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A LEGEND DIES; AN INDUSTRY IS BORN // selena

Long before the murder that belatedly brought her to the attention of the English-speaking world, Selena had earned the title Queen of Tejano Music and the affection of Mexican-Americans in small towns like this one, the self-styled strawberry capital of Texas.

So it was only fitting that when a Hollywood production company decided to transform the murdered singer's short life into a movie and to film some of its concert scenes at the county fairgrounds here, the crowd of extras that assembled was full of people who had seen the real Selena perform and adored her.

Deep into the night on a warm autumn Saturday, grandmothers with babies in tow, entire families and knots of teenagers stood transfixed as Jennifer Lopez, the actress playing their idol, lipsynched Selena's greatest hits.

"For me, it has always been Selena and always will be," Roxane Avila, 16, a fan, said between takes. "I went to see her twice and always told my mom that I wanted to be like her. Now I can't bring myself to play her records because it's just too painful. So is this. But even so, I couldn't miss it."

Less than two years after being shot to death by the former president of her fan club in a Corpus Christi motel room, Selena is well on her way to becoming as much an icon for Latin Americans and Spanish speakers in the United States as Elvis Presley is for rock 'n' roll fans, Marilyn Monroe for film buffs or Jerry Garcia for one-time hippies. "The torchbearer for a new generation of Latinos" is the way the movie's Mexican-American director and screenwriter, Gregory Nava, describes Selena.

That passion has also fed a flood of posthumous books, records and memorabilia, making Selena better known today than at the peak of her career. Or as Sue D'Agostino, a publicist at EMI Records, the company that groomed Selena for stardom, puts it, "She has had a life of her own after her death."

To Nava, whose previous movies include El Norte and My Family: Mi Familia, there is an especially mythic quality to the story of a singer who rose from humble beginnings through hard work and talent, overcoming barriers of language and culture, only to die violently at the age of 23, just as her career was taking wing. "Look at Elvis, James Dean and Marilyn," he said. "They were all brought down by their self-destructive natures. But for Selena to have been brought down this way is more tragic than the others because she really was living the American Dream."

In Selena's case, everything started with the music and her capacity to produce on cue the sob in the voice that is common both to the blues and to Mexican music.

"That teardrop she had in her vocal cords gave her an ability to interpret and communicate in her songs as if she had lived far beyond her years," said Jose Behar, president of EMI Latin Records, who in 1989 signed the band then known as Selena y los Dinos to a recording contract and nurtured her career through the recording of Dreaming of You, the posthumous release that sold 3-million copies in the United States.

With that came a sharply defined, even defiant, sense of style and self that has proved just as important to her growing band of admirers. Last year, a casting call in four cities to young Hispanic women to audition for the part of Selena as a child drew more than 20,000 applicants, all of them made up to look just like Selena, whose features "were definitely more indigenous than royal Spanish," as the actor Edward James Olmos, who plays her father in the movie, pointed out.

In death, as in life, in other words, Selena Quintanilla Perez has come to represent a new standard of Latin beauty and self-confidence.

Jennifer Lopez, the actress who plays the adult Selena, is from the Castle Hill section of the Bronx, not south Texas, and is of Puerto Rican descent, not Mexican. "But Selena was dark, like me, and had a Latin body, like mine, and didn't try to hide that," Lopez said. "She went up there on stage and said: This is who I am, and I like it. Why should I aspire to be blond and thin?"

Yet there is more to Selena's continued appeal than just her appearance, as Lopez and others are quick to acknowledge.

Christy Haubegger, a Mexican-American from Houston who is publisher of Latina, a New York-based magazine for Hispanic women, said: "Selena is an icon to us because she is both culturally and physically like we are, someone born here in the United States and definitely an American but also a Latina, proud of who she is and able to say she didn't have to lose her culture to be successful. She not only embodied ideals of Latina beauty but the struggle we live with every day, between two cultures, two languages and two sets of values."

The emergence of Selena, who spoke Spanish with a Texas accent and made a point of favoring the English pronunciation of her name (suh-LEE-na) over its Spanish version (say-LAY-na), also played with the ambiguity Mexican-Americans feel toward the cultures on both sides of that hyphen.

For example, Nava said that when he had first pitched his Selena proposal to Hollywood executives, they thought she was Mexican, not American. "She could no more have come out of Mexico than Frank Sinatra out of Italy," he said.

South of the border, too, there was resistance at first to what Selena represented. In the upper-class neighborhoods of Mexico City, she was at first derided as naco, an ethnic and class slur meaning coarse or vulgar because of her mestizo, or mixed European and Indian, features, which were in marked contrast to those of the typically fair-skinned and light-haired soap opera stars and also because of her fondness for tight bustiers and even tighter pants.

Selena flaunted all of that, perhaps to offend the stuffier elements of the Mexican upper class but certainly to delight her fellow Mexican-Americans. "She was so tacky, but she knew it, and she loved it," said Karina Duran, a makeup artist working on the film.

The movie being made here is only one manifestation of Selena's continued pull on the imagination of fellow Americans and Latin Americans. Eight unauthorized biographies of her brief life already have been published, including a bilingual paperback, with one cover in English and the other in Spanish.

Tribute issues of magazines are also circulating, with titles like Selena _ A Latin Goddess: An Angel Whom Heaven Reclaimed and Her Image and Fragrance Are Still Present.

"I know a lot of people put their hopes and dreams on Elvis, but I believe this runs even deeper," said Joe Nick Patoski, author of Selena: Como la Flor, explaining what compelled him to write his book. "So much of Mexican society has been built on suffering and sadness since the time of the conquistadors, so this event was really made for this culture."

The books, the T-shirts and the rest are a mere prelude, however, to the onslaught that will come when Warner Brothers releases its film in March.

A CD called Siempre Selena, a selection of 10 songs in Spanish and English, some new, some remixed, is already out, but the opening of the movie will be accompanied by a soundtrack record and promotional campaigns with the likes of Coca-Cola and Wendy's.

Even without that big push, the sites associated with Selena in her hometown, Corpus Christi, are now tourist attractions. The municipal auditorium has been renamed in her honor, but the principal draws are the places where she worked and lived: the boutique where the clothes she designed are on sale, the house where she lived with her parents, brother and sister, and the one just down the block where she moved after she married Chris Perez, the lead guitarist in her band.

Selena's grave site, at Seaside Memorial Park, has also become a place of pilgrimage, engulfed in memorials and flowers, much like Presley's grave at Graceland.

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