

"All my films, they're like your children: You love them all," Nava said. But he said "Selena" is still among the most special to him, particularly "because there was no circumstance like this making a film."

"Selena's light is now shining so bright on everybody," he said, "and it's an inspiration to everybody."

Follow NBC Latino on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.