Selena Forever

The Selena Trial

The Houston Chronicles Files

Searching for the perfect Selena

6,000 girls spend hours in line hoping to star as the late singer


Copyright 1996 Houston Chronicle

SAN ANTONIO -- The first young women arrived in 3 a.m. darkness.

By 8 a.m. the line stretched a good 300-people long.

By 10 a.m., it twisted its way through the congested streets of San Antonio's Market Square, ending several blocks away in a concrete expanse under a highway overpass.

"I'll stay here all day," said 13-year-old Amber Rose Zepeda, as cars zoomed overhead. "Until tomorrow if I have to."

Zepeda and an estimated 6,000 others stood in line Saturday in the slowly rising heat for a chance to portray slain Tejano superstar Selena in an upcoming movie depicting her life and career. More than half of those waiting were family members of the hopefuls -- fathers and grandmothers and aunts, many wielding eyebrow pencils and hair spray.

By 11 a.m. the downtown tourist area was a teaming sea of sequined bustiers, black tights, stiletto boots, hoop earrings and heavily lipsticked mouths.

It was a decidedly surreal scene -- skinny Selenas, chunky Selenas, Selenas in gold lamé, black lace Selenas, cap-wearing Selenas, dressed-down Selenas. Sort of like an Elvis look-alike convention, but prettier.

"I decided to come as natural," said San Antonian Margarrita Esquivel, a 20-year-old Burger King manager dressed in jeans and a simple white cotton blouse. "Selena was all natural. She didn't have hang-ups or anything. And she loved everybody the same."

Many others took the more elaborate route. Samantha Senteno was done up in a purple chiffon, bell-bottomed number that crisscrossed her chest and exposed her 6-year-old navel.

"It's just like the outfit Selena was buried in," said Sybil Molano, who drove over from Houston along with seven family members just so her niece Samantha could take part in the day's tryout.

So enthusiastic was the turnout that organizers were soon dubbing it the largest casting call in Hollywood history.

"This is unprecedented," said Gregory Nava, an Academy Award-nominated director who wrote and will direct the movie. "It shows what a special person (Selena) was."

The San Antonio audition was the first of four nationwide. The other sites are Los Angeles, Miami and Chicago. The venues were chosen because of their large Hispanic populations, organizers said, but the San Antonio call brought in Selena wannabes from as far away as Oklahoma and Tennessee.

A Houston radio station ferried 20 winners of a local contest to the audition.

First in line was Rogelio Soto, who had 7-year-old daughter Karla in tow. Soto drove all night from Dallas to get to the audition at 3 a.m., and planned to drive straight back after Karla was finished her tryout.

"I'll just drink a lot of Coke," he said. "I'll splash cold water on my face."

Nava credited the exuberant response to the high regard the Hispanic community holds for the late singer as a role model and positive voice for Latinos. It was a sentiment echoed time and again by those standing in the audition line, who talked about the singer as if she were an old friend.

"She motivated me to learn more about Tejano music," said Michele Soto, 16, of Waco, who found her place in line at 7:15 a.m. "And I like the way she carried herself. She had high moral values. You could see it through her music."

"I don't think she acted like she believed she was a star," said Melissa Hinojosa, a nursing student at Houston Community College. "When I saw her in public, you could just tell. I saw 10 Selena concerts."

"She was a shining light," Nava said. "She tells every Latino: `You're OK, you're all right. ... She became a celebration of the whole culture."

By 9:30 a.m., those auditioning were herded into a large auditorium and separated into age groups. The movie will portray Selena both as a girl from ages 6 to 10 and as the young woman who was about to cross over into English-language pop stardom when she was killed last March by her fan club president, Yolanda Saldivar.

Inside the auditorium, Selena music videos played on a large-screen television while participants waited to reach the auditioning tables. There, staff members briefly interviewed groups of five to seven young women to see if they had the looks and "star quality" to warrant a call-back interview and screen-test for today.

"You just have to (interview) a lot"to spot the gems, said casting director Liz Keigley. "You can see it after a while. They're very expressive, very glib."

Associate producer Joe Villareal said professional actresses also will audition for the roles.

He said whoever gets the parts "must really be able to capture the magical charisma that was Selena."Dancing ability is required, but singing ability is not. Simply looking like the late star is not enough, he said.

However, one young woman caused quite a sensation with her looks.

Mariana Marquez, 18, of Mexico City, so uncannily resembled Selena that she soon found herself surrounded by reporters. Though she speaks no English (being bilingual is a requirement for the part) she said she was asked to come back for a repeat interview.

"I understand some words," she said in Spanish, "but I will do whatever I need to do to reach the goal"of playing Selena, including learning English.

Ironically, Selena grew up in Texas speaking English and learned Spanish to perform her music.

Nava said the movie will focus only on the positive and affirming aspects of Selena's life.

"This is just an incredible story of a family that started out with nothing and then went on and found the American dream. There's just a tremendous universality to it. Her story is about family, and everyone comes from a family."

Selena's parents, executive producer Abraham Quintanilla Jr. and Marcela Quintanilla, took part in the audition process. Her mother sat at a table surrounded by little girls, trying to decide if any of them closely resembled her slain daughter.

"It's hard for me to see some of these little girls," she said during a break. "I have mixed emotions. I wish I had Selena here so I wouldn't have to be going through all this, but in some ways she's here in the hearts of everybody. I'm doing this for her, to keep her alive. Her fans wanted to know more about her, so we're trying to fulfill that."

Many of the little girls hugged Selena's mother after chatting with her.

As the audition wore on inside, street vendors hawked gorditas(treats), a Tejano band entertained outside and Steve Trevino stood around with his hands in his pockets.

"My friends told me I should just go and hang out," said Trevino, a University of Texas-San Antonio student who bears a certain resemblance to Selena's husband, Chris Perez. "Yeah, I guess I'm kind of hoping to be discovered."

Meanwhile, the remaining Selenas sized each other up.

"Of course we are," said 18-year-old Weslaco resident Yzena Cuellar, who sings in her own band. "But I did this just for the fun, for the experience. And it's like an honor to be doing what she does."

"It hurt me so when she died,"said 13-year-old San Antonian Tina Marie Mares, who quickly furnished an autographed copy of her own photograph. "I just wanted to come and be part of Selena, be a part of her life."