Singer Selena Quintanilla-Perez's life was short but dynamic. She began her career at the age of five, and was murdered just a month short of her twenty-fourth birthday. Raised in the bicultural world of south Texas, she brought a flamboyant new face to Tejano, the Tex-Mex fusion music she performed, and, more significantly, she brought a new kind of pride and ambition to the young Latina women who were her fans. Though her future as an entertainer and businesswoman will forever remain a question mark, her death itself gave Anglo-American society a new perspective on the 28 million of their fellow citizens who comprise the Latino community of the United States.
Selena was born on April 16, 1971, in Corpus Christi, Texas. Her father, Abraham, a musician and restaurateur, put together a family band, playing the traditional Tejano music of the Texas borderland. By the time she was five, Selena was performing regularly with "Los Dinos" ("The Guys"), playing parties, weddings, and bars throughout Texas. Her strong, clear voice and personable interpretations captivated audiences, and by the time she was 15 the band had been renamed "Selena y los Dinos" and she had been chosen as the Tejano Music Awards "Female Entertainer of the Year." She would claim that award for the next eight years.
Once discovered by a major Latin music record label at the Tejano Music Awards, Selena was soon on her way to becoming a star. She was wildly popular with Latino audiences, especially young women, who looked to her as a role model. Raised a strict Jehovah's Witness, she embodied a "clean" moral lifestyle, while at the same time exuding vitality and sexuality on stage, wearing her trademark revealing costumes such as rhinestone-studded brassieres. In fact, the fusion of different cultures is what Selena was all about, and it was her unabashed expression of all of her differing selves that allowed so many Latinos to identify with her.
To understand Selena's contribution to American culture, it is necessary to know a little about the Tejano music tradition. In the early 1900s, Czech and German immigrants brought their accordions and polka beats to the south Texas border towns where they settled. That music blended with traditional Mexican music to form a distinctive music called "conjunto." In the 1930s and 1940s, migrant workers returned from fields in the north bringing with them the big band sounds that were then blended with the conjunto of la frontera (the border). The new music thus created was called Tejano, which is Spanish for Texan, and is the same word used to describe the Mexican-American people of Texas. Like the Latino people, Tejano music has continued to grow and change as it is exposed to new influences. By the time Selena brought her own voice to Tejano, it carried flavors of rap, rhythm and blues, country, and rock, as well as the traditional Mexican songs and the polka beat.
Like Tejano music, Selena herself was that uniquely American product—the fusion of cultures. Raised speaking only English, she learned Spanish songs phonetically and had only begun to learn the Spanish language months before her death. Though in part the obedient and submissive Latina daughter, she had definite plans for herself. In at least two important instances she defied her controlling father, first by marrying fellow band member Chris Perez, then by using her skills at costume design to open a clothing boutique, Selena, Etc. She had ambitions to become a crossover artist, and many critics, comparing her to Madonna and Marilyn Monroe, believe she could have made it.
Before these ambitions could be put to the test, Selena was shot by a trusted friend and employee. Yolanda Saldivar had been president of Selena's fan club when the two met and became friends. When Selena's clothing boutique required more time than she had to spare, she hired Saldivar to manage it for her. In March of 1995, however, Selena began to suspect Saldivar of stealing money and when she confronted her, Saldivar shot and killed her in the parking lot of a motel in Corpus Christi. Though Saldivar always insisted the shooting was an accident, she was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. The Latino community across the southwest, reeling with pain and outrage, followed "El Juicio de Selena" ("The Selena Trial") closely, demanding punishment for the woman who had killed the golden girl.
Whether or not Selena would have achieved her crossover goal in life, she certainly achieved it in death. Before her murder, she had won the Grammy Award for Best Mexican-American Performance. Her album Amor Prohibida had sold 500,000 copies, and she had performed in Houston's Astrodome to a crowd of 62,000. Just months after her death, her posthumous album, Dreaming of You, debuted at number one on the Billboard Top 200 and sold over three million copies. Her songs received play on anglo radio stations, and a feature film and a television movie were made about her life and death. The former, titled Selena (1997), was released in two versions—one with Spanish subtitles—and starred Jennifer Lopez; the latter, True Hollywood Stories: The Selena Murder Trial, aired in 1996.
Perhaps Selena's greatest achievement, however, was in making Anglo-America take notice of its Latino counterpart. Though there are close to 30 million American Latinos, with over $300 billion in purchasing power, media and corporations often ignore them. After Selena's death, she became something of a folk hero in the United States Latino community, with her face appearing everywhere from street murals to bank checks, and hundreds of babies in Texas and California named after her. Business and the media responded to this surge of grief in unprecedented ways. People Magazine not only released a special southwest edition with Selena's death as the cover story, but followed up with a tribute issue, only the third such in the magazine's history, and continued to reach out to Latino readers with People en Espanol. During Yolanda Saldivar's trial, TV Guide provided bilingual coverage for the first time in its history, with English and Spanish versions of an article about the movie version of "The Selena Trial."
Perhaps in life Selena would not have been able to achieve the crossover she desired. Certainly it would not have come without conflict and controversy. Few Latin music performers have been welcomed into the anglo music scene, and those who have often alienate their Latin audiences by leaving too much of their roots behind them. Though her life was cut tragically short, Selena Quintanilla-Perez remains "una de nosotros" (one of us) to her Latino community, and she unquestionably opened the door for a wider awareness and appreciation of the Latin pop music she loved.
Arraras, Maria Celeste. Selena's Secret: The Revealing Story Behind her Tragic Death. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1997.
Patuski, Joe Nick. Selena: Como La Flor. Boston, Little, Brown, 1996.
Wheeler, Jill C. Selena: The Queen of Tejano. Edina, Minnesota, Abdo and Daughters, 1996.