- By Nancy Flores American-Statesman Staff
As the familiar cumbia beats began, fans inched closer to the stage, raised their phones to record the moment and sang along with the lyrics they had been waiting so long to hear live.
“Como la flor, con tanto amor,” sang Stephanie Bergara, lead singer of Selena tribute band Bidi Bidi Banda at a recent outdoor concert. The crowd, which spanned generations, cheered as the band delivered the tunes that the Queen of Tejano made famous when she still ruled the Tex-Mex music world.
“Selena just has this pull that makes you feel like you relate to her,” says Annette Terrazas, 22, a University of Texas student who also performs as a Selena impersonator and participated in a look-alike contest after the concert. “Her spirit keeps me going.”
It’s been nearly 20 years since the world lost Selena Quintanilla Pérez, but the legacy of this pop culture icon and Tejano superstar — who was on the brink of crossing over to the English-language music market — lives on.
On March 31, 1995, Selena’s former fan club president Yolanda Saldivar fatally shot Selena at a Days Inn motel in Corpus Christi. For many Mexican-Americans, Latinos and people who followed her music, the memory of hearing this news resonates as much as the moment when President John F. Kennedy was shot did for an older generation.
Bergara was only a Palm Elementary School third-grader at the time of Selena’s death, but that day is still etched in her memory. She was singing in choir practice right before learning about her idol. She found out when her parents came to pick her up from school and her little brother ran and told her, “Selena’s been killed.” Bergara remembers listening to the Tejano radio stations in the car, and also watching Saldivar’s hourslong standoff with police on television with her family. “I hadn’t felt an emptiness like that since my grandfather passed away,” Bergara says. “It was like losing family.”
For Joe Nick Patoski, author of “Selena: Como La Flor,” the news was hard to believe. A writer for Texas Monthly at the time, he remembers hearing the news from his friend David Bennett, a reporter at the San Antonio Express-News. “I was stunned,” Patoski says.
Just a year before that, Patoski had met Selena when he interviewed her for a Texas Monthly story highlighting top Texas personalities. When Patoski first brought up the idea of including her in the feature, he says some people at the magazine asked who she was.
“All you need to know is that she sold more records than ZZ Top or Willie Nelson did on their last records,” Patoski responded. He got the green light.
Patoski remembers interviewing Selena in Austin on her tour bus. “I like to think I’m a hard (expletive), but I’m sitting across from her … and I was putty in her hands,” he says.
Austin-based Tejano music veteran Ruben Ramos had performed with Selena’s father, Abraham Quintanilla, when he led the band Los Dinos in the 1960s and met Selena as a young girl.
“She opened up for (Ruben Ramos and the Mexican Revolution) when she was a teenager,” Ramos remembers. A few years later, the tables turned. “We opened up for her.”
Ramos heard the news of her death while on tour in Arizona. “I really didn’t believe it until I got back to Texas,” he says. “Why her? She was a beautiful person inside and out.”
A country in mourning
When Patoski heard on the radio that there’d be a candlelight vigil in the Sunken Garden Theater in San Antonio, he says he jumped in his car. His first stop was Selena’s boutique and salon, where he recalls seeing only a few candles left at the door. “It was very quiet, very emotional,” he says.
When he returned to the boutique after the vigil, those few candles had mushroomed into a makeshift shrine. That extraordinary outpouring of grief, especially among many Mexican-Americans and Latinos in the U.S. and abroad, was a sneak peek at the vibrant memorialization to come.
Selena’s influence on pop culture can still be seen and felt. Twenty years later, many women have been named after her (including actress and singer Selena Gomez). She’s been remembered in murals, tattoos, books, look-alike contests, dolls, stamps, musicals, a statue and more. Selena’s 1997 biopic was a breakthrough role for actress and singer Jennifer Lopez, and many fans who weren’t yet born during Selena’s reign came to know her through the film.
University of Texas associate professor and author Deborah Paredez calls the posthumous celebrations “Selenidad.” Paredez, author of “Selenidad: Selena, Latinos, and the Performance of Memory,” says she was surprised by the tremendous memorialization that sprang up in the aftermath of Selena’s death. As a Tejana herself, Paredez says that “among other Latinos, (Tejanos) are certainly not seen as cool. We’re often seen as sort of the backward, country cousins who can’t really dance, and so I was really interested in how she became so tremendously popular … within the hierarchies of Latino culture. I was surprised she was able to gain such a large following among the broad spectrum of Latino audiences. So part of me was wondering how this happened.”
Paredez set out to understand not only Selenidad, but how we make sense of loss in our lives through grief and memory.
“What I found was that it became a way for people to mourn the tragedies in their own lives,” Paredez says. “It also became a way for people to celebrate the triumphs in their own lives. She represented both a sense of tragedy and promise. Remembering Selena really became a way of understanding who Latinos were as citizens, as cultural makers, as political constituencies, as markets.”
During the 1990s, America went through what’s often described as a “Latin explosion.” Paredez writes that at the same time that corporate forces began to see Latinos as an untapped market, sweeping immigration reforms meant that others saw Latinos as a “potential threat to national unity.”
Today, Paredez says, we continue to see the celebration of Latin culture and simultaneous political disenfranchisement. “We come together to grieve and honor our aspirations and also grieve our collective losses,” she says.
Looking up to Selena
When Selena rose to stardom, she not only blazed a trail in the music world but became a role model for many young Mexican-American girls. Suddenly there was a successful and beloved Mexican-American young woman in the limelight who looked like them and spoke like them.
“Selena was the standard I set for myself in terms of beauty and in terms of what a Mexican-American woman could aspire to be,” says Bergara, who also serves as a music programs specialist with the city of Austin’s music division. “She broke that glass ceiling for what Mexican-American people could do in music.”
Bergara couldn’t foresee that 20 years after Selena’s death she’d have her own Selena tribute band, but she did always know that she wanted to be in the music industry because of her.
“As a little girl who secretly wanted to be a musician, it made me feel like there was no glass ceiling,” says Bergara, who has worked in everything from band management to artist relations. “Seeing the things Selena accomplished made me feel like I wasn’t limited to the politics of Tejano music or the struggles of women in the music industry. I’ll always love her for reminding me that the sky is the limit.”
Selena influences media, marketing and music
After the massive outpouring of memorialization caught the attention of national media outlets, People Weekly published a dual cover for the first time in the magazine’s history, according to Paredez’s book.
Selena appeared on the cover of the magazine’s April 17, 1995, issue — a day after Selena’s birthday — in seven states throughout the Southwest. The cast of “Friends” appeared on the cover for the rest of the country.
“Selena’s cover sold out overnight,” Paredez says. The issue’s success led to a commemorative Selena issue, something that had only been done before for Audrey Hepburn and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
After two printings of the special issue sold out, the magazine launched People en Español. Other publications such as Latina magazine and Newsweek en Español followed shortly afterward in 1996.
At Texas Monthly, Patoski says he advocated to put Selena on the cover of the magazine after her death. “There had never been a Latina on the cover before,” he says. “I’m proud that that issue set a record at Texas Monthly. That told me the magazine tapped in on audience they didn’t know they ever had.”
After Selena’s death, other publications, including the Austin American-Statesman, sought out reporters to cover Latino and Mexican-American music. Cathy Ragland, who is now a University of North Texas assistant professor of ethnomusicology, said in an email that she came on board at the Statesman after the newspaper kept “getting calls from national/international press and had no one at the paper who covered Latino/Mexican-American music.”
Tejano musicians are still making music and keeping it alive. “But there’s nobody like Selena,” Bergara says. “I felt like a little piece of Tejano culture kind of went with her.”
Sometimes fans can’t help but wonder what things would be like today if Selena were alive. “I’m convinced she would have been a far bigger star,” Patoski says.
After Selena’s death, several young artists were described as possibly becoming the next Selena, but no one reached those heights. “There isn’t going to be a Selena Jr.,” Patoski says. “But look at what’s happening now. It’s a pretty exciting time for the Latino, Texas-Mexican sound.”
Patoski points to several Texas-based Latin alternative groups fusing traditional rhythms with contemporary beats. “Their sound is out there, and most of it is connected to what (Selena) was doing,” Patoski says. “When (those bands) break out, I hope they blame it on Selena.”