In life, she was the queen of Tejano music. In death, the 23-year-old singer is becoming a legend
By RICK MITCHELL
Copyright 1995 Houston Chronicle
Abraham Quintanilla tried to remember his daughter as she'd looked
the last time he saw her, just the day before. Selena
Quintanilla-Perez was a full-grown woman of 23, a budding superstar
who dreamed of raising a big family with her guitarist/husband once
her music career settled down. She had a smile that could torch up
the night, and a figure that turned heads wherever she went. But the
only image that would come into focus in Abraham's mind was that of
an 8-year-old girl, standing nervously behind the microphone at the
family restaurant in Lake Jackson. Even back then, Abraham had been
convinced that Selena was destined to become a star. A former
musician himself, he recognized the rare power and precise pitch in
He had staked everything on her talent. From the band's early years travelling the South Texas back roads in an old, beat-up van with a foldout bed in the back, to playing for 60,000 rodeo fans in the Astrodome, Selena had become the biggest star in Tejano music. She was a household name in Mexico and much of Latin America and was on the verge of an unprecedented breakthrough to the English-speaking pop audience. Now, through a tragic turn of events, the dream Abraham had shared with his wife, Marcela, and their three children had been shattered. That morning, Selena had failed to show up at Q Productions studio. It wasn't unusual for her to be late. Perpetual tardiness was part of her charm.
But on this particular Friday morning, it was surprising that Selena hadn't at least called. She had a 10 a.m. appointment with her older brother, A.B., and sister, Suzette, to cut the vocal tracks for a demo tape of a new song A.B. had written. Selena also was midway through the recording of her first crossover album, with lyrics in English. The album was coming together slowly because of her hectic schedule. Eleven a.m. came and went, but there was still no word from Selena. A.B. phoned Christopher Perez, her husband, who said she'd left the house that morning at 9, while he was still in bed. Chris didn't know where she'd gone, but he guessed that it had something to do with Yolanda Saldivar, the former president of Selena's fan club. Abraham and A.B. went to lunch. They returned to the office just as the phone rang. Abraham's sister-in-law screamed that Selena had been in an accident. Her father raced to the hospital emergency room at Memorial Medical Center.
At the hospital, Abraham learned there had been no accident. Selena had been shot in the back and was listed as dead on arrival, a doctor said, but they'd managed to get her heart started again briefly and had given her a blood transfusion. Abraham, who'd followed his father into the Jehovah's Witnesses faith some years earlier, immediately reacted to the transfusion. "No! She doesn't want that," he yelled. Only then did the horrible finality of the doctor's words begin to sink in. Selena was dead. To children growing up in barrios such as La Molina, the working-class Corpus Christi neighborhood where the Quintanillas lived, Selena was la reina del pueblo, a successful entertainer who'd never lost touch with her roots. But to Abraham, she was still his little girl. The one who had bounced up and down on his bed where he lay playing his old guitar and singing the Mexican standards and pop songs he loved.
The beautiful little girl was gone.
The Quintanilla family was not alone in its grief. As word of Selena's violent death on March 31 spread north and south out of Corpus Christi, fans reacted first with disbelief, then with a massive, public display of adoration. Signs appeared in cars declaring "We love you, Selena!" or "Con tanto amor!" Churches hastily organized prayer vigils. Tejano radio stations played Selena's music around the clock. Record stores sold out of her albums. On the weekend following her death, thousands of mourners from Texas, Mexico and points farther made the pilgrimage to Corpus Christi to pay their last respects. That Sunday, they filed into the Corpus Christi Convention Center, where Selena's body lay in a black coffin surrounded by white roses. After a rumor circulated that the casket was empty, the family agreed to open it to confirm that the horrible news was true. The Days Inn motel where Selena was shot became a shrine to her memory, with messages from fans scrawled on the walls of the room where the singer had met with her accused killer, Saldivar, just before her death. Saldivar was suspected of embezzling money from Selena's fan club. Selena had gone to the hotel alone, at Saldivar's request, hoping to obtain documentation that the accusations were untrue. Flowers and cards covered the fence surrounding the house where Selena and Chris lived. Votive candles lined the driveway.
Outside the clothing boutiques Selena operated in Corpus and San Antonio, hawkers sold souvenir T-shirts and ball caps bearing her image. Following Selena's burial in a private ceremony on April 3, her Seaside Memorial Park gravesite also became a shrine. Every evening, the cemetery had to cart away truckloads of cards and flowers. Abraham expressed surprise and gratitude at the outpouring that followed his daughter's death. He speculated that Selena's appeal went deeper than the music. "I knew that a lot of people cared for Selena," he said. "I could see it in their faces everywhere we played. But I'm really surprised by the magnitude of this thing. I think people are tired of the wickedness of this system. She was a good person, a clean person with morals. They could see that. And there's not too much of that left in this world." The week after Selena was killed, People magazine put her on the cover in Texas and other Southwestern states. When the issue instantly sold out at newsstands, the magazine decided to do a commemorative issue in Selena's honor -- only the third such tribute in the publication's history.
Yet, even as Selena's Spanish albums topped the Latin charts and entered the mainstream pop charts in the weeks after her death, many were still wondering how the Texas singer could have gained such a large and devoted following. While shock jock Howard Stern joked about the tragedy, others simply asked, "Who's Selena?" Selena was Tejano music's brightest hope for the future. Had she lived, she might well have been the first international superstar to come out of the Tejano market. A vivacious entertainer who could sing any style of music, her potential was unlimited. Even after her death, Selena could become the first Tejano artist to break through to the mainstream pop market. In July, EMI Records will release an album including five English tracks, plus remixed and re-recorded versions of her biggest Spanish hits. "We're going to do our best to give her that English hit she wanted so badly," says EMI vice president Nancy Brennan. The third child of Abraham and Marcela Quintanilla, Selena was born on April 16, 1971, at the Community Hospital of Brazosport. The family lived in nearby Lake Jackson, where Abraham was employed by Dow Chemical Co. as a shipping clerk.
To Abraham, it seemed as if Selena was born happy. "She was just full of life," he says. "She was always joking and clowning around." To their neighbors in Lake Jackson, 55 miles south of Houston, the Quintanillas looked like a loving, patriarchal family. "They were a very close-knit family," says Carmen Read, who lived with her husband, Ed, and their two sons around the corner from the Quintanillas' house on Caladium Street. "I probably fussed at every other kid in the neighborhood, but I don't think I ever fussed at those kids. They were so well-behaved." A.B. (short for Abraham Quintanilla III) was eight years older than Selena; Suzette was four years older. But if either ever resented their little sister tagging along, it didn't show. "They were so close," says A.B.'s childhood friend David Read. "I never recalled them arguing or not getting along when they were out playing. They never had a complaint about anything." Carmen took special notice of the Quintanillas because they were one of the few Hispanic families in Lake Jackson at the time. They reminded her of her own childhood: She grew up in one of the only Mexican-American families in Silsbee, in East Texas.
I always felt that (Abraham) was maybe a little too hard on the kids," she says. "He was a typical hard-working, strict Mexican father. He definitely was the head of the household. I was raised in that same kind of household. Maybe that's why I always paid more attention to them. But I think those that lived here knew that they weren't a common, everyday family." Abraham acknowledges that he was a strict father. He didn't allow his children to sleep over at other kids' houses, and he didn't believe in casual dating. If he was too hard on his kids, he says, it's because he remembered his own wild childhood in Corpus Christi. "All these years, I knew where my kids were 24 hours a day," he says. "Maybe I overdid it, I don't know. I just didn't want them to go through what I went through. I was a street kid. My parents couldn't control me when I was young." Early on, Selena began to exhibit an irrepressible personality all her own. Nina McGlashan, Selena's first-grade teacher at O.M. Roberts Elementary School, remembers her as a delightful child.
"She had a very bubbly, positive-type of personality," says the former Nina Smith. "She was eager to please and eager to learn. The type of little kid that you would like to have in a class. I remember, too, that she had a little shyness about her." All three Quintanilla children showed an early interest in music, their father says. They came by it naturally. In the 1950s and '60s, prior to moving to Lake Jackson, Abraham led a band in Corpus Christi called Los Dinos. The name was taken from the Italian slang word for los muchachos, the boys. Los Dinos played a mix of early rock 'n' roll and traditional Mexican music, with three-part harmony vocals and a horn section. But in those days, opportunities were limited in what was known as Tex-Mex or Chicano music. Abraham eventually gave up on the music business and took a job at Dow to support his growing family. Selena was 6 when Abraham noticed that she had a remarkable voice. He was teaching A.B. a few chords on the guitar when Selena burst into song. "I always wanted to go back into the music business, but I felt like I was already getting too old, and my kids were growing up," Abraham says. "When I found out Selena could sing, that's when the wheels started turning in my mind. I saw the chance to get back in the music world through my kids."
While many parents have entertained similar fantasies, Abraham was convinced that he had a special talent to work with. "I felt that Selena had it since she was a little girl," he says. "She had that extra thing that makes an artist. Of course, nobody believed me at that time." With his wife's support, Abraham converted his garage into a music studio. A friend gave him an old Sears Silvertone bass, and he bought a set of drums. A.B. picked up the bass, and Suzette was assigned to the drums. "They knew zero about music," Abraham says. "I just placed the instruments in their hands and said, 'All right, let's go.' "At first, they were too young," he says. "They had a short attention span. They would want to go play with the other kids. Then they started getting into the music. They started creating. You know how it is." The little family band rehearsed almost every day after school. "We did all the normal kid things together," says David Read. "But they always knew when it was time to go practice. I used to go in there and watch sometimes. Selena always seemed to be having a great time."
It wasn't long before Abraham left Dow to open a Mexican food restaurant, Papagayo, in Lake Jackson. He made sure it had a stage and a dance floor. Selena and the band performed on weekends and developed a local following. "It was so unusual," says Ed Read. "You wouldn't expect to see a kid get up and sing in a restaurant like that. Her voice was a little higher, but she was on key and she always had a lot of enthusiasm." Abraham keeps a tape of 9-year-old Selena singing a Spanish version of Rick James' funk classic "Super Freak." While her voice is a bit squeaky, the phrasing is on the money. "I can see her in my mind," Abraham says. "She was an awesome dancer as a little girl. She had a lot of what black people would call soul. And she could sing any kind of music." Nineteen-year-old Rena Dearman answered an ad Abraham put in the Brazosport Facts for a lead guitarist and a keyboardist. Her boyfriend (later husband) Rodney Pyeatt played guitar; she played keyboards.
Dearman says she was impressed the first time she heard Selena sing. "I didn't expect to hear what I heard," she says. "Of course, her intonation was going to be higher. But it's what she did with the notes. This girl had some vibrato on her. She could make it work. Her release from the notes, it wasn't like your everyday little girl singing. She sounded more like a young woman." Abraham pushed the band hard to improve, Dearman says. Every day they weren't playing at the restaurant, they were in the garage practising. The repertoire was mostly Top 40 hits sung in English and the occasional pop oldie with Spanish lyrics that Abraham had translated. Then he started writing his own songs in Spanish for the band. Dearman came to feel like a member of the family, and she looked up to Abraham. He had a temper, but he was fair. "I respected what he was trying to accomplish. When he would be the way he is, I didn't take it the wrong way. He was taking care of business. The man had a goal. He knew what he was doing. And he was a good daddy. He loved those kids."
As it turned out, Abraham was better at managing a band than he was at running a restaurant. "I was inexperienced in the restaurant business," he says. "One day I decided that's what I wanted to do. The following week I'm already leasing the place. I had a big overhead. All the money I had saved went into the initial cost of opening." And when the oil business dried up in the early '80s, the restaurant went broke. Abraham had to borrow money from his brother Hector to move his family back to his hometown of Corpus. The band became the household's sole means of support. It might have seemed like a desperate situation. But Abraham says he didn't see it that way. "I always knew that Selena was gonna go. I never had any doubt." The band traveled all over the state, from Lake Jackson to Laredo to El Paso, playing little clubs, wedding dances and quinceaneras. There were seven people in the old van. Abraham was the manager and sound engineer, and Marcela served as light technician. Selena enrolled in junior high school in Corpus. But the band's schedule often forced her to miss Friday and Monday classes. After a few months, she dropped out and continued her education through correspondence courses. She earned a GED at 17.
Not everyone approved of the family's unusual lifestyle. Abraham says his father and brother told him, "You're going to ruin your kids. They'll be surrounded by drinking and drugs. It's going to have an effect on them." But Selena did not seem at all upset about missing out on a normal adolescence, Dearman says. "The only thing I knew is that she loved what she was doing. She was having fun. I don't think she'd have been as happy doing something else if she wasn't singing. When she was onstage, she was into doing her thing. If the people responded, so much the better."
While Selena was the star of the show, she remained unaffected by the attention she received onstage. "She never got haughty with us. She never changed," Dearman says. "She was as fun-loving back then as she would be later." Dearman's most vivid memories from the early years of the band are the long conversations she shared with the family members in the back of the van. While Pyeatt and Abraham sometimes engaged in intense religious discussions -- Pyeatt was a Baptist, Abraham a Jehovah's Witness -- the kids talked about more personal things.
"I know how they got to be the way they are," Dearman says. "It's because of their parents. Selena grew up to be a good girl. They were taught work ethics, compassion and how not to snub people. They believed that if you treat people good, it'll come back to you in the end." Dearman left Selena's band when Pyeatt decided to form his own country band. She really didn't want to quit, but she felt she had to follow her husband. The pair divorced several years later. "I was willing to back up Selena for as long as it took," she says. "I had so much confidence in Abraham. He was going to make the world see what he saw in Selena. I know A.B. felt the same way. They knew they had something special there." But for all his pride and conviction, Abraham admits he had an eye-opening experience when he booked the band to open for Mazz at the fairgrounds in Angleton. It was 1983. Mazz was the hottest thing in the Tejano market at the time.
"When we got to the hall, their road crew had already set up," Abraham says. "When I saw all their equipment, I freaked out. When I was playing, this kind of equipment didn't exist, like crossovers and equalizers. On one side, they had a stack of about 30 speakers and 30 more speakers on the other side. "I told my son A.B, `You know what? I think we're at the wrong place. I think this is a rock 'n' roll dance or something.' "We started walking out, and the promoter came in. I said, `Is this the place where we're gonna play tonight?' He said, `Yes.' I said, `Whose equipment is that?' He said, `Mazz.' "That night, after Selena opened up the show for them, they came on. It totally scared me. That kick-drum was so powerful it shook my shirt, and I had never seen smoke and lights like that.
"On the second set, I didn't want my kids to go back on. I was embarrassed. We had a little rinky-dink sound system. I found out that night that things had changed from the last time I'd been in the music business."
Selena made her commercial recording debut with Los Dinos when she was 12. Her first full album, "Mis Primeras Grabaciones," was released in 1984 on Corpus Christi's Freddie label, one of the oldest and most established independent Tex-Mex outfits. Rick Longoria, who engineered the session for label owner and producer Freddie Martinez, recalls that Selena cut the vocals in just a few takes. "She was very professional," Longoria says. "She'd be sitting there while the session was going on, doing little girl things. It was kind of hard to believe that she was the vocalist. "But when she started to sing, it was no problem. I've done sessions with people twice her age where we'd be there doing things over and over because they couldn't get it right." A single from the album, Ya Se Va, generated some airplay, but the album didn't sell well. Selena y Los Dinos promptly left Freddie for the Cara label, then moved on to the Manny label. "Right from the start, we thought she had some good talent," says Longoria, who now handles marketing and promotion for Freddie. "But she still needed to develop. We thought it would take about three or four years before she came into her own, and that's exactly what happened.
While Selena emerged as a recording artist, A.B. developed as a songwriter and producer. He was motivated by the need to provide Selena with strong, original material. "We had no songs. We were constantly looking for material," Abraham says. "A.B. would approach Luis Silva, who was a strong writer in the market, and he would ignore us. A.B. got upset. I said, 'Son, you need to go in that room there and just break your head until you write something good.' "That was the beginning." One of A.B.'s first efforts, "Dame un Beso," was a moderate hit. A.B., who was already the band's arranger and producer, soon took over as Selena's chief songwriter. Band member Ricky Vela also wrote, sometimes in collaboration with A.B. Although Selena could sing in any style, the band's versatile approach was dictated as much by necessity as by choice.
"In certain areas of Texas, the Valley, for example, accordion music is very strong," says Abraham. "When we would go to the Valley, we would do more accordion-type songs, using the keyboard. "In parts of West Texas, they want the cumbias, so we would give them more cumbias. And in Houston and Dallas, the young people want more pop music, so that's what we'd do." Daniel Bustamente, producer of Houston's Festival Chicano, remembers Selena's first appearance at Miller Outdoor Theater, when she was just 15. "She was nervous," he says. "She was playing second to Ram (Herrera) or Little Joe. The music was still not as full, but she always impressed everybody with that voice. The way she was able to do different things with her voice was like an opera singer, in a sense." By 1988, Selena was popular enough in the Texas market that she was voted female vocalist of the year at the Tejano Music Awards in San Antonio. She would go on to win the award for seven consecutive years. Selena's albums for the Manny label were selling in the range of 20,000-25,000 copies, a respectable figure for a regional Tejano artist. She also was gradually building a reputation beyond the Texas borders.
But the Quintanillas were hardly getting rich. Johnny Canales, the Corpus Christi-based radio and television personality, recalls a trip he took to Idaho on the Los Dinos bus. "They were living on beanies and wienies," Canales says. "She lived through those hard times. That's why, for her, the good times were nothing. She never changed." On the front of the band's bus, above the windshield where touring acts customarily put their names, was the pointed disclaimer "Nobody You Know." It's still there. The turning point in Selena's career came in 1989. Jose Behar, the former head of Sony's Latin music division, had just launched the EMI Latin label. He'd come to the Tejano Music Awards looking for new acts to sign. Selena was his first discovery. "I was with a friend of mine, Mario Ruiz, who's now the president of EMI Mexico," Behar says. "We were standing at the back of the auditorium when we saw her. Mario and I looked at each other like, `Wow. This is special.'
"But I turned to him and I said, `It's interesting. Women don't sell in the Tejano market.' And they really hadn't. Yet I said to myself, `This is the crossover act I'm looking for.' "So I went backstage to meet her and she said, `Y'all from EMI? Yeah, right.' And she kept talking to some other people. I said, `Excuse me, I'm really from EMI.' And she said, `Yeah, right' again. I think she thought I was some jerky fan or something, I don't know. "I ended up talking to her dad. The real reason I signed Selena, and her family knows this, was not to sell a lot of records in the Latin Tejano market. The God's honest truth is I never thought she'd sell a half-million units in Spanish. It just wasn't on the agenda. "The reason I signed her is because I thought I had the next Gloria Estefan." Selena's first couple of albums for EMI sold only marginally better than her Manny releases. Her breakthrough hit was "Buenos Amigos," a 1991 duet with Alvaro Torres. Thanks in part to a sophisticated video that featured Selena and Torres crooning in front of a string orchestra, the ballad went to No. 1 on the Billboard Latin tracks chart and introduced Selena to audiences on the East and West coasts.
She followed this with a guest appearance on "Dondequiera Que Estés" by the Barrio Boyzz, Latin music's answer to New Kids on the Block and Boyz II Men. Selena was seen in the video singing and dancing in hip-hop formation with the Boyzz against an urban backdrop. Clearly, there was more to this Tejana than accordions and cowboy hats. These videos opened the door for Selena to enter the international Latin market with her own hits, "La Carcacha" and "Como la Flor." While Tejano artists Mazz and La Mafia had toured in Mexico, Selena was the first to truly conquer the huge audience south of the border. "For the first time, we exposed Mexicans to what Tejano music was," says Behar. "And once you go into Mexico, that tidal wave is felt in California." Canales, whose Corpus Christi TV program is syndicated internationally, agrees that Mexico was the key. "As soon as she hit Mexico, we knew she was gone," he says. "For a Tejano artist to cross into that market is hard. She took it over like it was nothing."
Selena's success in Mexico and other Latin American countries was aided by A.B.'s ability to craft a tropical, international sound. Where Tejano music's deepest roots are in the bouncy norteño/conjunto polka rhythms popular in Northern Mexico and Texas, Selena y Los Dinos invited listeners to "Baila Esta Cumbia." An Afro-Caribbean cousin to salsa and merengue, cumbia originated in Colombia. As it migrated north through Central America and Mexico, the music adapted to each region. In Colombia, it's often played in a big-band style, like salsa. In Texas, accordion-based conjuntos play stripped-down cumbias along with the polkas and two-steps. A.B.'s approach with Selena was more ambitious. On "Techno Cumbia," from the 1994 album "Amor Prohibido," he added elements of funk, reggae and salsa into a high-tech dance mix. "I've studied it, and I found a way to do it," A.B. said in an interview three weeks before Selena's death. "The cumbia can get airplay in Puerto Rico, New York, Miami, Mexico, anywhere."
It is A.B.'s contention that Tejano music's core market has not grown all that much in the last 10 years. What has changed is the ability of certain Tejano artists to appeal to the wider Latin pop audience. "They call us Tejano, and yes, we are from Texas. But a lot of the music we're playing is from Mexico and South America," he said. Selena y Los Dinos' music is "a mixture of tropical, reggae, cumbia, all these things. It's got pop influences to it, too." A.B., who produced Selena's Spanish albums, was also co-producing three tracks on her English debut. While he acknowledged the record label's reasons for bringing in outside producers, he felt he had an advantage over other songwriters and producers working with his sister. "I've been with Selena since she was 6 years old," he said. "I've backed her every night on bass. I've seen the reaction, and felt the vibe. It's a piece of cake."
"Amor Prohibido" spawned four No. 1 Latin singles, including the title track, "No Me Queda Más," "Bidi Bidi Bom Bom" and "Fotos y Recuerdos." The last tune is an inspired Spanish cover of Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders' '80s rock classic, "Back on the Chain Gang." The album knocked Gloria Estefan's "Mi Tierra" out of the top spot on the Latin chart and has sold more than 800,000 copies worldwide. It is destined to pass 1 million this year. Yet A.B. says he accomplished only half of what he set out to do on "Amor Prohibido." His vision of a Pan-American, tropical-pop blend incorporating all his influences remains unfulfilled. Selena's success south of the border was not without complications. Although she sang in Spanish, she grew up speaking English. In the early days of the band, Abraham had to teach her the Spanish lyrics phonetically. She was unable to do interviews with the Mexican media without an interpreter. "My first language is Spanish, hers is English," says Manolo Gonzalez, the Cuban-born vice president in charge of EMI's San Antonio office. "When she talked to me, she talked to me in English, never in Spanish.
"But you see, Selena was a smart girl. She had the intuition to know what people wanted to see and hear. In the last four years, she made it a point to learn (Spanish). When we went to Mexico in the last month of 1994, I couldn't believe how well she could handle the press." Selena's longtime fans had watched her mature into a stunning young woman. She often performed in skin-tight pants and low-cut bustiers that led some to label her "the Mexican Madonna." But despite the comparisons, Selena wouldn't compromise her morals to further her career. She could be sexy onstage, but she was never vulgar. She once turned down a role in a Mexican soap opera because there was a scene that called for a steamy kiss. "I wouldn't be comfortable with that; she wouldn't be comfortable with that," Abraham said at the time. "Selena has an appeal with young kids, 5 to 10 years old, as well as older folks, you know."
Jose Behar says the record label never told Selena what to sing or how to look, although he did dictate that she appear on her album covers alone, rather than with the band. "The only thing she and Madonna had in common was bustiers," Behar says. "Selena never stooped to those levels. Great artists don't have to do that." He compares Selena to a cross between Whitney Houston and Janet Jackson in terms of her image and vocal range. Canales goes a step further. "I'd say she's like those people, but better," he says. "Those people never sang Tejano. She could do what they do, but it would be hard for them to do what she does." Still, it took the better part of four years before Behar finally was able to convince EMI's pop division that he had a potential crossover superstar on his roster. It seemed that no sooner would he have the right executive persuaded than that person would leave the company and he'd have to start all over again. "All he ever talked about was Selena," remembers Nancy Brennan, EMI's vice president of artist and repertoire. "He was like a broken record, `Selena, Selena . . . ' "
Brennan's first exposure to Selena was at the Billboard Latin Music convention in Las Vegas two years ago. Brennan was there to see Jon Secada, an EMI artist who was enjoying huge success in the English and Spanish markets simultaneously. Selena happened to be opening the show. Brennan was suitably impressed. Selena was signed by EMI's SBK subsidiary in December 1993. But it was another year before she could begin work on her debut album in English. First there was the touchy matter of selecting the right material and producers. Then "Amor Prohibido," somewhat unexpectedly, became a huge hit in the Latin market. Between touring with the band, filming commercials and movie roles, and overseeing the opening of her new custom-clothing boutiques, Selena was in constant demand. Hispanic Business magazine listed her as one of the most successful Latin entertainers in the world, with annual earnings estimated at $5 million. She made her movie debut this year, playing a mariachi singer in the Marlon Brando/Johnny Depp feature "Don Juan DeMarco."
"This is the first time I have ever made a debut album by an artist who was too busy to record for me," Brennan groused good-naturedly in early March. "How can you tell someone, `No, I don't want you to play the Astrodome for 60,000 people; I want you to work on your record?' Everyone wants her." But Brennan had little doubt that when it did come out, the album would make Selena an international superstar. "I think Selena can do anything she wants to do," she said. "She can have a successful career in two languages. She's got the pipes. She's got the heart. She's got the look. "If I had to put my own money on the line, I would bet on this one. I would say multi-platinum is to be expected, and the sky's the limit." Back in 1988, A.B. had invited a 17-year-old San Antonio guitarist named Christopher Perez to join Los Dinos. Chris played with the band for a couple of years, then quit for a year to pursue his love for rock 'n' roll. Abraham says it was only after Chris returned to the band that he noticed the lead guitarist and the singer seemed to have something brewing between them. Throughout her teen-age years, Selena's career left her with little or no time for socializing. There had been one boy, a few years earlier, who pursued an interest in her. But Abraham hadn't allowed the two to be alone together. Initially, he was opposed to Selena getting involved with anyone, much less a member of the band.
"Like I said, I was a very possessive father," Abraham says. "I thought she was too young, that her career was beginning to blossom, and that she had a great future ahead of her. I didn't want anything to distract her from this." But after he got to know Chris better, Abraham came to accept the relationship wholeheartedly. "I saw how he was, his personality, his whole being," he says. "I care for him like a son now." Chris and Selena were married on April 2, 1992. The groom was 22, the bride not quite 21. They shared a house on a corner lot in La Molina, a working-class neighborhood on the agricultural outskirts of Corpus Christi. Abraham and Marcela lived next door, and A.B. lived next to them with his wife and two kids. Among the three houses, there were nine dogs, five of which belonged to Selena. She loved animals. While Selena felt at home in La Molina, she and Chris were planning to move soon to more spacious quarters. The couple had purchased land farther outside of town on which they intended to build a house and eventually to start a family. Selena already had picked out the furniture.
About five years ago, shortly before Selena's career went into overdrive, Abraham began receiving calls from a San Antonio woman named Yolanda Saldivar. The woman said she wanted to start a Selena fan club. She told Abraham she would apply for a non-profit charter and donate some of the money to charitable causes. At first, Abraham ignored her. Eventually, he gave in to her persistence. "My interest was in publicity for Selena," he says. Saldivar, who worked as a registered nurse with tuberculosis patients at the San Antonio State Chest Hospital, became Selena's No. 1 fan. Although she was in her 30s, she screamed like a teen-ager at Selena's concerts. She turned her home in San Antonio into a virtual museum of Selena memorabilia, complete with a wall-size photograph. Saldivar was allowed on the band bus whenever Selena played San Antonio. But Selena had little other contact with her until about nine months ago, Abraham says. That's when Saldivar was hired, at Selena's suggestion, to manage the Selena Etc. boutiques in Corpus and San Antonio. The boutiques may have been Selena's way of asserting her independence from the family. She loved to shop for clothes, and she designed the sexy outfits she wore onstage. Now she wanted to prove that she could be a successful businesswoman. Although Saldivar had no previous experience at running a business, Abraham went along with Selena's choice.
"Yolanda had been president of the fan club for four years," he says. "I took for granted everything had been going smoothly." What the family didn't know was that Saldivar had been accused by a San Antonio doctor of stealing more than $9,000 in 1984 when she worked as his bookkeeper. The Aetna insurance company paid off the doctor and then settled out of court with Saldivar. Nor did they know that Saldivar had failed to pay off her college loan, and had left a job as a nurse's aide under questionable circumstances in the early '80s. Selena misread Saldivar's obsession for friendship. When Saldivar gave Selena a ring made of the miniature Faberge eggs Selena loved, Abraham told his daughter he was wary of Saldivar's motives. He wondered about the nature of her attraction. Selena replied, "Oh, Dad, come on. Everyone's weird to you," he remembers. Even after boutique employees complained of Saldivar's incompetent and devious management, Selena was reluctant to believe that her biggest fan had anything but her best interest at heart.
"Selena had the same personality as my wife," Abraham says. "If I see one discrepancy, then I'm on the alert. But she could see 20 discrepancies and then, when they finally get ready to take action, they say, `Well, maybe they needed the money more than I did.'"
In March, Abraham had accused Saldivar of embezzling money from the fan club and boutiques. The family had found four checks, including one for $3,000, she'd written to herself on the fan club account. "If you've ever seen a cornered animal, you know how she reacted," he says. Abraham had no way of knowing that a few days after their confrontation, Saldivar purchased a 38-caliber revolver in San Antonio. "I know Selena had made the decision to let her go," says Manolo Gonzalez. "But because of her nature, she wanted to let her down easy. She wanted to let her go in a way that they could still be friends. "I guess Selena saw in her a dedicated person, someone she could trust. Selena was very trusting."
In late March, Selena sent Saldivar to Monterrey, Mexico, where she was planning to open a new boutique. Saldivar was told that when she returned she should provide bank statements and other documents that could establish her innocence. Coming across the border, Saldivar called Selena to say that her car had been stolen and she'd been abducted and raped. She sounded hysterical on the phone. Selena felt she was stalling. But the singer still held out hope that her father was mistaken about Saldivar. And she insisted that Saldivar see a doctor when she got back to Corpus. On Thursday night, March 30, Saldivar called Selena from the Days Inn on Navigation, not far from the Q Productions office and studio. But when Chris and Selena arrived at the motel, Saldivar failed to provide the documents Selena was hoping for. Nor would she go to the hospital. At about midnight, Saldivar called again to say she was bleeding internally as a result of the rape. She asked that Selena return to the motel alone, but Chris persuaded his wife to deal with it in the morning. Selena left early on Friday to meet Saldivar at the Days Inn. They went to the hospital, where Saldivar retracted her claim of rape. There are no witnesses to exactly what happened when they returned to the hotel. Presumably, Selena told Saldivar she was fired. A maid cleaning a hotel room upstairs told the police she heard them yelling. Then she heard the gunshot. She looked out the window and saw two women running by the pool. One was screaming for help and clutching her chest. The other woman had a gun in her right hand. The maid says she saw her aim and fire. Selena made it to the hotel lobby, where the clerk locked the door and called an ambulance. She was bleeding profusely from a gunshot wound in her back. A witness asked who shot her. "Yolanda," she said. In Selena's hand was the friendship ring Saldivar had given her. She never got the chance to give it back.
"The Bible says that revenge belongs to Jehovah," Abraham says. "It's in God's hands now." As he speaks, Abraham is surrounded by a dozen tourists and well wishers who have come to see the Corpus Christi studio where Selena sang. Like pilgrims on a mission, they make the rounds from the Days Inn to the boutique to the grave to Selena's house. They sign their names on the wall and leave flowers at the grave. Many are wearing Selena T-shirts and caps bought from bootleggers seeking to capitalize on the tragedy. The parade of fans, which began even before Saldivar surrendered to police after a nine-hour stand-off outside the Days Inn, has been going on for two weeks. Abraham, the family patriarch and spokesman, is clearly exhausted and emotionally drained. He asks the sightseers not to take his picture. But he cannot bring himself to turn them away. "I know that if they came from that far off to pay their respects, then they loved Selena, too," he says. "They are broken-hearted, as I am. One lady told me it was just like her daughter had died. I was very touched. That's how close people felt to Selena." The next night, on what would have been Selena's 24th birthday, 3,000 people gather at Johnny Canales' Johnnyland park for an Easter Mass in memory of the gran muchacha del barrio Molina. The stage is decorated with huge bouquets of white roses. On one side of the altar is a choir, on the other a mariachi band.
"Is it a coincidence that we celebrate Selena's birthday on the same day we celebrate the victory of Jesus over death?" Monsignor Michael Heras of Our Lady of Perpetual Health Catholic Church asks in his sermon. "I don't think so. Death was defied forever. That's what this day is about. Forever! "The last words of Christ were, `Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.' That is our quote, for it is the only way to make meaning out of senselessness." The most touching moment of the service comes when a group of children sets free 24 doves, one for each year of Selena's life, to celebrate her "return to the angels." Although adults empathize with the pain suffered by Selena's family, it was the young people who had the most difficulty accepting her death. They identified with her -- especially young girls -- and idolized her as a role model.
In Houston, Jefferson Davis High School student Christina Galvan delivered a speech at a campus tribute to Selena a few weeks after her death. "Now we know how our parents felt when Ritchie Valens died," she wrote. "Selena is our Ritchie Valens. She's our John Lennon. She's our Elvis. We'll always miss Selena. There will never be another queen of Tejano music." Selena would have been amazed by the overwhelming outpouring of emotion that followed her death. Part of the reaction was a result of the dramatic and tragic manner in which she was killed. But Selena also touched something positive in people, something that's increasingly hard to find in the pop music world. She was vivacious and charming, yes, but she also believed in treating everyone equally. She often spent hours meeting fans and signing autographs before and after her shows. Abraham tells a story of four women, each in their 70s, who drove down from Dallas after the shooting. "They told me they had never seen Selena perform or known her personally, but they had seen her on television and had fallen in love with her. They said they could see she was a humble person."
Carmen Read, the Quintanillas' former neighbor in Lake Jackson, remembers the time Selena and Suzette stopped by to chat about two years ago. "She never commented on herself; her focus was on us. It made me feel like we were the celebrities." Until her family attended Selena's rodeo concert at the Astrodome in February, Read says, they really had no idea how successful she'd become. "We just looked at the 60,000 people. I thought, `My goodness, this is our little Selena?' We all sat there with a lump in our throats." Jose Behar is convinced that Selena died without fully appreciating how big she was. "She would sit in my office and I'd say, `Selena, you're a star. You should sing or be a presenter on the Grammy's.' She'd say, `Jose, what are you talking about? I'm not a star.' She wasn't just fishing for compliments. That's how she was. Most artists would be going, `How much do I get paid and where do I sign?' "She was a humble, good-hearted person. It wasn't a facade. It wasn't an act. She was humble 24 hours a day. She knew where she came from. She never forgot that. Fame never came between her and her fans."
Behar said he's come to realize that Selena's religious background played a part in her attitude. Jehovah's Witnesses don't make a big deal out of holidays or birthdays, and they don't believe in any form of idolatry. Selena loved to sing and entertain; the star part didn't mean much to her. Manolo Gonzalez thinks it was Selena's sense of common decency that led to her death. "She went to fire (Saldivar) personally," he says. "Nobody does that in this business. I mean, this is an artist generating several million dollars a year, and she would go to the mall by herself. Her dad kept telling her to be careful. She said, `Dad, people aren't that bad.' " Saldivar has been charged with murder. Her trial is set to begin Oct. 9. Abraham says that he wishes he'd fired Saldivar sooner. But he adds that no one ever imagined she'd be capable of violence. He blames himself for putting Selena in a position where she could become a victim by pushing her into a musical career in the first place. "I think, `What if I hadn't done that? What if we hadn't left the spiritual things aside?' She would have been a dedicated servant of God." The tragedy has brought the family closer together and led them to rededicate themselves to their religious beliefs, Abraham says.
"We take life for granted, you know. In our daily hustle to make a living, we forget our spiritual needs. I have no doubt that we'll see Selena again, when she comes with the resurrection." Meanwhile, he's still got a career to manage. It is a sad irony that Selena's death has focused more national media attention on Tejano music than it's ever received. "From this horrible, tragic death, there will be some who come to know and hear of this music called Tejano," says Rudy Trevino, the producer of the Tejano Music Awards. "Selena, of course, was the single most important Tejano artist, even before her death. She opened more doors than anyone." Behar expects the explosion of awareness that followed Selena's death to have long-term implications in the music business. Stores that have never carried Latin music before are now stocking Selena's albums. Other Tejano artists may follow. "Selena will be a superstar," Behar says. "The last chapter of this story has not been written yet." While Selena was proud of her Hispanic culture and heritage, she was elated at the possibility of appealing to a wider audience by singing in English. She had completed five tracks for her new album at the time of her death.
The album signaled a new sound for Selena. She was being packaged as a pop diva, comparable to Janet Jackson or Mariah Carey, but with a Latin touch. "I Could Fall in Love" is projected as the first single from the new album, due in July. The posthumous release also will include A.B.'s remixes of "Bidi Bidi Bom Bom," "Como La Flor," "Techno Cumbia" and "Amor Prohibido," as well as two previously unreleased tracks featuring Selena singing with a Mexican mariachi band. EMI is negotiating for the rights to a duet Selena recorded with David Byrne that was left off the soundtrack to "Don Juan DeMarco." "That was her biggest dream, of crossing over," Abraham says. "Because she was born here. She was an American." But for him, Selena the superstar will never be more real than the image of the nervous little girl making her debut at his restaurant in Lake Jackson. He treasures his memories. "Every time I would see her, the first thing she would do is come hug and kiss me," he says, his eyes misting over. "I go home and I take the videos and tapes. Sometimes she makes me laugh. The others, my kids and wife and Chris, it's too painful for them. They see the videos and start crying. To me, it's soothing. "It's like she's on vacation. She's still alive; she's just not here."