Selena (1971-1995), often called the "The Mexican Madonna, " was from very humble beginnings but used her raw talent and sultry voice to become one of popular music's fastest rising stars. Although cut down very early in her career as she was preparing to make the transition from Spanish-language to English-language chart success, her legacy has been one of ever broader exposure for Tejano music and the artists that create it.
Selena Quintanilla-Perez was born on April 16, 1971 to Abraham, Jr. and Marcella Quintanilla in Lake Jackson, Texas, where her father worked as a shipping clerk for Dow Chemical Company. Her father had led a band in the 1950s and 1960s called Los Dinos (Spanish for "the boys") that played early rock 'n' roll favorites mixed with traditional Mexican music. This music would later be called Tex-Mex or Tejano music and, with its three-part vocal harmonies and accordion and horn sections, would became very popular throughout the southwest United States and Mexico. Abraham eventually gave up his music career to settle down and start a family.
Selena, the youngest of the three Quintanilla children, attended O.M. Roberts Elementary School in Lake Jackson, a small town approximately 55 miles south of Houston, Texas, and soon showed a flair for entertaining. When she was six years-old, her father noticed her talent while teaching her older brother, Abraham III, to play a few chords on a guitar and Selena broke out into song. Her father soon converted the family garage into a music studio where her brother played bass guitar and her sister, Suzette, played drums while Selena sang.
The family band practiced almost every day after school and in 1980, her father left his job at Dow Chemical Company and opened a restaurant, Papagayo's, in Lake Jackson. The restaurant had a small stage and dance floor where the band would play on weekends. The band, now called "Selena y Los Dinos, " or "Selena and The Boys, " eventually added two guitarists and a keyboard player and garnered a local following of fans.
Initially concentrating on English pop songs and old Spanish favorites, her father soon began to write original Spanish-language songs for the band to perform. Selena's first language was English, and she had to learn the words to the Spanish-language songs phonetically. In only a few years though, the Texas oil industry dried up and so did the family restaurant's business. Her father moved the family to his hometown of Corpus Christi, Texas and began taking them on long road trips criss-crossing the state to perform their music. Selena often missed classes at West Oso Junior High School in Corpus Christi due to her touring with the band. Her father pulled her from classes permanently when she was in the eighth grade so that she could concentrate music. She took correspondence courses through the American School in Chicago, the same school that educated the Osmond family, and earned her General Education Diploma (GED) in 1989.
The constant touring paid off with an opening slot for the Tejano band, Mazz, at the Angleton, Texas fairgrounds in 1983. Mazz was one of the most popular Tejano acts of the time and Selena, only eleven-years-old, took the stage by storm, putting on a show impressed the assembled crowd.
Taking time out from touring and opening up for other more established Tejano bands, Selena recorded Mis Primeras Grabaciones in 1984 for Corpus Christi's Freddie label. Freddie was one of the oldest and most established Spanish-language record companies in Texas, but the album and its only single, Ya Se Va, did not sell well. Within a year the band had moved to the Cara label and then to the Manny label. Selena's albums for Manny did not sell much better than before and the band continued to tour, living in a van while they traveled around the southwest United States opening for larger Tejano acts and playing shows at small clubs and fairgrounds.
Due to the diverse crowds that the band played to, they learned to perform many different styles of music, rhythm and blues-based music for audiences in the larger cities, like Houston, and more traditional accordion-style Tejano music for fans in the small western Texas crowds they performed for. In 1988, Selena was popular enough among Tejano fans that she was voted the female artist of the year at the Tejano Music Awards in San Antonio, Texas. She would go on to win this award consecutively for the next seven years as her popularity increased every year.
In 1989, Selena was signed to EMI Records and suddenly she had the weight and distribution system behind her to make her a giant star. She was spotted by the head of the label's new Latin music division, Jose Behar, as she performed at the Tejano Music Awards. Upon first spotting Selena, Behar knew that she could be a great cross-over artist, appealing not only to traditional fans of Tejano music, but also to the larger pop music market in the rest of the United States. Selena would be the first artist signed by Behar and in 1991, her duet with Alvaro Torres, Buenos Amigos, became her breakthrough hit. The song went to number one on Billboard's Latin chart and introduced her to audiences throughout the United States. Her next hit song, Donde Quiero Que Estes, would also be a duet, this time with the Latin group the Barrio Boyzz.
Donde Quiero Que Estes was more tropical-influenced than most traditional Tejano music, and this song exposed Selena to an even wider market. On April 2, 1992, Selena married 22-year-old Christopher Perez, the lead guitarist for her band and they soon moved into a house in the La Molina neighborhood of Corpus Christi between her parents and her brother's family.
In the early 1990s, Selena's biggest following had begun to be in Mexico. This was due to the more international sound of the songs that her father was now writing for her to perform. The songs had an Afro-Caribbean sound that more-traditional Tejano artists shied away from, but which Selena accepted with open arms. These new songs were not only popular in Mexico, but also began to be heard throughout the United States in Miami, New York, Los Angeles and even outside its borders in South and Central America. This wider audience soon came to be reflected in the size of the crowds that she attracted to her shows.
In February of 1993, Selena performed for a record crowd of 57, 894 at the Houston Astrodome. One year later, on February 1994, she would break her own record, as 60, 948 came to the Astrodome to see her perform during the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. In August of 1993, a crowd of over 20, 000 watched her perform in Pasadena, California, an area that she had previously been almost unknown in. In March of 1994, her album Selena Live won a Grammy award for the best Mexican-American album.
In July of 1994, Selena released Amor Prohibido. Amor Prohibido would give Selena four number one singles and replaced Gloria Estefan's Mi Tierra as the top Latin selling album of that year. The album would go on to sell over a million copies worldwide and led to Selena being listed as one of the most successful Latin entertainers in the world by Hispanic Business Magazine and winning the Tejano Music Award's album of the year.
Posthumous English-Language Success
In December of 1993 Selena was moved to EMI's SBK label. SBK was primarily an English-language label, and Selena was eager to make an album in her first language. Often compared to other English-language artists such as Madonna, Janet Jackson and Mariah Carey, Selena was enthusiastic about having the same kinds of success that these artists had. She began recording English-language songs for her new album and continued touring throughout 1994 and 1995. On February 26, 1995, Selena would set the third straight record for attendance at the Houston Astrodome when an audience of 61, 041 saw her perform on-stage alongside Emilio Navaira, the Tejano Music Awards male vocalist for that year.
On March 31, 1995, Selena was shot and killed by the president of her fan club, Yolanda Saldívar, in a hotel room in Corpus Christi, shortly after a confrontation about missing business funds. (Saldívar was later convicted of murder but has since proclaimed her innocence). Dreaming of You, the album released posthumously in 1996, contained five tracks sung in English as well as remixes by her father of Bidi Bidi Bom Bom, Como la Flor, Techno Cumbia and Amor Prohibido. The album also featured two tracks with Selena singing traditional Tejano songs alongside a Mexican mariachi band and God's Child, a song she recorded in 1994 alongside musician David Byrne for the motion picture Don Juan DeMarco, in which she had a small role. The album went straight to the number one spot on the Billboard chart and sold over a million copies. The crossover success that Selena had always hoped for had finally come and the album's success brought Tejano music to millions of fans who previously knew nothing about this genre of music.
Further Reading on Selena
Houston Chronicle, April 1, 1995.
New York Times, July 27, 1995; July 30, 1995.
People, April 17, 1995.
Washington Post, April 1, 1995; April 2, 1995.
"Selena, " Selena -the Movie, http://www.selena-themovie.com/main.html (April 28, 1998).
"Selena's Page, " The Unofficial Selena's Web Site, http://www.ondanet.com:1995/tejano/selena.html (April 28, 1998).
The Selena Foundation, http://www.neosoft.com/selena/ (April 28, 1998).