To be clear, I am talking about Selena Quintanilla Perez, the Tejano singer from Corpus Christi, TX. I grew up listening to Selena in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Missing My Baby was as mainstream in my world as Miss You Much. Como La Flor and Bidi Bidi Bom Bom pumped out of my boombox as much as Forever Your Girl and Vogue. My BFF and I imitated Slenas's dance moves as much as we imitated those of Janet Jackson or Paula Abdul or Madonna.
Selena was fatally shot by Yolanda Saldivar, the president of her fan club on March 31, 1995. Every Texas Mexican knows where they were when they heard Selena was shot.
I was a freshman at University of Texas—Pan American in Edinburg. As I was sitting at the tutoring center studying for a Biology exam, one of the students who worked in the office ran into the study room and breathlessly told us the news. The Tejano station to which she was listening announced that Selena had been shot and killed. The rumor initially was that Selena had been killed by Pedro Astudillo’s wife. Pedro was part of Los Dinos, Selena’s band. We were all glued to the radio (see picture below if you are unfamiliar with this archaic machine) as the station doled out pieces of information. Before I left for class, the truth was revealed as the police reported that Saldivar had been the murderer.
I cried. I was heart broken. I never saw her perform live. My mother was working at Dillard’s in McAllen at that time, and her boss, Martin Gomez, had been a close friend of Selena’s. He had left Selena’s boutique, where he was her fashion designer, in Corpus because Saldivar created a toxic environment for everyone whom she perceived as a competitor for Selena’s attention.
Two years after her death, the movie Selena was released. I went to go watch it with my then boyfriend (now husband) and my parents. Even my very macho Mexican dad bawled his eyes out at the end. How can you not? Selena was a gorgeous, incredibly kind, successful, inspiring young woman who was planning on crossing over English-speaking audiences, and starting a family with her husband, Chris Perez. In addition to the loss her death brought to her family, friends, and Tejano fans, it also led to a loss for English-speaking American audiences who would not know the full extent of her talent, beauty, and grace.
Now, twenty years later, I still cannot talk about Selena without a huge lump forming in my throat. In honor of the twentieth anniversary of her death, I wanted to pay tribute to Selena by listing three important lessons I learned from her and the way she carried herself professionally.
1) You can be sexy without losing your dignity, innocence, or self-worth. Selena dressed in revealing, tight clothing. Selena hand stitched sparkly beads on her bustiers. She exuded sex-appeal with her curves and flirty smile. In a world where we are still shaming women for expressing their sexuality, despite sending the mixed message that female pop stars are most successful when they sexualize their image to sell music, Selena broke those barriers and double standards light years ahead of her time. She wore sexy clothing without compromising her values and self-respect. She never came across as cheap or vulgar. She was a talented singer, dancer, and entertainer. The lyrics to her songs were clean, honest, sometimes funny, poetic, and empowering. I could watch her dance routines alongside my parents and not feel embarrassed. Heck, I often danced like her (or tried very hard!) at family parties. She taught us sexy was a good thing!
Selena was body positive before “body positive” became a thing or buzzword. Selena knew she was beautiful, a beauty accentuated by her kindness and charm, and she was not afraid to show it. She was not afraid to wear sexy clothing, not just because she looked amazing in those outfits, but because she was confident and empowered as a young woman. With her dark hair, dark skin, and curves years before JLo or Sophia Vergara were a blip in the radar, Selena taught us that we did not need to look the prototypical American cover girl to be beautiful or sexy. She empowered Latinas everywhere to be love their bodies, no matter what shape and size.
2) You can be a successful Latina without turning your back on your roots. Selena grew up in working class neighborhoods in Lake Jackson and Corpus Christi. There were times her family was even poor and struggled financially. When she became a Tejano star, and her boutique Selena Inc was thriving, I have read estimates that Selena’s estate was worth over five million dollars. Her Tejano albums broke record sales for the genre. She won a Grammy and many awards for her music. Despite the accolades and financial success, Selena never changed. This is something you hear from her family and friends. My mother’s co-workers who had known her very well confirmed that her kindness and generosity were not an act. She was the real deal. Even as her career was skyrocketing and she was on her way to cross over to the mainstream English-speaking audience, she never turned her back on her Latino fans.
3) Families stick together. Selena’s father, Abraham, was her manager. Her sister Suzette played the drums for Los Dinos, the "back-up" band. Her brother, AB, played bass guitar and wrote most of the songs on her records. Her mother travelled with the band and helped Selena design her clothing.
Unlike the parents of young stars who are too afraid to discipline their kids or turn down offers for fear of losing their meal ticket, Abraham did not compromise the Quintanilla beliefs and values. He turned down sponsorships from beer commercials. He made sure AB kept the lyrics of Selena’s songs clean and family-friendly.
This is not to say that life was always perfect. Selena was an independent young woman who did not always agree with her manager/father. Abraham was never happy with her choice of fashions for the stage, but she did not give in to his demands for her to stop wearing sexy clothing. She did not feel she was doing anything wrong (she wasn’t!), and she looked freaking awesome. Nevertheless, she never turned her back on her family, despite the disagreements. In 1992, she secretly married the lead guitarist of Los Dinos, Chris Perez. This was the biggest “scandal” to hit the family, but it was diffused when Abraham finally accepted Chris when he realized they loved each other very much. Her family toured together, worked together, played together, and even fought together. The Quintanilla family stuck together through the “scandal” with Selena’s secret marriage and Abraham’s over-protective attitude about her clothing. There were no lawsuits in this family!
I was in tears while writing this post. I never met Selena and never got to see her perform live. I wish I had. I will pay tribute to her in my writing. My current work in progress features an homage to La Reina Selena. As a young woman, I needed to learn the lessons she taught us Latinas. Young girls need a Selena in their life to look up to.
What is your favorite Selena memory? Let me know in the comments.