When Texas-born Tejano star Selena Quintanilla-Pérez was killed twenty years ago today by her fan club’s president, it shocked a world that was just getting to know the 23-year-old singer. Here is Entertainment Weekly’s original cover story on the brief, bright life of a talented young artist whose full potential was never realized—even as her English-language songs earned her major crossover hits posthumously, and her legend was cemented in a 1997 biographical movie that became a star-making role for a then-27-year-old Jennifer Lopez.
You have to wonder what Selena—or Elvis—would have thought of the vigil outside Craig’s Record Factory on the south side of Corpus Christi, Tex., the night her album Dreaming of You was released. Assembled in the shopping-center parking lot, teenage girls, dressed and made-up in the style of the slain Tejano music queen, were prancing and lip-synching to her beach-blanket anthem “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom,” their heroine’s 1994 novelty hit. In all, some 4,000 Selena fans had jammed into a roped area meant for 1,500 as searchlights swept the sky. A few wept, but most were there to party. Selena had called Corpus Christi home, and they roared as one at every mention of her name; they groaned and held their ground when the pushing escalated to mosh-pit levels. They devoured the free food dispensed by the record store’s clerks around the edge of the crowd, and whooped encouragement to the 75 strutting, Selena-swiveling lip-synch contestants, who ranged from toddlers to twentysomethings.
Then, at 12:01 a.m. on Tuesday, July 18, the doors of Craig’s flung open, and a well-mannered group began snapping up Selena’s musical last will and testament. Thirty-year-old Alice Doria, a housewife from nearby Odem, became the first to buy Selena’s posthumous album, Dreaming of You, originally slated to contain all English-language songs and transform the Tejano superstar into a household name. “I bought a cassette and a CD,” said Doria, who had been in line since 12:30 that afternoon with her 10-year-old daughter, two nieces, and a neighbor. “I’m gonna put one away and play one till it wears out. Then I’m gonna buy another.”
Gunned down March 31 , allegedly by her fan-club president and boutique manager, Yolanda Saldivar [who was later sentenced to life in prison], 34, in a dispute over missing funds, 23-year-old Selena Quintanilla-Perez was an American-born woman who sang in Spanish and had dreams of topping the charts like Madonna. Four months after her death, she did just that. Dreaming of You—an agreeable hodgepodge of confectionary pop that includes the four English songs she had completed before her demise, a previously recorded track, two bilingual cuts (one with David Byrne), a pair of mariachis from the movie Don Juan DeMarco (in which she’d had a cameo), and some remixed Spanish-language hits—sold 175,000 copies its first day, and 331,000 its first week. Skeptics attributed the prodigious sales to morbid curiosity, but clearly Selena’s music is suddenly speaking to people who’d never heard the word Tejano just a short time ago.
In a dozen interviews, including one with Good Morning America, her family—father and manager Abraham Quintanilla Jr., 55, mother Marcella, 50, brother A.B. III (songwriter, producer, and bassist for Selena’s band Los Dinos), 31, and sister Suzette Arriaga (Dinos’ drummer), 27—kept repeating the word bittersweet to describe the album’s triumph. Again and again, her father defended the speedy release of the record to those who suggested it was exploitative. “The mainstream market was her dream, a goal,” says Abraham, almost by rote. “This is what she would have wanted. So I don’t want to deny my daughter, even though she’s dead, that dream that she had.” Selena’s crossover dream wasn’t hers alone. Though nearly all Tejano artists—who fuse Mexican, pop, polka, and country sounds—are born in the U.S. and speak fluent English, they sing in Spanish to affirm their common bond, and to embrace both ancient Mexican roots and a modern American outlook. Selena’s rock-solid family life and devotion to God (like her father, she embraced the teachings of the Jehovah’s Witnesses without joining their church) made her a role model and more: In Corpus Christi, a Gulf of Mexico city of about 271,000, 52 percent of whom are Hispanic, Selena was family.
When the vivacious singer who shopped at WalMart and ate at Pizza Hut was selling albums to a bilingual audience, she embodied the strength and hopes of this extended family. Her crossover into mainstream American music would confirm acceptance of Tejano’s hyphenated culture by the larger society—which is why Corpus Christi, numbed by Selena’s death and daily news reports concerning Saldivar’s upcoming trial, was so eager to celebrate Dreaming of You.
Anxious to be close to Selena, thousands of fans—she has large followings throughout the Southwest, L.A., and Chicago—have made the pilgrimage to Corpus Christi this summer, often staying, ironically, at the Day’s Inn where Selena was shot (and where rooms have been renumbered to eliminate No. 158, the scene of the crime). They use local tourist maps and word of mouth to make the rounds of their idol’s grave, home, and business headquarters, where they hold quiet vigils or leave notes and flowers.
The day Dreaming of You went on sale at Craig’s, 32 people visited Selena’s simple grave at Seaside Memorial Park in a span of 10 minutes. “It’s kind of hard when you listen to that album,” says Sally Contreras of Uvalde, Tex., vacationing in Corpus Christi with her husband and two kids. “It’s like she’s still alive. This makes it real.”
Cemetery officials, who estimate 1,000 visitors weekly, clear gifts and flowers left behind and deliver them daily to Selena’s family; at the end of the next day, the ground and make shift fence around the grave are covered again. Devotional messages are carved into the thin trunk and branches of the mesquite sapling behind her temporary headstone (the permanent one, a flat bronze marker, will arrive in September).
After paying their respects at her grave, fans move on to Selena Etc., the Corpus Christi boutique that she founded—and that was managed by her accused killer, Sald¡var. Once a shop that did modest business, it now draws 1,000 sightseers weekly (the branch in San Antonio attracts fewer visitors). The scene is surreal: Families wander freely through the converted house, admiring the memorabilia on the walls, and looking through racks of clothing while beauticians calmly fix the hair and nails of customers. On weekends, a line usually forms outside the boutique, and a security guard works crowd control in the tiny parking lot. Selena’s sister, Suzette, who oversees the store, became so depressed by the nonstop condolences that she now avoids staying there for more than a short period of time.
From the boutique, the flock heads to the three Quintanilla family residences, built side by side behind one chain-link fence on Bloomington Street, at the newer end of the working-class district of Molina. The homes are brick with small yards and large driveways. New graffiti cover the old on the sidewalk and street so that much of it is illegible. The wooden fence around the backyard of the house now occupied only by Selena’s widower, Chris Perez, 25, is completely carved up with loving inscriptions. Since Selena’s death, Perez keeps the curtains closed and rarely leaves the house. Selena’s parents live in the middle house, and the third is occupied by her brother, A.B., his wife, Vangie, and their two children.
From there, it’s about a 10-minute drive to Q Productions, the Quintanilla family’s production company, located in a converted auto-body shop on industrial Leopard Street. It houses the recording studio and a room where Selena sketched clothing designs for the boutique. Abraham points out the numerous gifts made by fans, from huge oil portraits to paper-heart cutouts. He returned here just a few days after the funeral to map out a plan to combat piracy of Selena’s music and merchandise—and to keep his hope alive. “It’s a healing process for me,” he explains.
Quintanilla, himself a frustrated singer on the Tejano circuit in the ’50s and ’60s, put together Selena y Los Dinos (“the guys”) after his restaurant in the Dow Chemical company town of Lake Jackson, Tex., went out of business in the early ’80s. The business failure forced the middle-class family to sell their house and move to Corpus Christi. Selena was 9 when she took center stage, though the band always included A.B. on bass and Suzette on drums, with Abraham handling the business. (Selena married the band’s guitarist, Perez, in 1992.) Though the group performed pop hits in English, Quintanilla soon realized they could be more successful going the Tejano route. In 1989, he won his daughter and her band an unprecedented six-figure contract with EMI Latin. Selena went on to become Tejano music’s first female star, then the biggest the music had ever seen.
Said EMI senior vice president of promotion Peter Napoliello a few days before the album was released: “[We are] starting to get strong feedback from markets where there’s no familiarity except what they saw on Hard Copy or read in the newspapers.” Still, the Hard Copy aspects of Selena’s story won’t surrender the spotlight that easily. On Aug. 8, a Neuces County judge granted a petition by Yolanda Saldivar’s attorney, Douglas Tinker (who represented a Branch Davidian who was charged with murder in the wake of the Waco, Tex., raid), to move the trial outside Corpus Christi. No matter where Sald¡var goes on trial for murder, Tinker says she will plead not guilty. She has not spoken publicly about the case, and although she was once Selena’s biggest fan, it’s not clear whether she’s heard Selena’s album.
Saldivar, who lived in San Antonio, launched Selena’s fan club and ran the boutiques, the first enterprise the young star had established independently of Q Productions. In the months before the killing, Quintanilla had reportedly accumulated considerable evidence that Sald¡var was allegedly embezzling thousands of dollars from the singer’s boutiques and her fan club. Selena initially refused to believe the accusations, but the day before her death, she and her husband Chris confronted Saldivar at the Day’s Inn where the aide was staying. They took business records from Sald¡var that the family contends turned out to be incomplete. When Selena returned to room 158 alone the next day to retrieve some missing bank statements and end her business relationship with Sald¡var, she was shot in the right shoulder with a .38-caliber revolver. The bullet severed an artery, and Selena bled to death several hours later.
As the family waits for justice to be served, the singer’s fans pay to remember her. After the slaying, sales of Selena’s last album, Amor Prohibido, almost tripled, reaching 1.5 million copies sold; overall, her EMI Latin catalog improved by 2.4 million. Business boomed at the Corpus Christi boutique (after the initial spurt, the San Antonio boutique hasn’t kept up). Dreaming of You includes an order form for such trinkets as ornate lapel pins in the shape of the letter S.
The family is not apologetic about the merchandising—and will not speculate on the amount of money being made. “I don’t comment on anything that has to do with money,” snaps Quintanilla. “The real tragedy was her death, and I don’t want to arouse any criminal minds by saying how much she was worth.” Instead, he argues that if the family doesn’t merchandise, someone else will. “The pirates caught us with our pants down on that when she was killed,” he notes. “The only places where you could get our T-shirts were the two boutiques.”
Life goes on at Q Productions as well. The family, which had seven male artists on the company roster before Selena died, has since signed one female singer and is about to close deals with two others. Though he seldom joins the others at Q Productions, Selena’s husband, Chris, finally feels ready to work-on Selena’s perfume line. Abraham’s been shopping around the family’s story to publishing houses, and a feature film is reportedly under way, with Edward James Olmos being mentioned to play the patriarch.
Though it may seem crass, selling Selena merchandise is perhaps the only way her family can preserve her legacy. She didn’t leave much music to repackage. In fact, Quintanilla won’t detail how much Selena product there is. There are five English tunes from albums done in her teenage years, before her voice matured, that will probably be reissued. Her last major concert, before 64,000 at the Houston Astrodome Feb. 26, was taped, which means her medley of Donna Summer hits will probably surface soon. But unreleased new recordings by the singer are in short supply.
The central irony is large and getting larger. Selena has crossed over, but it took her death to do it—and after this initial flurry, it may be hard to maintain. The only thing missing from the flourishing Selena business is Selena herself.
“We can’t replace Selena any more than you could replace John Lennon or Elvis,” notes Abraham, who says he has become more spiritual since his daughter’s death. “I believe in the resurrection,” he says later, “and I want to be there when Selena’s resurrected to receive her back.”
This is an abridged version of a cover story originally ran in the Aug. 18, 1995 issue of Entertainment Weekly.