• Exploring American History

A Tejano queen for the ages

April 16, 1971, was a royal occasion of sorts when a future queen in the form of a Hispanic beauty named Selena Quintañilla was born. The youngest child of Abraham and Marcella Quintañilla, Selena arrived at the Freeport Community Hospital located in Brazosport, Texas, weighing in at 5 lbs, 10.5 oz.

During Marcela’s pregnancy, both she and Abraham were fully convinced their third baby was male, thus they settled on the name ‘Marc Anthony’. A friend of Marcela’s was also pregnant at the time. Believing she carried a girl, the name ‘Selena’ was selected for her baby. Hopefully, neither mother laid bets on her baby’s gender because they were both wrong. As a result, the name ‘Selena’ was given to Marcela’s baby. Both father and mother passed on to their daughter a Mexican-American heritage, with Marcella including some Cherokee Indian in the mixture. In time, their little princess would be crowned ‘Queen of Tejano Music’.

In his younger years, Papa Abraham had been part of a band known as Los Dinos. By the time Selena was nine years old, he recognized the fact his youngest child was gifted with the talent for singing and created a small band with his children to entertain patrons of Papagayo, a Mexican restaurant he owned in Lake Jackson. Selena was the lead singer, backed up by her brother A.B. on bass and sister, Suzette, on drums. Abraham named the group Selena and the Dinos for his former band. In an effort to learn new dance moves, Selena began to watch the black dance program, Soul Train. She developed a love for the music of Donna Summer and the R&B duo, A Taste of Honey. Possessing an eclectic taste in music, Selena later displayed a fondness for the songs of Garth Brooks.

Corpus Christi became the family’s new home in 1981. After settling in, Abraham began to promote the family band and obtained bookings for parties and weddings. Though Selena grew up speaking English, Abraham taught her to sing in Spanish so she could resonate with the local Latino community. She began by learning the lyrics phonetically and in time could speak Spanish fluently. When she was not involved in learning song lyrics, Selena busied herself designing clothes.

During the 1980s, Selena faced harsh criticism and was denied bookings throughout Texas because she was a female singing Tejano music. At that time, the genre was strictly male-dominated and a female invading that territory was not well received. Attitudes toward her began to change, however, when in 1986 she won the Tejano Music Award for Female Vocalist. She would continue to win the title for the next eight years.

The now 15-year-old Selena received a recording contract with Capitol Records’ EMI Latin division in 1989 and released her first album, with her brother on board as her principal music producer and songwriter. That year she recorded the songs Where Did the Feeling Go?, Is it the Beat? and Only Love. They would not be released, however, until 1996 and 1997. In 1990, she released Ven Conmigo (Eng. ‘Come With Me’). It was the first album recorded by a female Tejano signer to be awarded gold status by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). To achieve that status, the album had to sell a minimum of 500,000 copies. In time, five additional albums would follow, all of which proved extremely successful.

A special side of Selena’s personality was that she believed in giving back. Rather than isolate herself in an ivory tower of popularity, she was active in civic causes in her community. She was also an entrepreneur. She began her own clothing line and in 1994, opened her first boutique in Corpus Christi. Selena’s second boutique was later opened in San Antonio.

Love found Selena in the form of Chris Perez. Though he considered Chris’s music skills an asset to the band, Papa Abraham held serious doubts about having the bass guitarist as a son-in-law. In April 1992, the couple eloped since Abraham would not agree to the marriage. They were married in Nueces County Court by Ben Ciarza, Jr, Justice of Peace.

Though Selena enjoyed the fruits of her labors by driving a red Porsche, she did not venture too far from family. She and Chris made their home in the house next door to the one owned by her parents. Both animal lovers, the couple were ‘parents’ to six dogs: a husky, a black Pomeranian, two mastiffs and two miniature pinchers. They also had a pet snake to keep life interesting. Likely Mama Marcella was not surprised by the snake as she thought back on Selena’s childhood love in the form of April, her pet chicken.

In 1993, her album Live won Selena a Grammy for “Best Mexican American Album”. The following year, she and her band were on tour, first playing in New York and California, then off to Puerto Rico and Argentina. That same year, another album, Amor Prohibido (Eng. Forbidden Love) was released and also achieved gold status. Featured on this album is the song Bidi Bidi Bom Bom.

On April 16, 1994, Houston Mayor Bob Lanier presented Selena the Key to the City and proclaimed it to be “Selena Day”. Her concert in the Astrodome boasted an audience numbering 61,000 fans. The audience was the largest crowd in the history of Tejano music and was outnumbered in Astrodome attendance only by a Garth Brooks concert. That same year, Texas Monthly featured Selena as one of the three women included in the September 1994 article 20 Texans You Need to Know.

Selena was a performer who loved her fans and totally enjoyed entertaining them. Scheduled to perform at the Tejano Rodeo in Dallas, her arrival was delayed due to a snowstorm. The show was set to begin at 8:00 p.m.; however, the late arrival of her plane forced the audience to wait until 10:00. As she walked out on stage, Selena apologized profusely for the delay and then put on a show of singing and dancing into the late hours of the night so her fans would not feel short-changed.

Like most people, Selena had a hobby. Unlike most, her hobby was collecting Faberge eggs. A number of large glass cabinets filled with the eggs adorned the living room of her home. The eggs were in every size available and numerous pieces were festooned with gold and diamonds; each with a special story all its own. Many who knew her attributed Selena’s love for the eggs to the fact she was born on Easter Sunday.

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Following a concert in 1991, Selena was introduced to a registered nurse by the name of Yolanda Saldivar. The two women quickly became friends and Selena offered Yolanda two jobs; one as the president of her fan club and the other working in her boutique. Within four years the relationship was on the skids as the friendship soured due to Selena and others losing faith in Yolanda’s honesty.

Suspicioning the fact Yolanda was in possession of records and files regarding her fan club and boutiques, Selena and Chris went to the Days Inn in Corpus Christi on March 30, 1995, to meet with Saldivar. Yolanda returned to them a number of documents, but after leaving the hotel, Selena sensed there were others still in Yolanda’s possession.

The following day, Selena dressed as if she planned to go jogging, then drove Chris’ truck back to the Days Inn to confront Yolanda one more time in an effort to procure the documents she sensed Saldivar still had. When Selena arrived, Yolanda told her she had been raped and needed her help. Selena drove her to the hospital and while there, doctors informed her that Yolanda had not been raped. The two women then returned to the hotel.

Selena now told Yolanda she could no longer consider Saldivar a friend and discharged her as an employee. When Selena turned her back to place the ring Yolanda had given her on the bed prior to leaving, Saldivar pulled out a revolver and shot Selena in the right shoulder. The wounded Selena ran from the room, severing an artery in the process. Saldivar gave chase, shouting vulgar phrases at the wounded singer. Selena was able to make her way to the lobby, falling once by the pool and again in the lobby. When she fell the second time, the clerk quickly called 9-1-1 and listened as Selena named Yolanda Saldivar as her assailant and stated the room number. In the meantime, Yolanda had barricaded herself in a car and held a gun to her head as police surrounded her. Upon arrival at the local hospital on March 31, 1995, Selena was pronounced dead.

Selena's murder sent shockwaves throughout the Latino community. As fans around the world mourned the singer's passing, reactions to her death were compared to those following the deaths of John Lennon and President John F. Kennedy.

When it was released posthumously in 1995, her crossover album, Dreaming of You, debuted atop the Billboard 200. In doing so, it made Selena the first Latin artist to accomplish this feat. Two weeks after her death, Texas Governor George W. Bush declared her birthday Selena Day in Texas.

Saldívar's trial for the murder of Selena was closely followed by the Hispanic community throughout the United States. She was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, with a chance of parole in 2025. Most believe Saldívar will never leave prison during her lifetime because of the impact of her crime. Add to that, if she does, she has received many death threats for Selena’s murder.

Following Selena’s death, People magazine released two editions of their issue to commemorate the singer’s life and death – one in English and the other in Spanish. Just days after its release, the Spanish edition was totally sold out. People reprinted the Spanish edition six more times in an effort to produce enough copies to meet the demand. The popularity of the Spanish edition resulted in People deciding to permanently release that version, dubbed People en Espanol.

Selena Quintanilla-Pérez was buried on April 3, 1995. The prior day would have been her third wedding anniversary with Chris. Her funeral was held at the Bayfront Plaza Convention Center, with between 30,000 and 50,000 mourners in attendance to pay their final respects to the Queen of Tejano Music.

Her life and career were made into a movie by Warner Brothers in 1997 and simply entitled, Selena, the same mononymous name she was known by throughout her career. Actress Jennifer Lopez was cast in the starring role. As of 2012, Selena’s popularity has resulted in 60 million of her albums being sold worldwide.

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“My philosophy could be resumed as life would be very boring if people don’t try to do new things.” Selena

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