Suzanna Choffel braced for the critics. She knew they were out there when she stared at the camera, cradled her guitar and announced her upcoming gig — a Selena tribute at a Dallas bar Thursday.
“I’m well aware that I’m a white girl,” the Austin singer told her Facebook followers with a laugh. “I’m poco nerviosa, but I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
She launched into a Selena song she loves, “Fotos y Recuerdos,” to preview her show, which is part of a new series honoring music legends, including the Queen of Tejano, at The Rustic in Uptown.
Choffel, 38, said this week she’s been hurt by the level of vitriol that followed.
“Call it what you want, but the fact that you preface your video with, ‘Yes, I know I'm a white girl,’ means that the little 1/8 of you that you now (after being called out for appropriation) claim is Mexican means very little to you, and you ain't Latina,” a woman wrote on Facebook.
Some Latinos saw her pale skin, blue eyes and blond ponytail and publicly wondered why The Rustic bar didn’t pick Latino talent to play music from the Mexican-American icon. A few outspoken critics have accused Choffel of cultural appropriation, of being a “#culturevulture.”
“I understand what cultural appropriation is, and that’s why I tried to engage the people on Facebook,” Choffel said Monday. “But it was very hateful and mean-spirited; I got called a racist and a colonizer.”
Eva Arreguin, 24, co-founder of De Colores Collective — a group that aims to give a platform to underrepresented people in North Texas — criticized both The Rustic and Choffel for Selena Day. Arreguin has helped organize #214Selena, a popular grassroots Selena festival in Oak Cliff.
“I don’t think they should have gotten a white woman to perform,” she said. “That doesn’t resemble her legacy to us. ... If you are trying to honor the legacy of Selena, you must understand her legacy is tied to being Mexican-American and Tejana.”
Event organizers for The Rustic declined to comment on the controversy. Nearly 10,000 people on social media have declared interest in Selena Day in Dallas, which will also feature a look-alike contest.
Musician Ronnie Heart, who is Latino, will headline the bar's David Bowie event later this summer.
Controversies about so-called whitewashing abound in the arts world, most notably in Hollywood, where in recent years white actresses Emma Stone, Scarlett Johansson and Tilda Swinton were cast in Asian roles.
Who is Suzanna Choffel?
Choffel has described her music as “lush, smoky, sultry, funky, jazzy, peppy, Latin-influenced, soul pop.” In 2012, she landed a spot in NBC’s The Voice, where country star Blake Shelton picked her for his team after her rendition of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide.”
Choffel, whose family tree includes a Mexican great-grandmother, said that while she does not have the same experience as some Latinos, she feels connected to Mexican-American culture.
A video posted on YouTube in 2015 shows Choffel introducing her version of Selena’s “Tú Sólo Tú.”
“Before I knew how to speak Spanish, I learned Spanish through her, which is ironic because it wasn’t her first language either,” Choffel tells the audience. “She had to learn it.”
Bidi Bidi Banda, a Selena tribute band with Latino musicians, is also performing Thursday, at The Rustic’s San Antonio location.
“I know how hard Suzanna has worked on this show,” lead singer Stephanie Bergara wrote in an email. “She is an accomplished musician in her own right, and I respect her commitment to give Selena fans in Dallas her very best.”
Appropriation versus appreciation
Rachel V. González-Martin, an assistant professor in the Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, defined cultural appropriation as what happens when the community with significant resources takes as its own the expressions of a community with fewer resources.
But, she said, cultural appropriation can be hard to identify.
“Once people are exposed to culture, it’s out there,” said González-Martin, who knows Choffel’s sister through work. “That’s why cultural appropriation is so difficult. To say, ‘You’re not Latino, so you’re not allowed to like Selena’ is ridiculous, and it’s bigoted, and it’s small-minded.”
She said Selena’s music transcends race and embodies Texas’ history as a place where Mexico and the United States blend. González-Martin noted how Selena’s songs resonate with women from all backgrounds who came of age in the 1990s and saw in the singer a symbol of femininity, power and the subversion of expectations.
While the professor defended Choffel’s performance, she said it’s “absolutely a valid response” for critics to raise questions about Latino representation.
Still, people shouldn’t be quick to judge based on appearances, she said.
“You’re making all sorts of assumptions about this person’s family and background,” González-Martin said. “You’re assuming their race, assuming their ethnicity, assuming that they don’t understand, assuming that they’re dipping into this cultural place in an abusive way. But what you’re doing is showing your own ignorance by thinking that Latinos don’t come in light-skinned, blond people.”
Ward Albro, a senior lecturer at the University of Texas at San Antonio, gets the tension about Choffel’s performance. He doesn’t have Mexican ancestry but said he developed the first college-level course on Mexican-American history in Texas at what is now Texas A&M University-Kingsville in 1968. He made the subject his life’s work, writing books and organizing conferences and lectures.
“I understand the reaction because of the fact that Mexican-Americans ... are in a sense developing an appreciation of their identity that they were denied,” Albro said.
The widespread celebration of Mexican-American culture is relatively recent, Albro said. He explained how Mexican-Americans have had to navigate the prejudices of Mexicans who viewed them as uneducated laborers who were traitors and their status as second-class citizens in the eyes of some white Americans.
“There’s a lot of us who are not Mexican-American who have a general appreciation of Mexican-American history and culture," he said, "but we have to be careful how we express it at this point in history."