A standing-room-only crowd filled the Austin City Council Chambers June 22 as Stephanie Bergara stepped forward during the council’s weekly live music break to become a Texas icon: Selena.
Bergara, who has the name of her alter ego tattooed across her forearm in red, has spent three years headlining Bidi Bidi Banda, paying tribute to Tejano music trailblazer Selena Quintanilla-Pérez, who was murdered in Corpus Christi in 1995. But this time, Bergara, an employee in the music division of Austin’s Economic Development Office, was playing for co-workers.
The City Council Chambers is not, by Bidi Bidi Banda’s standards, a large venue. Selena’s fandom consistently brings hundreds to its shows.
Lead guitarist Rene Chavez, who also plays in a cumbia band, was initially somewhat cynical about playing covers for a tribute band, he said. But the size and intensity of the Selena-loving crowds blew him away.
“Playing in front of huge crowds like we do, the energy is so high — it’s unusual to experience that for local musicians,” he said.
Next week, the group sets off on its biggest national tour yet, which includes dates at the Mandalay Bay House of Blues in Las Vegas, Slim’s in San Francisco and Union Club in Los Angeles.
That’s huge validation for Bergara, 31, an Austin native whose parents, a cross-country trucker and a Del Valle High School secretary, raised her on Selena. She remembers the exact moment she fell for the singer.
“I was watching the Tejano Music Awards in 1994 — it was when Selena had on the red bustier with the crisscross stripes in the front,” Bergara said. “I saw her and I was like: I want to do that. I was 8.”
Bergara expected it to be a single event when, in 2014, she pitched the idea to a few friends to do a Selena number for Austin’s Pachanga Latino Music Festival. She thought it would be fun to dress up as the late singer.
Rocky Reyna, whose own band Este Vato usually kept him busy, agreed to play bass. Afterward, the inquiries about future shows and private events kept coming.
“I don’t think the crowd understood it was a one-time thing,” he said.
And so they kept going. Bidi Bidi Banda — a play on Selena’s big hit “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom” and the Spanish word for a brass band — was born.
Bergara learned quickly that Selena fans would let her know when she was doing it wrong, whenever a run on a song didn’t land exactly like the recorded version. The LGBT community proved to be particularly enthusiastic fans, she said.
The group shares a mission with other Selena tribute groups around the country, whom Bergara gushes about when asked.
There’s Texas City’s Amanda Solis, who “looks mind-blowingly like Selena” and New York’s Genessa Escobar who “is such a trailblazer because she’s making Tejano music, a music based in Texas, in New York, and she’s doing it right,” Bergara said. There’s Como La Flor in California, which has a big enough repertoire to play for hours, and Los Chicos de 512, in Arizona, which Bergara says is her favorite.
After about a year, on a particularly hot day, Bergara decided it was too much to put on a sequined bustier and do up her hair. So she started playing Selena as Stephanie.
“Now I look the way I do at City Hall,” she said of dressing up. “When it first started, people, of course, were calling me Selena. But now we go to shows and people will yell my name at me.”
That’s a good sign to Bergara, who said she’s always wanted to be a musician and hopes to use the Selena act to eventually transition into a solo career. Besides, she added, the way the music sounds is more important than what she looks like.
An Austin story
Bergara said public service drew her to City Hall, where she started working five years ago. Unlike many native Austinites, she loves how the city has grown, loves the unexpected adaptations, loves “having five options for picking up juice in the morning.”
Coby Ramirez, a city Housing Department supervisor, also plays in the band.
Mayor Steve Adler called it pretty cool to introduce a City Hall-headlined act in City Hall. Moreover, he said it’s important to keep employees — especially in the music office — who are musicians themselves.
“You want the government to be a cross-section of the community, and music is a huge part of who we are,” he said. “Secondly, it’s really important within the music office itself to have people who have real world experience in the industry.”
Bergara, who is preparing to have her first child in November, said she will have played at least 65 shows while pregnant and, after a winter break, plans to come back in time for South By Southwest crowds in March and Selena’s birthday in April.
The unexpected goal of being Selena, Bergara said “has turned into something bigger than any of us imagined.”
“This band has been my boyfriend and my husband and my friend and my shoulder to cry on and my outlet for three years now,” she said. “Everything else was significantly less important. I hate to pull the ‘strong independent woman working in the music industry’ card, but it was hard.”