Becky Lee Meza

Vive Tu Sueno


By John Sanchez

Often when a person dies young, we comfort ourselves by ignoring any evidence that the departed’s life was anything but continual bliss. It’s an understandable impulse, but it can have some pretty awful consequences. The movie Selena was a multimillion-dollar example of this kind of mourning, an ode to the energy level, beauty, and cultural significance of slain Mexican-American singer Selena Quintanilla. It could well have been a cautionary tale about child stardom, but because the executive producer was Abraham Quintanilla, Selena’s father and manager, it never came close.

Selena’s father first pushed her into showbiz with Los Dinos–an all-kid Tejano band named for an unsuccessful combo of his own. Shortly thereafter he took a financial risk opening a Mexican restaurant, which soon went belly-up. (In the movie, a woman with a bit part explains, “It’s that Ronald Reagan,” blaming the business’s failure on the first-term president’s economic policies.) The family lost its house, and the band was sent out on the road. Eventually Selena’s career took up too much time, so her father took her out of eighth grade, reportedly against her wishes and despite the fact that she was a good student. But the isolation and pressure of Selena’s teen years is brushed aside in the movie; instead, the father-daughter conflict is acknowledged only in an extended spat over a bustier and in a fairy-tale-like segment in which Selena weds her guitarist against her father’s wishes.

Selena’s eventual success established her as a powerful symbol of achievement for Mexican-Americans, particularly because of her popularity in Mexico and other markets where Chicano performers had long been unwelcome. But a symbol is not the same thing as a role model–Selena’s accomplishments are rightly celebrated, but her path shouldn’t necessarily be emulated. That’s why, for all its hearts and flowers, Vive Tu Sueno, by Becky Lee Meza, looks like a tragedy in the making. Though Selena is never directly referred to on the album, it’s obviously intended to capitalize on the fact that ten-year-old Meza played her in the movie. She can’t have won a recording contract for her singing voice, which sounds like any other sixth-grade girl’s. (Young Selena’s vocals in the movie were provided by Jennifer Pena, the 13-year-old performer Abraham began managing shortly after Selena’s death.) Vive Tu Sueno romanticizes Meza’s early stardom the same way the film sugarcoated Selena’s.

Meza–who, like Selena, is from Texas–had no previous acting experience when she was chosen in a cattle-call audition for the film, but she was a strong addition to the cast assembled by director Gregory Nava. She displayed none of the precociousness that makes most child actors so hard to take. But on Vive Tu Sueno, she’s a regular Shirley Temple Brown: talking like a baby, singing about her daddy, and covering songs from Disney.

At just under a half hour, Vive Tu Sueno (“Live Your Dream”) is a fast-paced concept album that borrows heavily–and clumsily–from the early part of Selena. On the first and last tracks, both titled “Suenos de la Juventud” (“Dreams of Youth”) Meza reads corny passages beginning “Dear diary,” though it’s doubtful any child is this sentimental in her private thoughts, and Meza is not listed in the writing credits. She did have a hand in writing the album’s bilingual “rap” number, “Un Sueno” (“A Dream”), on which she boasts “I had a dream that I could be a star / That I’d sing a song and it would take me far / It took a while for me to understand / That this dream is coming true and that’s who I am.”

On “Suenos de la Juventud,” with her voice full of phony wonderment, she gushes, “Last night I had that same dream again. I was standing on a big stage with a lot of people in the audience. They were all there to listen to me sing….Mommy and daddy were there and they were so proud of me. I like this dream. It makes me happy. And daddy says if you work hard and you don’t give up, dreams can come true.” She hopes they do, she says, because then she can “help all the people in my life.”

These words recall a scene in the movie where the young Selena describes pretty much the same dream to her sister. As in Selena, there’s little discussion of the sacrifices involved in pursuing such a dream–but they’re hinted at in the packaging. The CD booklet opens–centerfold-style–into a miniposter of Meza smiling at the camera over her shoulder, her name and an array of flowers and musical notes printed over her butt.

Since Meza’s success with the movie, her parents have quit their jobs (in a hair salon and social service) to promote their daughter’s career, which has grown to include endorsements for Wendy’s and Big Tex fruit drinks. Selena also supported her family as a girl, though unlike Meza she did not start in the big time. Meza’s parents have talked about wanting to get their own daughter back into school, though that may be difficult if more movie and record deals materialize.

Though Meza’s current situation sounds less difficult than Selena’s early life, it looks like it could get worse in a hurry. Selena’s talent makes an argument, if a qualified one, for the early start to her musical career; Vive Tu Sueno seems like a quickie designed to exploit both Meza’s recent fame and the vast preteen Latino demographic she’s most likely to appeal to before anyone figures out that she’s no Selena. Most of the six original songs here are about “dreams” and share bits of melody, indicating corners have been cut. On several tracks, wall-to-wall synthesizers negate any personality Meza is able to muster, often resulting in an undistinguished TV-commercial sound; on some of the Tejano-accented tracks, this undermines the tradition at the moment it’s being passed to a new generation. The crude arrangements make covers like “Caminando en las Nubes” (a Spanish-language version of Katrina and the Waves’ “Walking on Sunshine”) sound like they were recorded in an all-ages karaoke bar. The better numbers–the would-be dance craze “Chango Guango (“Crazy Monkey”) and an easygoing “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah”–feature more imaginative instrumentation and give hope that, in better hands and with more experience, Meza might outlast her novelty status.

Perhaps the saddest song on Vive Tu Sueno is “Over the Rainbow” (included twice, in English and Spanish), which inevitably brings to mind Judy Garland, the ultimate miserable child star. They say those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it–but what about those who just ignore it? o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Becky Lee Meza as Selena; album cover.