We were from a related background. We were familiar with pozole, mesquite, the coastal breeze, the salty taste of the ocean, sunburns, apathy, and ennui. Our families were laborers, factory workers, pickers and packers of fruits and vegetables.
We had seen the same giant spiders, heard of snakes in the bush, experienced barbecues and sausages in tortillas, and Coca-Cola, tried migas with eggs, and savored the tart and spicy flavor of cactus with Pace picante sauce, and double pepperoni pizzas.
Our ancestors rode in mule-drawn carts and knew men with burlap bags.
We were aware of hailstorms, green skies, tornado warnings, lowrider cars, white roses, the pungent aroma of the sea as it crashed against the jetty riprap, the sting of a jellyfish, the boredom of the Mexico we had never seen.
We had become acquainted with the alluring song of the bajo sexto, the smooth, suave chords of old boleros, the beat of life and the taquachito.
It was what our parents were dancing to before we were born; it was a continuity of roughly 350 years of dancing in the New World, and we could still hear those mestizo rhythms, as kids, as adults, as teenagers captivated by smoke machines and B-roll footage and colored lights and MTV. We listened to cumbias.
We heard huapangos. We wanted an escape from the agreement, forced upon us, to live in the blazing sun, to perspire at night, to smell cut grass and murky water and to recognize a South Texas that was both ours and not ours.
We knew Fito Olivares, “Juana la Cubana,” Grupo Mazz, Donna Summer, the Starland Vocal Band, Jimmy Gonzalez, football, potato salad, horseflies, the San Antonio River Walk, Little Joe y La Familia, “The Hustle,” Barbie, suffering, death, and Ann Richards.
Though we only came together for a few moments on a sweltering summer day in 1993, she was a part of me, and I was a part of her.
On March 31, 1995, I was a ten-year-old in the fifth grade living in Harlingen, Texas when the news of Selena Quintanilla-Perez’s death spread.
That day, it rained all over. At 2 p.m., a teacher’s assistant told us to switch on the radio and it was reported that her fan club manager, Yolanda Saldivar, was responsible for the act.
Rumors circulated that the singer was killed by Emilio Navaira’s wife and that it was a car accident or tour bus accident or a train derailment. But by 5 p.m., the Associated Press and The New York Times confirmed that Saldivar was to blame.
Tejanos saw it as a tragedy and irony that only South Texas could bring. Selena’s death had been created by a Texas that no longer exists, due to the changes in economic, social, and cultural circumstances.
The myth of Selena grew after her death, and the details of Yolanda Saldivar’s idolization of her, which bordered on Sapphic, were forgotten.
Selena’s family’s capitalization on her death and fame was disregarded, while tabloid exposes focused on the details of her life, her relationship with Chris Perez, her murder, her experiences of despair, and her family’s dynamic.
This created a cult around her, with people comparing her to the Virgin of Guadalupe and Eva Peron, and an East Coast academic furthering the myth in a way that belittled Selena’s fans and Tejano culture.
The real Selena and her story of identity theft, fraud, and murder by her fan club president were overshadowed by all this, with people instead viewing her as the embodiment of a Chicano experience.
In her memory, a glittered coffin of white roses was laid out, representing the most beautiful and sensual way in which Selena had embodied this culture for a short time.
The Selena Quintanilla remembered by many is not the same one who ate potted meat sandwiches from Big Bertha on the side of the road, nor is it the one with imperfect Spanish on El show de Cristina.
The image of Selena that is remembered is one of white roses, of “Dreaming of You” and “Amor prohibido”, and of the bronze Mirador de la Flor in downtown Corpus Christi, who captivated the hearts of millions across the globe. She has been elevated to a state of sublime.
From 1950 to 1970, a middle class was growing in South Texas due to the positive influence of LULAC and the Chicano civil rights movement.
This period also saw a blend of the traditional conjunto music of the working class with jazz, pop and doo-wop. This combination resulted in the development of orquestra tejana, otherwise known as Tejano music.
With the addition of doo-wop waltzes and rock and pop beats, it was a polished, keyboard-led style accompanied by loud brass and suitable for AM radio airplay. Its lyrics addressed topics such as lost love, suffering, death and the challenging nature of Chicano life.
Abraham Quintanilla, Selena’s father, was a part of the first wave of Los Dinos, a group that had a popular song in the mid-1960s called “Con esta copa,” which Selena would later record on her own album.
She was exposed to a mix of Tejano music, American pop, and some Mexican music while growing up– a combination of sounds indicative of the border region, including the twangy songs of ’70s outlaw country, the Motown vocalists, the romantic ballads of bolero trios, and the lively polkas that filled the dance floors of weddings and quinceañeras.
At Corpus Christi beaches, backyard barbecues in South Texas, and in her bedroom, Selena heard the likes of Donna Summer, Blondie, and Madonna.
On the weekends, she sang at her father’s Mexican restaurant, enchanting the guests with her renditions of “Somewhere over the Rainbow” and “Blue Moon.”
Selena had a magical quality about her, likely gained from the culture of the area she grew up in, and it was not just her beautiful voice that captivated the people, but also how she was able to give a song like “Somewhere over the Rainbow” a special kind of sadness that only music from the border can offer.
In the early 1980s, Selena y Los Dinos performed in Harlingen and was not well received, which was later reenacted in the 1997 film Selena. I found it strange to hear my hometown’s name being said by Edward James Olmos. Rebecca Lee Meza, who was from Harlingen and played the young Selena in the movie, was one of thousands of applicants for the role.
She didn’t need to work hard to be Selena as it was easy for young girls to imitate her. Even before she was killed, Selena was molded to the expectations of her culture, Texas, capitalism, and colonial hierarchies.
Her public image showed that fame and joy could be achieved if one worked hard. She was featured in commercials, telenovelas, and was the symbol of a generation of Chicanos who spoke English, ate McDonald’s, and shopped at Walmart.
Nevertheless, no one outside of her close circle knew her beyond her public profile, an image that was kept pristine by her father.
Selena’s allure was in her indefinable quality; she would not submit to any rigid definition. This ambiguity facilitated her success in reaching audiences who would not have normally been receptive to her music.
Her father-manager and her record labels desired her to be attractive, so she obliged. Similarly, when people asked for something sexy, she complied. She did this all in the hopes of making people pleased.
Selena shared entertaining anecdotes about her life through songs such as “El chico del apartamento 512” and “Bidi bidi bom bom” – people could not help but fall in love with her.
Her admirers sang her songs, wore her merchandise, and danced to her music at nighttime events. My cousins even visited her boutique in Corpus Christi and obtained her memorabilia. I joined in and danced the cumbia to her music.
For a few years, Selena was a household name in South Texas. Everyone had at least heard of her, if not met her in person or known her in some way. Mexicans, Americans, and even white people cherished her.
The anticipation for her next appearance was mounting. She had the honor of throwing out the first pitch at a minor league baseball game, wearing a cap with rhinestones.
The crew from the syndicated TV show Puro Tejano was there to film the event using Dutch angles.
On a late spring evening, with a stunning pink thunderhead in the sky, we were left wondering where she had gotten her fantastic white ruffled shirt for the album cover of Amor prohibido. Whenever Selena was on TV, it was an occasion for our family.
“Did you catch her on The Johnny Canales Show?” my cousin Mandy asked at a barbecue. Another one of my relatives chimed in: “Wasn’t she on Puro Tejano last week?” The conversations would usually involve who had seen Selena the most that week, and who got to explain what she had been doing and who had sponsored her.
Back in my youth, it was like everyone knew Steve Urkel, but Selena was a more distant figure. We knew what she looked like from TV, but we had also experienced her in our hometowns–shopping, eating in restaurants, and more.
Politicians like Ann Richards, George W. Bush, and Lloyd Bentsen were in the same environment we were in. We had to deal with the ups and downs of the economy and culture, such as the oil glut, Reaganomics, and the devaluation of the Mexican peso.
In the early ’90s, Texans were feeling quite proud, with Henry Cisneros as the mayor of San Antonio and the Dallas Cowboys winning.
Walker, Texas Ranger added to the pride. Selena’s fame represented the success and personal fulfillment that was available to Tejanos, and showed us that we could fit in with the rest of the state and the nation without experiencing discrimination.
We all watched her perform Juan Gabriel’s songs and dance in parking lots in the warm, humid climate.
Though Selena had trusted Yolanda Saldivar with her fan club’s money, Saldivar had meddled in the family’s affairs and taken more than $30,000 from them illegally.
Abraham Quintanilla threatened to go to the police, so Saldivar invented a story of her being raped in Mexico and bought a .38 caliber revolver and hollow-point bullets. Selena went to a hospital with her, only to be met with skepticism from the medical staff.
At the Days Inn, Selena challenged Saldivar about the stolen items and her untrustworthy behavior. In response, Saldivar pulled out her gun, pointing it at Selena, and maintained that she had been trying to protect her since she loved her. With no other option, Selena refused to believe another of Saldivar’s lies.
It was done. The fatal bullet that ended Selena’s life also ruptured the delicate self-governance Tejanos had established.
The boundary had been a long-standing, impenetrable, and antagonistic abyss that swallowed all within it.
When Selena passed away, it was evidence once more that we could not outrun the narrative of agony and agony, that the same desperation that propelled people to smuggle contrabands and narcotics over the frontier could also extinguish the greatest thing that had ever happened to us.
On the day leading up to Selena’s funeral, Howard Stern made fun of the singer and her music in a broadcast that earned universal disapproval.
Stern said: “This music has no effect on me. Alvin and the Chipmunks have more personality. Spanish people have horrible music taste; it has no depth.”
A Cameron County judge issued a warrant for his arrest due to disorderly conduct, which is still valid. Roughly a month later, Timothy McVeigh drove a truck with explosives to the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City and killed 168 people.
The South Texas region experienced thunderstorms for many weeks in late April and May of 1995, with dark skies, tornado warnings, and lightning in the night. People used the phrase “el diablo anda suelto” (“the devil is loose”) to express the confusion and feeling of alienation that followed Selena’s death.
For many, including myself, her murder was a significant event that predated 9/11. Everyone remembers the exact moment and details of when this tragedy occurred.
That March day as I journeyed home with my younger sibling in the rain, I experienced a tremendous sense of emptiness and surprise.
This event had never taken place to me before. Someone I thought would remain in my life had vanished without a trace.
At the time, I didn’t understand how bizarre and confusing life can be. I presumed the performers I admired would stay in my life indefinitely, yet Selena was no longer here, leaving me with nothing. It was the most devastating feeling in the world.
Since time immemorial, the South Texas region had been overcome with a sense of tragedy, and Selena’s death was no exception.
It was intense, mechanistic, and foreseeable. She was a victim of her own culture, as many of us were. Her life, living in poverty, was briefly lifted by fame.
However, that ended when her father suggested Yolanda Saldivar to run the Selena Fan Club.
With a strict father, siblings and relatives who kept her in line, and enforcing a code of unspoken societal regulations, Selena fought to break away from the power of patriarchy, and the age-long cycle of deprivation and mistreatment that has been the bane of South Texas.
Selena’s impact is still felt in many ways. Jennifer Lopez has greatly profited from it, and the Latin music revival in the US in 1998 was partly due to the interest generated by her death.
Tejano music had reached its peak in the mid-’90s, however, it was unable to recapture the same level of enthusiasm with Selena’s passing.
Freddy Fender, Tish Hinojosa, Alejandro Escovedo, Chelo Silva, Lydia Mendoza and Flaco Jimenez were popular in the genre, but none of them achieved the same amount of recognition as Selena had.
Her fame rose quickly, yet disappeared just as fast. In 2004, Freddy Fender appeared on a television show in my hometown, and remarked “Tejano music isn’t the same anymore.”
After her death, Selena’s image was suddenly ubiquitous: from bedrooms to dressers, from Selena lookalike contests to hour-long TV specials, from People en Español to the pretrial hearings of her murderer.
Her purple-sequined suit and posthumous album were sold everywhere, and the music video for “I Could Fall in Love” was seen everywhere.
Her face, image, and bronze statues were seen in South Texas, from the stockyards to the chain-link fence at Seaside Memorial Park in Corpus Christi.
The magnitude of the grief that was felt across the world was even recognized by then Governor Bush in his words of “a terrible tragedy.” But many of us felt that it was the end of the world.
Selena had a strong influence on Mexicans, both in a positive and negative sense.
For a number of years, many Mexican singers like Graciela Beltran and Alicia Villarreal tried to copy her style, yet failed to achieve the same level of success as her.
During this time, the music people in northern Mexico were listening to began to shift from ‘norteño’ to that from Durango and Sinaloa as immigrants and cartel activity started to move north.
Those in the centre and south of the country (particularly in prosperous cities) had a negative opinion of Selena as they deemed her to be ‘pocha’ (rotten) due to the fact that she was an American singing and performing predominantly in Spanish, which was seen as ‘selling out’.
She was no one else, not Madonna, Evita, or the Virgin of Guadalupe, as some writers have proclaimed.
My recollections of her are hazy, colored with the rosy and grassy hue of the world I used to know.
Selena’s memory is kept alive in South Texas in the names of little girls, white roses, and the billboards along the highway to Corpus.
People like me yearn for a world that should have been, a world in which love, security, and sunshine were certainties, where the truth was spoken in Spanish proverbs and revealed in small acts of kindness.
To ensure her legacy, we keep feeding her myth–like her Google Doodle, her makeup line, this article–even though they may not appear to be related to the real Selena.
An image depicting a woman with a laptop is shown, with a caption reading: “Girls Who Code: Empowering Girls To Change The World”.
The illustration reflects the organization’s mission of encouraging and enabling young women to pursue a career in coding and technology. By providing resources, tutorials, and mentorship, the movement seeks to create an inclusive, diverse, and vibrant tech industry.
She is an integral part of me and I am of her. A myriad of memories of her are embedded in the starry twilight of my mind.
Selena has become more than she was originally. Writing this has caused her legacy to diminish and fade.
The longing to remember her is a Hispanic yearning for the past, a mindset cultivated by colonialism. For many of us, including myself, Selena is a symbol of that longing.
Historically, people on the border have followed the rules, enduring hardship and beatings to keep the family together.
But Selena showed that it is possible for a family like mine to have dreams for their daughter; to be a singer, engineer or politician. She was the one who showed us that we can move from the border and be respected and accepted in our country.
In my dreams, I’m transported to a place of greater familiarity and security than the world I inhabit – a place of hope.
I recall the balmy evenings spent with my cousin, listening to Selena tapes, and the Casio keyboard chords that accompanied her smooth, sultry voice.
These memories bring back the long summer nights, the crescent moon and stars. Her music was so irresistible that you often wondered who wrote it – usually her brother.
You couldn’t escape Selena in Harlingen – you heard her at Stars drive-thru, at the church kermis, at my grandfather’s house.
Even during Cinco de Mayo school pageants, while we tried to mimic the traditional dances of an unfamiliar land, Selena’s voice filled the air afterwards. Her name was everywhere, whether in satin, denim, diamonds, or gold, worn proudly by a die-hard fan.
The image of Selena serves as a reminder of how joy can exist, even if only temporarily. But when I went to South Texas recently, I could not find that same contentment. There were still the sun, wind, and sea, but not the white roses or fountains.
Instead, I was surrounded by the vastness of the scrublands and myself. As I slowly sipped on a melted raspa, I watched my mother sleep in the afternoon breeze, feeling both dejected and pampered like an outsider.
Selena’s presence will remain as part of my life, leaving half of it void and the other half as vivid, brilliant, and pure as that summer when I first saw her.
This girl from Lake Jackson, Texas, who worked as a Tejano singer, was often met with closed doors, like her father before her.
The now-famous bustier she wore in her pictures was actually just a black sports bra with glued-on rhinestones.
Like all teenage girls, her weight changed and she had acne and other problems that come with puberty, she was subjected to the male gaze which would take her apart and put her back together, her grades were up and down, she liked animals, had ambitions, and wanted a house by the sea.
This is the real Selena we lost, but she was also something much bigger and more glamorous. Her legacy lies between these two extremes.
Back in July 1996, for my twelfth birthday, my cousin Monica gave me a cassette tape of Dreaming of You, a posthumous album.
I put on the headphones I got from a dollar store, and with the help of my grandpa’s old tape player, I listened to the album in my room; the round blue evening illuminated by the whirring of the ceiling fan.
I felt as if Selena had arrived from the moonlight carrying white roses and the sorrow of the world, all the yearning I would later understand.
When I heard the drumbeats of “I Could Fall in Love”, I broke into tears; the plastic case with the liner notes in my hands. Pulling them out, I spread them on the floor and read the phrase that represented Selena’s brief and tragic life: ” Con tu adios / te llevas mi corazón.”
“Your parting / carries away my heart.”
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