It's Been A Year Since Selena Was Murdered.
By Tom Danehy
IT'S IMPOSSIBLE NOT to sound pretentious saying so, but I knew and liked Selena's music before most of America first heard of her, which was on the nightly news March 31 last year. Before that she had had a small (but growing) following of rabid fans. Today, 200 million Americans know her music, although most still mispronounce her name on a regular basis. (It's Suh-lee-nuh, not the Spanish-correct Say-lay-nuh.)
When local station 1490-AM switched from its funk-soul-rap format to alternative, I found KOHT-FM, which features an eclectic mix of '80s funk, '90s soul and Tejano, a hybrid mix of Mexican cumbias and any number of American influences. Selena was the undisputed queen of Tejano.
She was poised for stardom and was already taking the steps necessary to realize her biggest dream. Selena didn't want to be the next Celia Cruz; she wanted to be the next Aretha Franklin.
Selena Quintanilla was born into a poor family in Corpus Christi, Texas. She spoke only English at first (on some of her early recordings, it's clear she's singing the Spanish phonetically). She loved music, mostly American R&B and pop. By the time she was 11, she had a mature voice and was a polished performer, working in a family band, Selena y Los Dinos.
Her father, Abraham Quintanilla, was like a stage mother on steroids. Abrasive, combative and universally disliked in the Tejano music business, Abraham forced his daughter to drop out of school in the eighth grade, despite the fact she was a straight-A student.
She worked the Tejano circuit hard, became fluent in Spanish and grew in popularity. It had to have been a tough life for an attractive, intelligent young woman. When the inevitable rebellion came, it came in the form of her surprising marriage to Chris Perez, a guitar player in her backup band.
To be sure, Daddy was less than pleased, but she and Perez eventually settled into a small house next to her parents. She opened a couple small boutiques, which her father saw as financial drains and therefore despised.
When 1994's Amor Prohibido went platinum, she began to branch out. She appeared in the movie Don Juan DeMarco, recorded a song (the hot, percussion-driven "A Boy Like That") for the just-released West Side Story tribute album, and began recording several tracks for a long-planned all-English album.
Apparently, the stardom never went to her head. She lived in the modest neighborhood, shopped at WalMart and mingled with her fans. She had a smile that would light up the Superdome and an outgoing personality that drew people to her like tornadoes to a trailer park.
The details of her death are all too familiar. She was at a Corpus Christi motel with Yolanda Saldivar, a frumpy 35-year-old woman whom Selena had met at a picnic for the Selena Fan Club. Saldivar had seen her perform in mid-1991 and was so excited that Saldivar herself started the fan club. The two women became odd friends and were, for a time, inseparable.
The most common version of the murder is that Selena went to the motel to confront Saldivar over financial improprieties in both the boutique and fan club funds which Saldivar oversaw. More recent reports have Saldivar upset over the addition of a mystery man to Selena's inner circle, a plastic surgeon from Monterrey, Mexico, whom Selena liked and Saldivar saw as a serious threat to her position of confidante.
Whatever the truth, Saldivar shot Selena in the back, and the singing star, after running 500 feet across a courtyard, collapsed and died from massive internal bleeding.
Selena's death sent shock waves through the music world and, predictably but nonetheless grotesquely, sales of existing Selena material skyrocketed. Her father grieved for about five minutes, then took steps to oversee a flooding of the market with Selena memorabilia, from T-shirts to caps, buttons to hastily thrown-together greatest-hits compilations.
When someone suggested he was profiting from his daughter's death, he coldly countered that someone was bound to do so, so it might as well be her family. He moved quickly to sell movie rights and hurried to put together a collection of recorded material already "in the can."
That album became Dreaming of You, a mixture of new English tunes, with some Spanish-language hits on the B-side. Fueled by the success of the first single, the English-language "I Could Fall In Love," the album entered the charts at Number One and has currently sold more than five million copies worldwide.
My favorite song by far is "Tu Solo Tu," a Mexican standard which also appears on Linda Ronstadt's Canciones De Mi Padre. While Ronstadt's version my be more technically excellent, the circumstances surrounding Selena's life and death give her version a poignancy and passion which never fails to move me.
Selena's death seems to be keeping at bay the usual backlash that greets stardom in today's hyper-cynical society. Her records continue to sell, as does the other merchandise. Last week, an open casting call for Selena lookalikes for the upcoming movie got light-hearted play on national newscasts, even though the chances of casting an unknown are virtually nil. (Salma Hayek, Antonio Banderas' squeeze in Desperado, is the rumored favorite.)
Meanwhile, her success is spawning spinoffs. Currently receiving extensive airplay is a song called "Como Te Extrano," by Pete Astudillo, who co-wrote "Bidi Bidi Bom Bom" with Selena, and "Techno Cumbia" with her brother, A.B. Quintanilla.
And Abraham Quintanilla, when he's not busy squeezing every last buck out of his dead daughter's legacy, is pushing a new singing sensation, 12-year-old Jennifer Peña, whom he signed last summer. She's being billed as "the next Selena."
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