Editor’s Note: For several years, we’ve been discussing how best to feature Selena in our magazine. She is, after all, a legend of Texas music who—like Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, Bob Wills and Willie Nelson—was an extraordinarily influential musician and cultural icon. Remembering her on the 25th anniversary of her death (March 1995) seemed an appropriate way to reflect on her career and impact. Our plan was to feature Selena on the cover of our Spring 2020 issue, which would have been on newsstands in March. COVID prevented publication of that issue, but we’d feel remiss if we didn’t make this piece available to readers as 2020 draws to a close. We hope you enjoy our tribute to the Queen of Tejano.
“What’s the deal with Selena?”
If you’re a music fan who spends a lot of time outside Texas, it’s a question you’re bound to be asked at some point. Maybe you’ve even asked it yourself.
People see her face on T-shirts, on bags, even at the makeup counter: the dark hair, the red lips, the megawatt smile. They know she’s a singer. They probably know she’s deceased. What they’re really asking is, “Why do people still care so much?”
Maybe it’s a fair question. Selena Quintanilla-Pérez was a Tejano musician who passed away 25 years ago. She never had the No. 1 album in the country, she never performed at halftime of the Super Bowl, and she never toured the world. Many Texans can’t name a single Selena song or tell you much about who she was. So why does it still seem like she’s everywhere?
The easy answer is that Selena is everywhere because Americans with Latino heritage are everywhere. To Mexican-Americans, to the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of immigrants, it’s not about who Selena was. It’s about who she taught them they could be.
“I grew up listening to people around me speak Spanish, but English was really my first language,” says Nathian Rodriguez, an assistant professor at San Diego State University specializing in critical-cultural and digital media studies. “My grandparents … my mother really … wanted me to speak English first. They went to classes when they were younger, because they thought it would help me be more successful in school. And because of that, I always felt in between. I never felt really accepted here or there.
“With Selena, through her interviews and hearing her sing, I felt a sense of identity,” Rodriguez continues. “I had the sense that she was just like me.”
Like Rodriguez and many Texans who grow up between the cultures of their immigrant parents or grandparents and the Anglo mainstream, Selena never quite achieved full acceptance or understanding from Caucasians. The power of her art and her life was in proving she could achieve all she dreamed of anyway.
Today, Rodriguez teaches a course called “Selena and Latinx Media Representation” for SDSU’s journalism and media studies department. It’s the first college-level course offered anywhere that examines how a uniquely American cultural identity is reflected through the legacy of a single Texas musician. (In fall 2020, the University of Texas at San Antonio debuted a similar course, “Selena: A Mexican American Identity & Experience,” in its department of Race, Ethnicity, Gender & Sexuality Studies.) If you’re starting to get the impression that maybe Selena is bigger than her music, congratulations—you’ve completed the prerequisite.
“Throughout my career, I’ve looked back on her as an individual who exhibited the duality of a lot of Latinx individuals living in the United States,” Rodriguez says. “Having family who came from Mexico, not really feeling like they were from one of two places—especially in the borderlands. I knew I wanted to develop a class that spoke to identity negotiation for individuals who felt this duality, and Selena was the perfect individual, because I based my identity on her.”
He’s not alone. Selena’s fans forge deep connections with her, not just through her music but through her style and story, too. She changed not only the way Tex-Mex music sounded, but how Hispanic people in Texas and beyond got dressed in the morning, wore their hair and makeup. She changed how they saw themselves and what they believed was possible for a kid from Texas with Spanish-speaking parents—a true icon.
Richard Aste understands the power of that iconography better than most. He’s the first Latino director of the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio, which brought a new exhibition to the city in January 2020 called Selena Forever/Siempre Selena. Five larger-than-life photographs of the singer by award-winning San Antonio photographer John Dyer were accompanied by music from throughout the singer’s career.
“The response was tremendous. We had visitors come through who had a profound emotional reaction, many being moved to tears,” Aste says.
Among the photos were shots by Dyer that captured Selena in the middle of her ascent to Tejano superstardom in 1992. “At that point, he captured someone full of life with energy and passion,” Aste says. “The world was before her, and she was defining Tejano music. Soon, she would be the Queen of Tejano Music.”
Before Selena, there had never been a Queen of Tejano. When she was born in 1971, Tejano was a regional genre of music little loved outside of Texas’ Mexican-American subculture. A Tex-Mex blend of country, polka, pop and rock, it evolved from the folk songs played on the farms and ranches of South Texas in the early 20th century by Mexican-American laborers and given a new sound by the introduction of the accordion by European immigrants to the region.
Both Anglos and the Latinos who wanted little to do with “Mexican” music reviled Tejano as embarrassingly ignorant, backwoods-country garbage for people of low status. But to many, it just sounded like home — and you could dance to it.
Tejano music wasn’t a fixture in Selena’s household growing up. Her father, Abraham Quintanilla, played guitar and had sung in a doo-wop and Chicano rock group called the Dinos in his youth, releasing a number of 45s that included some regional hits. But by the time Selena was born, Abraham had settled down with his family in Lake Jackson, where he worked for Dow Chemical.
Craving someone to jam with, Abraham began teaching his oldest child, son A.B., to play guitar. When 8-year-old Selena began to sing along, her father couldn’t believe his ears. The girl had talent, and he was determined to develop it. He formed a new band he called Selena y Los Dinos and installed A.B. on bass and elder daughter Suzette on drums. In 1981, he quit his job at Dow and opened a Mexican restaurant in Lake Jackson, where he and the kids would perform songs for diners like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
When the oil-glut recession hit, the restaurant was forced to close. The Quintanillas lost everything, including their home. They moved in with relatives in Corpus Christi. Now jobless, Abraham was more determined than ever that Selena y Los Dinos would make it. The group played any gig that offered pay—mostly quinceañeras, weddings, fairs, and restaurants.
It wasn’t easy getting gigs that would accept little kids on stage. But Selena’s obvious talent for performing gave her father confidence. “I think for Selena, there was a lot of shaping and molding by her family, by her father,” Rodriguez says. “I mean, Abraham was very much a part of the industry before Selena, so he knew what it would take to make Selena y Los Dinos a successful show. Selena had that personality—she had the charisma, she had the voice.”
To appeal to Latino audiences in Texas, Selena learned Spanish lyrics phonetically. By the time she was in the eighth grade, Abraham took her out of school so she could tour and perform more regularly. The young singer was isolated from kids her age, surrounded by her family at all times. Work was a constant.
It’s a life that Ángela Aguilar can relate to. The 16-year-old Los Angeles–born, Mexican-American singer was also raised in a musical family: her father is Mexican singer Pepe Aguilar, and her paternal grandparents are Mexican singer-actors Antonio Aguilar and Flor Silvestre. From a young age, Ángela frequently accompanied her father on tour throughout Latin America.
Today, Aguilar is a budding starlet performing and recording mariachi and ranchero music. In February, she released a Selena tribute EP titled Baila Esta Cumbia covering seven of the Queen’s hits.
“More than bad things, there are good things in traveling as a family,” Aguilar tells Texas Music in Spanish. “It’s great because they always tell you the truth, and that’s so important. The bad thing is they always tell you the truth, and that’s a little hard to hear.”
The hard truth Selena was hearing from her family was that there was no audience for a young Latina singing the American pop and disco tunes she loved. The money was in Tejano, which was entering a new phase of innovation and interest. Synthesizers had largely replaced the accordion as the lead melodic instrument in Tejano music, and Selena y Los Dinos were becoming part of an emerging wave of talented artists that included La Onda Chicana, La Mafia, and Grupo Mazz. Fueled by radio, the popularity of the genre grew, and experimentation exploded as groups worked to stand out from the pack.
“There was a lot of immigration and migration happening in Texas, so the sound of Tejano music in general was also changing,” Rodriguez says. “Tejanos who were living in the rural areas of Texas were starting to move to the urban centers, and because of that, there was this difference in the type of music.”
Between 1984 and 1986, Selena y Los Dinos recorded three albums; 1987’s Muñequito De Trapo was the turning point. It earned Selena the first of eight consecutive Female Vocalist of the Year trophies from the Tejano Music Awards. Selena y Los Dinos’ live performance at the 1989 edition of the awards show opened a lot of eyes. Now a beautiful young woman, Selena exhibited vocal talents, stage moves, and charisma honed over an adolescence spent on stage, backed by a cutting-edge, modern Tejano sound. The crowd went wild.
Record executive Jose Behar, head of the new EMI Latin label, saw dollar signs. So did Coca-Cola. Behar signed Selena as a major-label solo act; her siblings in Los Dinos would remain by her side, but there was no longer any pretense about who was the star of the show. Beginning in 1989, Selena went on to star in three Coca-Cola TV commercials aimed at the Latino market—a major step toward her later iconic status.
The jingle used in the first two ads was composed by Selena’s older brother, A.B., and his friend Chris Pérez, who would soon join Selena’s band. Pérez added a slick, hard-rock element to the traditional rhythms and glossy pop melodies, and EMI had a hit on its hands. Pérez also added a new element to Selena’s life offstage: romance.
Abraham Quintanilla did not approve of the relationship and worried that the entanglement could derail Selena’s burgeoning stardom. A traditional patriarch who’d been raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, he didn’t at all like the idea of traveling the country cooped up in a bus with his daughter and her boyfriend. But Selena wouldn’t be denied. After Abraham threw Pérez out of the band, she continued seeing him. In 1992, they eloped, and Abraham finally relented. The victory became another part of the singer’s legend.
“A few years back, I started seeing pictures on social media of people dressed up for Halloween as us as a couple,” Pérez tells Texas Music. “I’m starting to realize the love story—fighting for respect and fighting to be together … what that took, what that represents to her fans. That’s something I never thought I’d see.”
Perhaps the most momentous year of Selena’s life and career was 1992. In addition to her marriage, she released her third solo album, Entre a Mi Mundo. This was the big breakthrough Abraham and Jose Behar had foreseen. In addition to being a major commercial milestone for Tejano in the U.S., it also made Selena a star across the border.
In Monterrey, the press hailed her as an “artist of the people,” and a crowd of 70,000 showed up to see her perform in Nuevo Leon. This was hardly a typical occurrence for a Texas artist in Mexico—particularly one from the Mexican-American culture, which many Mexicans did not (and still don’t) particularly respect or understand.
They understood Selena.
“A lot of the music Selena sang were covers,” says Rodriguez. “They were basically half rancheras and half cumbia, and the rancheras really resonated with the Mexican audience. I mean, they were basically kind of modified corridos they were already used to. But she also brought to Mexico this kind of modern, urban sound. And so for Mexicans, it wasn’t this whole different type of sound. It was a sound they were familiar with, but with an American sound too.”
That was also the year “Como La Flor” was released, a heartfelt, pop-tinged Tejano ballad that would become one of Selena’s most celebrated songs. The song has been covered by Jennifer Lopez, Jackie Cruz, Kacey Musgraves and many, many others—including Ángela Aguilar. It has become part of the Texas musical cannon.
“The song I like most, that I like to perform and sing on a stage, is ‘Como la Flor,’ because since I was a child, I always sang it,” Aguilar says. “It was one of the first songs I performed on a stage.”
Selena was now the biggest Tejano star in the world. The media started calling her the Queen of Tejano, or simply “La Reina,” and just as popular and influential as her music was her look. Selena designed her own stage outfits and fashions, giving her a unique style that was copied obsessively by fans. Tight jeans and leggings paired with bustiers highlighted her curvy body as Selena embraced rather than downplayed her darker, indigenous features.
“Her status as a fashion icon is important,” Aste says, “because she took a lot of risks in both her music and her fashion style, and she showed Latinos everywhere we can shatter a glass ceiling and integrate successfully into American culture.”
More big hits followed: 1993’s Selena Live! won a Grammy for Best Mexican/American album. And then 1994’s Amor Prohibido was an unprecedented smash, peaking at No. 1 on the Billboard Top Latin Albums chart—a first for a female Tejano artist. The record was powered by the effervescent single “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom,” a slice of pop-cumbia perfection that hit No. 1 on the Hot Latin Songs chart and paved the way for the explosion of Latin pop that followed. Along with “Como la Flor,” it became her signature song.
Finally, the time was right for Selena to record her long-dreamed-of, English-language crossover pop record. Released in 1995 and featuring an innovative fusion of American R&B with Latin-flavored pop, Dreaming of You was another groundbreaking success, becoming the first partially Spanish-language album to debut atop the Billboard 200. Sadly, Selena would never see any of its success.
On March 31, 1995, Selena was murdered by her fan club president, Yolanda Saldívar, in a motel room in Corpus Christi following a series of financial disputes. The singer’s life was ended at the height of her influential career, dead at only 23 years old. The tragedy and betrayal threatened to overwhelm everything else about her.
Its brightest star gone, Tejano music began to wane as a cultural and recording industry force. Selena’s family, including husband Chris Pérez, was forced to confront her loss year after year by the media and grieving fans even as they worked to move on personally and creatively.
“For me to be a musician in the middle of all that affected the decisions I made,” Pérez says. “When I was doing my Chris Pérez Project, I really wasn’t looking forward to putting something out, then going out and promoting it, then going on the road and putting in the work. I guess you could say I’d go into a depression, and it affected my energy level and mood.”
When Selena’s life ended, her legend took over for good. She became as much a symbol of youth and passion as she was a person—similar to a Marilyn Monroe or James Dean. Hollywood certainly helped with the immortalization. The film Selena, released in 1997, made leading lady Jennifer Lopez a star and introduced Selena’s story to a larger, more diverse audience.
Her music, of course, never went away either. Songs like “Como La Flor” and “Amore Prohibido” became classics, played at family gatherings and passed down from generation to generation.
“The majority of the students in my class know her songs,” Rodriguez says. “Selena was a big part of their life growing up, because their parents and grandparents listened to it, and also because they listened to Cardi B., Bruno Mars, Kacey Musgraves, and all these other current artists who spoke about Selena in their interviews and about her influence. That raised the curiosity of finding out more about her; they like her music, her style. It’s a sound and a look that’s timeless for them.”
Because she’s been immortalized, some of the more controversial aspects of Selena’s life and personality have been either glossed over or sensationalized in the years since her death. Few young fans know, for instance, that Selena spoke out against premarital sex and birth control during her lifetime. On the other hand, wild conspiracy theories about her relationships and her death have spawned endless articles, books and social media posts.
Today, however, such things make up only the tiniest portion of Selena’s legacy. What remains of her memory is the smiling, ever-vivacious woman captured in the John Dyer photos that the McNay exhibited. As her iconic status has grown, Chris Pérez has seen the pain give way to celebration.
“It’s all good now,” Pérez says. “I don’t get what I used to get before, with fans walking up to me and they’re so sad, shaking and crying: ‘I’m so sorry Chris!’ Now if I get that same reaction from somebody, it’s because they’re like, ’Oh my God, I can’t believe it! This is the closest I’m going to get to her!’ So it’s a different kind of energy. It seems like the kids are getting more into it now, because the kids of the kids of the kids kept passing it down, and it seems more powerful today than ever.”
In many ways, it’s only natural that Selena’s story resonates deeply today. Not so much has changed for Latinos in Texas and across the U.S.
“Going back to what was happening in the ’90s during Selena’s rise — the militarization of the border, the cartels and anti-immigrant attitude that was starting to take over in the U.S. — we’re seeing that happen again,” Rodriguez says. “We’re also seeing people looking toward the media for more positive role models who represent not just Latinx identities but identities that are intersectional, identities that speak to the different facets of interest and identities that people hold. And we still can’t find another person like Selena, somebody whose identity, music, sound, and style transcended not just genres, but also generations.”
Cultures, too. Some of America’s non-Latino music fans may still wonder what the deal is with Selena, but they’ve got plenty of time to find out. After all, Selena is forever.