Selena: The life and death of an incon for the New Texas

Published Oct. 28, 1995|Updated Oct. 4, 2005

When the killer of slain Tejano music star Selena was convicted and sentenced to life in prison this week, a chapter closed in Texas history.

Not the Texas of oil and cotton, longhorns and Cadillacs. The New Texas.

Hundreds of Mexican-Americans crowded outside the Houston courthouse awaiting the verdict. They brought white roses and shed tears for their fallen hero, and held homemade posters asking for justicia. Many carpooled together and drove from dusty barrios. They ate coconut creamsicles in the heat and listened to Selena's music.

Their outpouring of grief over the death of the 23-year-old from Corpus Christi made most in America wonder, "What have I missed, and who is Selena?"

Until the last year of her life, Selena was a well-kept secret from Anglos. Though her music and videos were beamed worldwide on Spanish networks such as Telemundo and Univision, most in the U.S. had never heard of her.

And yet when she played the 1995 Houston Livestock and Rodeo Show with fellow Tejano star Emilio Navaira, 61,000 fans packed the Astrodome.

In the border country of Texas, Selena is Elvis.

When Elvis Presley died in 1977, the Memphis Press reported that 30,000 mourners filed by his casket. The same number passed by Selena's coffin in Corpus Christi this year.

A similar mystical paranoia that surrounded the death of Elvis was present at Selena's wake in April. Her coffin had to be opened mid-way through the service to prove to her fans that she really was dead.

For most living outside the perimeter of Mexican-American culture, it's impossible to understand the loss of Selena. But talk to a teenage girl in a sleeveless denim shirt in the barrio and watch the chills rise off her arms as she describes where she was at the exact moment Selena's death was announced on the radio. Or listen to a young mother, her eyes filling with tears, trying to articulate why a 23-year-old pop singer could have such a hold over an entire culture.

"We wanted to have somebody to teach our kids that you can accomplish anything if you try," says 38-year-old Elvira Duences. "You want to have someone in your life like that. Selena was that person for us."

"Us" are the 22-million Hispanics living in the United States, 60 percent of whom are of Mexican origin. Twenty-five percent of Texans are Mexican or Mexican-American. Most breakfast joints in West and South Texas, known as the frontera, serve chorizo and tortillas with eggs. People use a hybrid of language known as "Spanglish." The region is undergoing a steady Latinization. At Tejano dance clubs, Mexican-Americans in Wranglers and 10-gallon hats glide polka-style across waxed parquet.

No one better represented the emerging Tex-Mex culture than Selena, who sang a form of music known as Tejano (Tay-HAH-no), a Mexican version of country music propelled by accordions. Tejano originated in Texas with the German settlers in the 1800s.

Radio stations with all-Tejano formats dominate the dial in this part of Texas.

Selena was the undisputed Queen of Tejano.

Yet, like many of her generation, she didn't speak Spanish. For her songs, she grafted words together phonetically.

She loved the combination platter at Rosita's in Corpus, but she also loved the Olive Garden.

Selena Quintanilla Perez was the brilliant merge of two cultures, a highly marketable commodity on the verge of crossing over, when she was slain earlier this year.

Despite her simple songs and saccharin message, the ninth-grade dropout managed a complex feat. She didn't morph into an anglo. She made it clear she was from the barrio. She made the outsiders feel inside.

Selena came from a family of musicians. Her father, Abraham, had been a vocalist for a group called Los Dinos (slang for "the boys.") He began grooming Selena at an early age, and soon, the family band, Selena y Los Dinos, was hired to play at weddings and cantinas around Texas.

In 1994, Selena won a Grammy for Best Mexican-American album, Selena Live.

Even in fame and wealth, Selena could still be spotted at the Wal-Mart in Corpus Christi. Although Hispanic Business magazine estimated her earnings for 1993 and 1994 to top $5-million, the singer sill lived in a $44,000 two-bedroom house. Her only trapping of luxury was a shiny red Porsche.

Yolanda Saldivar, squat and plain, was a startling counterpoint to the five-alarm glamor of Elena. In 1991, the registered nurse from San Antonio contacted Selena's father and volunteered to start a Selena Fan Club. It was an unusual move for Abe Quintanilla to allow a non-family member such access, but for more than two years, Saldivar acted as devoted fan club president. In 1994, she was hired as a paid employee to manage the Selena boutique in San Antonio. The friendship grew between the two women, and Selena showered Yolanda with gifts _ expensive trinkets, a car phone and home furnishings.

But according to court records, Selena's father began to suspect Saldivar of stealing his daughter's money. On March 31, Selena drove her husband's blue pickup truck to confront Saldivar at a Day's Inn. Several figures in popular culture have died tragically in hotel rooms, but the Days Inn is not the Chateau Marmont _ it's a budget motel where rooms rent for $45 per night. Room 158 is on the ground floor and overlooks a littered field.

Just after 11:45 a.m., a disoriented and bloodied Selena stumbled to the motel lobby, begging for help before collapsing. Shot in the back, she died within an hour of arriving at the hospital.

The rainy afternoon Selena was murdered, guidance counselors at West Oso High School in Corpus Christi were brought in to help grieving and even hysterical students. The school is 85 percent Hispanic and draws from the Molina barrio. In handwritten cards gathered in a book at the school, it's clear how much they hitched their own heritage to Selena's success.

I'm 15 years old and I really liked Selena's jams. I'm from Molina and she was the star from the HOOD. She's full of MEXICAN PRIDE. She was like a flower that bloomed from Molina's barrio. She was a straight-up homegirl that really put her heart into the Mexican music and didn't deserve to get shot. Que Viva Selena.

_ Maggie Mendoza

She never forgot where she came from. I like that especially since nowadays when a person makes it big they migrate elsewhere. She kept a dream alive in our neighborhood.

_ Paul Barron

Selena and the barrio were inseparable.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Molina was regarded by the Anglos in Corpus Christi as a lower-class barrio for cotton pickers and pachucos, or hoodlums, according to Danny Noyola, principal at West Oso High School. Because of Molina's proximity to the city landfill, the neighborhood was known as the "ditch" or the "dump."

"Molina was the butt of a lot of people's jokes," says Noyola. "And then Selena came along."

Selena lived in a modest house next door to her mother and father on Bloomington Avenue. It was a few blocks down from the market where she would buy tacos on her way home from junior high school.

Each night at 6 in the Molina barrio, the church bells from Our Lady of Pilar ring out. A mangy dog pulls on a taut chain, barking at young boys who toss a football in the street. Girls with red lips sit on front porches and braid hair. Tejano music drifts from scratchy garage radios.

Inside one small house, the Lopez family eat chalupas for dinner. There are nine children in the family. When Selena died, they held all-night vigils in front of their house, which is three blocks from Selena's.

"We all loved her, from the oldest to the youngest child," says Gaudalupe Lopez, the 52-year-old mother of nine. "Not just because she was Spanish. She was something pure."

Over and over again, people speak of this immaculate purity that Selena possessed. She was untainted in their eyes, a true madonna. They contemplate the fact she was born on Easter and assign holy meaning to the coincidence.

All her life, Gaudalupe has dreamed of visiting Graceland. Financially, her dream is impossible. "Elvis was everything to me," she says. "He was there when I was growing up. He was on my pillow, on my bedspread, in my heart. I think Selena will be the same for my children."

But Lupe, her daughter, speaks up. "Selena never did prescription drugs," says the 22-year-old.

In her death, Selena's martyrdom is secured. She is the fallen one, the angle of Molina. Dead at 23. "We will never know," as Lupe says, and an industry of mythology is perpetuated.

In this hardscrabble barrio, Selena's image is everywhere.

In a three-room house, Marcos Hernandez peels potatoes with a small knife. He is a big man, dark and muscular from laying asphalt on a road crew. "They say men don't cry," he says, pointing to the poster of Selena tacked near the front door. "Her music just catches me."

A mattress is propped against the wall and a fan circulates air. An infant sleeps in a car seat on the couch. Hernandez, 43, has glistening black hair and black eyes, and his voice is gentle.

"Selena, she's like a flower," he says, passionately. "When it blooms, people like to see it. That flower had a voice. She could have been somebody."

Maria, his 17-year-old daughter, rolls her eyes. "You know, the American dream," she says, cynically. "It's like a story that sells, the girl from the barrio makes it big."

Maria doesn't care for Tejano. She prefers Janet Jackson and MTV. She speaks without a trace of Spanish accent. She wants out of here. She thinks Selena is a gimmick.

"It gets on my nerves."

Hernandez scowls. "I was born and raised here in Molina," he said. "I remember the first time I heard Selena sing in a nightclub in Laredo. It was so beautiful."

It is precisely this tension _ between the young who embrace a Melrose Place version of America and the old who remember their roots _ that Selena is credited with easing.

Many Mexican-American teenagers are unfamiliar with the traditions of their parents and grandparents, such bailes do plataforma, outdoor dances on wooden platforms, or bailes de regala, gift dances, which dictated that men offered women a gift in exchange for a dance. Music was the jeweled event in the sweat-stained lives of working-class Mexican-Americans of the border country.

But when Selena came along in her rhinestone bustiers and hoop earrings, singing the traditional Tejano songs and modernizing cumbas with a techno beat, she paved a bridge between the generations. The entertainer who dropped out of school in the ninth grade unified Mexican-Americans as no other public figure has been able to accomplish. And she never forgot her heritage, or her humble beginnings.

"I remember on the 1988 tour," says Johnny Canales, a popular TV and radio entertainer, "I went into the bus one morning after a show, and there was Selena and the band. In the back of the bus, clothes were hanging to dry and you could see the blankets and pillows. Selena was eating potted meat and Fritos."

Canales told Selena that one day she would be able to live on steak.

Only round steak for me, Selena answered. "I don't want to get used to the good life."

At the time of her death, Selena was on the brink of achieving not only her dream, but also the dream other Hispanics had for her: to cross over into the mainstream market. A month after she died, five of her albums were on Billboard's Top 200 chart. This summer, the post-mortem Dreaming of You was released, a collection of some of Selena's biggest Spanish hits along with four English songs recorded just before her death and a bilingual duet with former Talking Head David Byrne.

But what sealed Selena's cross-over success was her murder.

Fittingly, it was a prosecutor from the Molina barrio who helped convict Selena's killer. Nueces County District Attorney Carlos Valdez gave the compelling closing arguments in a Houston courtroom to jurors to preserve the memory of Selena by putting away Yolanda Saldivar.

Valdez, who used to play marbles in a vacant field in the barrio, tacked a photo of Selena up in the courtroom to remind jurors of the loss. "I'm asking you on behalf of the beautiful voice, the golden voice that brought joy to millions of people . . . a voice that was silenced on March 31."

Within the next month, an elaborate mural will be installed a few blocks from Selena's house, complete with a bed of white roses, Selena's favorite. The memorial was designed by students at West Oso High School.

"The kids wanted timers to irrigate the flower boxes," said art teacher Dickie Valdez, whose brother is the prosecutor. "I said, "No, man, this is Molina.' The old ladies in the neighborhood will take care of it out of love."