Selena (1971–1995)

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Selena (1971–1995)

Mexican-American singer, known as the queen of Tejano, who was murdered before her 24th birthday. Name variations: Selena Quintanilla-Pérez. Born Selena Quintanilla in Lake Jackson, south of Houston,Texas, on April 16, 1971; died of a gunshot wound in Corpus Christi, Texas, on March 31, 1995; youngest of three children, two girls and a boy, of Marcela Quintanilla and Abraham Quintanilla, Jr.; married Chris Pérez (a guitar player), in 1992.

Known as the queen of Tejano, Mexican-American singer Selena was on the verge of a crossover to mainstream music when she was shot to death outside a motel in Corpus Christi, Texas, by Yolanda Saldivar . At the time of her death on March 31, 1995, two weeks shy of her 24th birthday and two days before her third wedding anniversary, Selena was not only a rising star, but a role model to a generation of young Hispanics who worshipped her. Hundreds of teenagers gathered at the scene of the shooting; thousands attended memorial services. At the Bayfront Plaza Convention Center in Corpus Christi, hour after hour 50,000 mourners from Canada and California, Guatemala and Mexico streamed slowly past her casket which was encircled by thousands of long-stemmed white roses. Her death spawned a Hollywood biopic, a cable movie, several books (one of which topped The New York Times bestseller list for several weeks), and thousands of articles. Five of her albums landed on Billboard's Top 200 chart, and the posthumous release of her half-English, half-Spanish album Dreaming of You made her one of the fastest-selling artists in music history.

Selena Quintanilla was born in 1971 in the factory town of Lake Jackson, Texas. When she was six, her father was laid off from his job as a shipping clerk at Dow Chemical and opened a Tex-Mex restaurant. Abraham Quintanilla had always loved music; in his youth, he had been the vocalist for a South Texas band called Los Dinos ("The Boys"). Recognizing talent in his young daughter—"Her timing, her pitch were perfect," he said, "I could see it from day one"—he organized a family band, with her brother Abraham III on bass and her sister Suzette on drums. They began performing at the restaurant. But when the Texas oil industry went belly up, so did small businesses throughout the state: the Quintanillas lost their restaurant, home, possessions, and jobs.

The family moved to Corpus Christi and began eking out a living in the music business, singing at weddings and road-house dance halls and traveling in the family van to venues throughout the back country of South Texas. When Selena was eight, she recorded her first song in Spanish, and when she was nine, the family started a Tex-Mex band, Selena y Los Dinos. Most of her teen years were spent on the road with the group, making it impossible for her to attend school. She received her high school diploma through the mail.

Eventually, the family band moved up to ballrooms and began cutting albums for a small regional label. Selena's breakthrough came in 1987, when she won in the categories of best female vocalist and performer of the year at the Tejano Music Awards. In 1989, she and the band, which now included her husband Chris Pérez, signed with EMI, the powerful record company.

By age 19, Selena was the center of the Tejano music industry. Tejano, which literally means Texan, is a blend of pop tunes, the rhythms of Colombian cumbia, and German polkas—an urbanized version of Tex-Mex (called conjunto). Tejano arrived in Texas with the Czech and German settlers of the 19th century and flourished in the cantinas of the Mexican working class. Its danceable beat is propelled by the accordion—the heart of the Tejano sound—and the bajo sexto guitar. With a microphone in hand, Selena was as exotic as the music itself. Clad in a signature bustier, tight Spandex pants, and heels, she sang and strutted across the stage, exuding a combination of earthy sensuality and innate sweetness, "a Madonna without the controversy," noted a Time correspondent. Ironically, Selena could barely speak a word of Spanish; rather, she spoke English with a Texas twang. In the beginning, she memorized the lyrics of each song, most of them written out phonetically for her by her brother Abraham. In 1990, she finally began taking Spanish lessons.

Each of Selena's next six albums grew in sales. At 21, she was a millionaire, drawing crowds as large as 20,000 at the Pasadena, Texas, fairgrounds. In 1994, 60,000 came to hear her in Houston. By then, she had sold more than 1.5 million records in the U.S. and Mexico, and her recording Selena Live had just won a Grammy for best Mexican-American album. Moreover, she had finished filming a scene in the movie Don Juan DeMarco with Johnny Depp; her song "Fotos y Recuerdos" (Photographs and Memories) was number four on the Billboard Latin charts; her single from the 1994 album Amor Prohibido (Forbidden Love) had sold 400,000 copies and had just been nominated for another Grammy; and she had just signed a $5 million record contract with SBK Records.

With all of her success, Selena, a devout Catholic, still lived with her close-knit family in three adjoining houses in the same lower-middle-class

neighborhood of Corpus Christi where she grew up. (At the time of her death, she and Chris were designing a ten-bedroom house on ten acres of land in town.) Fans loved her because she was unpretentious and accessible. "She was one of us," said one of her Corpus Christi admirers. "I'd see her at Wal-Mart or Kmart without makeup, like she didn't have all that money."

Selena's assailant was Yolanda Saldivar, who had once run Selena's fan club and was then managing two of the singer's boutiques, Selena, Etc., which had opened in Corpus Christi and San Antonio. A 32-year-old registered nurse, Saldivar was suspected by the family of embezzling funds, and Selena had been given the unpleasant task of confronting her. Saldivar had called Selena, claiming she had papers to prove her innocence and begging her to meet alone to discuss the matter, preferably at Saldivar's room at the Corpus Christi Days Inn. Shot once in the back with a .38-caliber revolver, Selena staggered to the lobby of the motel for help, then collapsed and later died at Memorial Medical Center. Saldivar was arrested after a nine-hour standoff, during which she sat in a pickup truck in the motel parking lot, a gun to her head and a cellular phone in her hand to confer with police.

At Saldivar's trial in October 1995, her attorney pointed a finger at Abraham Quintanilla as the indirect cause of Selena's death, arguing that he was a controlling force over the singer and was fiercely jealous of her relationship with Saldivar whom he had threatened physically and falsely accused of embezzlement. Further, he claimed that Saldivar was distraught and had intended to kill herself, but when she gestured to the singer to close the door to the room, her gun accidentally discharged (despite the fact that Selena had been shot in the back). Selena's father denied the accusations on the witness stand, but was angered and hurt by them. The trial was also difficult for her mother Marcela Quintanilla who at one point was hospitalized with chest pains. At the end of the two-week ordeal, it took the jury of six women and six men just two-anda-half hours to find Saldivar guilty of first-degree murder. She was given a life sentence. In a jailhouse interview in 1995, Saldivar said she had been fighting with Selena over a "secret," that she could not reveal. Her family said the "secret" was Selena's "diary" and produced a page from the alleged journal written in Spanish. Selena's friends never saw the diary and doubted that she would write one in Spanish, a language she was just learning.

In the months following Selena's death, Abraham Quintanilla continued to market his daughter persistently, sometimes alienating music-industry insiders and journalists in the process. While many questioned Quintanilla's intentions, however, others saw a man merely trying to cope. "I personally see Abraham as burying himself in his work, being so busy that he doesn't have time to think about his loss," said Rick Garcia, a record producer. Abraham oversaw the singer's two boutiques, as well as her posthumous album Dreaming of You, which sold 175,000 copies on the first day of its release, an all-time record for a female artist. He also signed the deal for the biographical film Selena (1997), which after some on-again, off-again negotiations was written and directed by Gregory Nava. Quintanilla co-produced and served as an on-the-set advisor for the film, which drew thousands to its open auditions in San Antonio. Casting directors finally selected actress Jennifer Lopez for the role, which initially upset many of Selena's fans. The movie opened in March 1997 to mixed reviews but did well at the box office, supported predominantly by Latino audiences across the country.

While Selena's death devastated her family and those closest to her, it also had a lingering impact on the millions of young Hispanic women who saw something of themselves in her. "Across the nation, Hispanic girls have a 38 percent drop in self-esteem from elementary school to high school," wrote Alisa Valdes . "Selena—a strong, smart, talented, beautiful, successful Mexican-American woman—gave them permission to like themselves." Lizett Padilla , the 23-year-old Guatemalan-American actress who played Selena in the cable television movie The Selena Murder Trial, expressed her own strong bond with the singer. "You could tell that she was a nice person, someone you would like to have as a friend. Portraying her just exactly the way she was, that's my dream and my challenge. I just want to honor her."


"Before Her Time," in People Weekly. April 17, 1995, pp. 48–53.

Carr, Jay. "Actors rise above stilted script for 'Selena,'" in Boston Globe. March 21, 1997.

Carroll, Ginny, and John Leland. "The Other Murder Trial," in Newsweek. October 16, 1995, p. 75.

Chanko, Kenneth M. "Selena's song," in Boston Sunday Globe. March 16, 1997.

"Death of a Rising Star," in Time. April 10, 1995, p. 91.

Dominguez, Robert. "Latino audiences love 'Selena,'" in The Day [New London, CT. March 29, 1997.

Farley, Christopher John. "Old Rock, New Life," in Time. July 10, 1995, pp. 57–58.

Jerome, Richard. "Resolution," in People Weekly. November 6, 1995, pp. 49–51.

Kantrowitz, Barbara. "Memories of Selena," in People Weekly. April 1, 1996, pp. 110–112.

Leland, John. "Born on the Border," in Newsweek. October 23, 1995, p. 80.

Morthland, John. "Selena's Story," in TV Guide. December 7, 1996, pp. 29–36.

Sanz, Cynthia, and Betty Cortina. "After Selena," in People Weekly. July 10, 1995, pp. 36–44.

Tarradell, Mario. "Selena's Music," in The Day [New London, CT]. July 21, 1995.

Valdes, Alisa. "Remembering Selena," in The Day [New London, CT]. April 11, 1995, p. B1.

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Selena (1971–1995)

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