The Queen Is Dead

Selena Quintanilla Perez, Tejano’s first superstar, was about to become an international pop sensation. Instead, she’s another victim of gun violence in Texas.

May 1995By Comments

Black Friday

The tragic news arrived the way tragic news often does: by phone. The call came just after lunch from my friend David Bennett, a reporter at the San Antonio Express-News. “Selena has been shot. In Corpus Christi at a Days Inn motel. The woman who did it is sitting in a pickup in the parking lot, holding a gun to her head.” I waited for Bennett, a font of sick jokes about current events, to deliver the punch line. It was, after all, March 31 — the day before April Fool’s. But no punch line came when he called back a few minutes later: “She’s dead. She passed away at 1:05 p.m. at Memorial Medical Center.”

I had met her only once, but it was as though someone close to me was suddenly gone. Selena Quintanilla Perez was a 23-year-old Grammy award-winning singer and the undisputed queen of Tejano music, a Texas specialty that is enjoying unprecedented popularity around the country and the world. A year ago, I’d talked with her on a tour bus in Austin for a Texas Monthly story. For most of the interview, she sat next to her mother, Marcella, who often traveled with her band, Los Dinos, and her father, Abraham, the band’s manager. At one point, her husband, Chris Perez—who was also her lead guitarist—stopped by to say hello. Around midnight, Selena’s sister, Suzette—her drummer—and her brother, A.B.—her bass player, chief composer, and producer—would join her and the rest of the band onstage.

Selena’s family crossed my mind when I heard about her death. She may have dressed provocatively onstage, but after sitting face to face with her in the company of her kin, seeing her without makeup or her sexy costumes, I pegged her as a good girl—not the sort of person who would be involved in a shooting, especially a shooting involving a jealous woman in a crime of passion.

That, of course, was what the early rumors suggested. A radio deejay somewhere wisecracked that the assailant was “Emilio’s wife”—the spouse of Emilio Navaira, the popular Tejano singer who was Selena’s only real box office competition. That scurrilous suggestion spread so fast that Navaira’s office and home were besieged with death threats. To get the truth, I tuned in two of San Antonio’s Spanish-language stations, KXTN-FM (Tejano 107) and KEDA-AM (Radio Jalapeño), and stayed close to the phone. Soon, another friend called to say that Ramiro Burr, the Express-News‘ syndicated Tejano columnist, had heard from Selena’s record company, that the woman in the pickup was Yolanda Saldivar, a 34-year-old nurse whom everyone knew as Selena’s number one fan.

By five that afternoon, San Antonio TV stations—including the affiliates for the Spanish-language Telemundo and Univision networks—had reporters and satellite uplinks at the crime scene. Selena y los Dinos songs were all over the radio. Grieving callers to radio stations read poems on the air. Other Tejano artists, such as Stefani, the All-American Sweetheart, phoned in to share memories. Dances at Tejano venues were called off in cities across Texas.

When I heard that Tejano 107 would be holding a candlelight vigil at the open-air Sunken Gardens Theatre in San Antonio at seven that night, I jumped into the car. My first stop was Selena’s boutique and salon, Selena Etc., on a tiny strip of Broadway by Brackenridge Park. Last year, Selena had opened this boutique and one in Corpus Christi; music may have been her living, but fashion was her life. When I pulled into the parking lot, four other cars were there. Two had messages painted on their windshields in white shoe polish: One read “Selena Lives On,” the other, “Missing You Selena.” A bouquet of flowers had been placed by the door of the boutique, alongside a picture of a smiling Selena and several notes. A few adults, four teenage girls, three younger boys, and an abuela (“grandmother”) were milling about, studying the flowers, reading the notes, peering in the boutique’s window at the photos and posters of Selena that hung among the designer outfits. Their faces were not animated or emotional but solemn and blank. They wanted to see, to touch, to connect somehow.

Across the park, Sunken Gardens was filling up fast. A small truck, the Tejano 107 mobile studio, was parked in the middle of the stage. Two life-size cutouts of Selena holding a Coca Cola were placed nearby. The event had been haphazardly organized—when someone from the station began handing out candles, a small stampede broke out—and at first, it seemed as though it might never come together. Then disc jockey Jonny Ramírez emerged from the truck to tell the nearly five thousand people in attendance that they were there because “somebody stupid had a gun.” A few people laughed when he recounted first meeting Selena (“I said to myself, ‘Yes! This lady makes me want to go home and take a cold shower!’”). Then he said what almost everyone else who had ever known her had said: “She never behaved like a superstar.”

By seven-thirty, candlelight illuminated the whole place. Kids still skittered under their parents’ legs, and friends still greeted friends with smiles. But a sober, respectful serenity prevailed. Facing the stage, a teenage boy and girl (brother and sister? boyfriend and girlfriend?) stood rigidly, holding a candle and clutching a white banner that read “Honk If You Love Selena.” I didn’t realize it then, but the veneration had begun.

Who She Was

On Saturday Selena’s death came up during a conversation with a neighbor in my predominantly Anglo Central Texas community. “I never heard of her,” she told me, “and I’m from Refugio. I grew up around those people.” Her reaction echoed that of many Texans, who saw this as just another senseless shooting.

Yet to “those people”—the five million Texans of Mexican descent—March 31 was a darker day than November 22, 1963. To “those people,” Selena was more than a celebrity. She was an icon. Her status as an entertainer who was a millionaire at age nineteen; her positive personality; her devotion to God, family, and home; and her willingness to talk to kids about staying in school and avoiding drugs made her a hero to brown-skinned people—especially Hispanic girls—who had precious few role models.

Her music validated the cultural duality of the majority of her fans, proving you could embrace the traditions of the land you came from while still being hip and modern. Like most Mexican Americans who have assimilated into the mainstream, Selena’s first language was English—and yet she opted to sing in the native language of her parents, proving that who you are and where your family came from are sources of pride, not sources of shame.

Selena was a total package. She could work a crowd. She could dance. She was sexy. She knew how to make time for industry types backstage. And, of course, she could sing. She was equally comfortable with the fancy streamlined polkas that are the backbone of all Tex-Mex music, the histrionic boleros from Northern Mexico (such as the “Que Creias,” in which she scorches a lover who has taken her for granted), and the mambo-derived cumbias popular throughout Latin America. She reinterpreted the sixties-era Japanese pop song “Sukiyaki” into a sentimental Spanish-language version. She re-worked the Pretenders’ eighties rock classic “Back on the Chain Gang” into “Fotos y Recuerdos” on her latest album, Amor Prohibido. She was savvy enough to write and record the nonsensical but eminently hummable, “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom,” which received heavy airplay here and in Latin America last year but would have been a hit in any language.

Despite those accomplishments, it was the forthcoming release of Selena’s first English-language album that had her fans and business associates giddy with anticipation. Instead of competing with Emilio Navaira (Tejano’s George Strait), La Mafia, Grupo Mazz, La Diferenzia, or Gary Hobbs (Tejano’s Vince Gill), she would be taking on the likes of Whitney Houston, Gloria Estefan, and Madonna. Her rivals were cheering her on. She was going to lift all of Tejano with her.

Then the dream ended—at the hands of the one person outside her family who stood to benefit most from her success.

The Killer

Yolanda Saldivar fit the classic stereotype of la dueña, the faithful chaperone or assistant. Neither attractive nor charismatic, the short, pudgy registered nurse from San Antonio was Selena’s constant companion. Her devotion and loyalty were beyond question. With the Quintanilla family’s blessings, Yolanda founded the Selena Fan Club in 1991. Whenever Selena y los Dinos played San Antonio or nearby communities, Yolanda was at Selena’s side. She was Selena’s eyes and ears, friends said—so trusted that she gave up her fan club position last fall to run Selena’s boutiques.

But some members of Selena’s circle spoke of another Yolanda. She was possessive and controlling, says Martin Gomez, who designed fashions for Selena until, he claims, Yolanda’s obsessiveness drove him to quit. She was a loner who had lived with her mother until recently and had few friends. She had once been accused of embezzling funds from a previous employer, and she had defaulted on a student loan. A woman who moved into an apartment with Yolanda discovered that Yolanda didn’t just have pictures of Selena on her walls—the whole place was “like a shrine.” Spooked, the woman moved out after two weeks.

Word reached Abraham Quintanilla in January that something had been amiss with the fan club. Several fans had complained that they had sent in their $22 but had never received the promised T-shirt, CD, picture or biography. About the same time, employees at the boutiques began to raise questions about Yolanda’s actions. Abraham began quietly investigating the matter and didn’t inform Selena until he felt he had concrete evidence.

In early march, Abraham, Selena, and Suzette met with Yolanda and demanded a full accounting. Yolanda denied the accusations and said that others were intent on making her look bad. Still, she must have seen what was coming. The person she had devoted her life to was going to cut her loose.

On March 13, after undergoing a background check, Yolanda bought a snub-nosed .38-caliber pistol from a San Antonio gun dealer. She then traveled to Monterrey, Mexico, where Selena planned to open a boutique, taking Selena’s business records with her. At some point during Yolanda’s trip, Selena phoned her and told her to bring the records back.

Subsequently, Yolanda resurfaced in Corpus Christi. On the night of Thursday, March 30, Selena and her husband, Chris, went to room 158 at the Days Inn, where Yolanda was staying, to pick up the records from her—despite the fact that Yolanda had asked Selena to come alone. When Selena got home, she realized some bank statements were missing, and she made arrangements with Yolanda to pick up the remaining records Friday morning.

On the morning of March 31, Yolanda asked Selena to accompany her to Doctor’s Regional Medical Center, claiming to that she had been raped in Monterrey. When test results were inconclusive, Yolanda changed her story: She hadn’t been raped after all. Selena and Yolanda then drove back to the motel.

Once again, Selena asked for the bank statements. Apparently, she also attempted to sever their professional relationship. Harsh words were exchanged. Yolanda demanded that Selena return a ring she’d given her as a gift from her employees. As Selena removed the ring, Yolanda pulled out the gun. When Selena ran out the door and yelled for help, Yolanda screamed, “You bitch!” and shot her in the back.

Selena crossed the courtyard and collapsed. The bullet had entered her right shoulder and severed an artery. By 11:49, when she crawled to the lobby door, she was bleeding to death.

“I’ve been shot,” she cried.

“Who shot you?” asked a motel employee.

“Yolanda.” Selena said. Then she passed out, clutching the ring in her hand.

An ambulance arrived within three minutes to take her to Memorial Medical Center. Notified almost immediately that Selena had been in “an accident,” Abraham and his family raced to the hospital, but the message had gotten confused: They thought she had been in a car wreck. A doctor met them in a waiting area near the emergency room and told them she had been shot. When he said he had administered four units of blood and had been able to restart her heart, Abraham became frantic and interrupted him. Because of her religious beliefs, he said, Selena would have objected to the transfusions.

But it was too late. The transfusions hadn’t helped, the doctor said. Selena was dead.

The Crime Scene

I woke up early on the morning of Sunday, April 2, with an urge to be in Corpus Christi. The outpouring of emotion on the news the night before was unlike anything I’d ever seen.

On the way to pick up David Bennet, who would come along for the ride, I tuned in KEDA-AM’s weekly Spanish-language mass from San Fernando Cathedral in downtown San Antonio. The priest was talking about Selena. “It isn’t the woman who senselessly killed her,” he said. “It is the whole culture of death we’re promoting.” He criticized the urge to retaliate. He begged the congregation to “say no to the spirit of getting even.”

When we got to the Days Inn in Corpus, we met up with about one hundred people, almost all of them Hispanic. Some were taking photos of themselves in front of the motel’s marquee, which read “We Will Miss You Selena.” Others were hanging around the lobby, where Selena spoke her last words. Still others were standing stoically near room 158, posing for cameras and video recorders. At the foot of the door were a bouquet of carnations, some roses, a pink oleander blossom, a votive candle, and several notes.

Many people seemed to be combing the site for something—evidence, perhaps, or a memento. Several young men hovered around the wooden trash container by the lobby, inspecting every square inch for flecks of dried blood. Two teenage boys in Dallas Cowboy jerseys ran their fingers through the thick blades of grass in the courtyard, where Selena had collapsed. Near room 158, three boys carefully picked up wood chips from the flower bed, studying each one for traces of blood.

Retracing Selena’s final steps, I felt the same cold chill I’d felt at Dealey Plaza in Dallas. I looked around for David, who had wandered off. I found him kneeling near the lobby, joining two men in silent detective work. After peering underneath an empty planter, he rose, his face paler than before. “I think I’m going to lose it,” he said. He had found a rust-colored spot that the cleanup crew had missed.

Home

From the motel, we drove south on Navigation Boulevard to Bloomington Street, where the Quintanilla clan lived. Traffic was stalled for five blocks as motorists lined up to cruise by. The three modest brick homes, surrounded by a single chain-link fence, were among the newest structures in the blue-collar, largely Hispanic neighborhood, and each had a paved driveway that took up most of the front yard. The house on the corner was Chris and Selena’s. It was small and unassuming — not the sort of place you would identify as the domicile of a superstar. The two-story house next door was Abraham and Marcella’s. The next house belonged to A.B. and his wife, Vangie.

Scores of fans stood in front of the fence, which had turned into a canvas of poster boards, banners, photos, flowers, colored ribbons, balloons, and teddy bears. There were flags of the United States, Mexico, and El Salvador. There were messages from Puerto Rico and Wisconsin, Dallas and Deer Park, Laredo and Three Rivers, and La Feria. One especially touching note was simply addressed, “To: Heaven, From: Houston.”

Staring at a picture of Selena on the fence, a toddler gleefully tugged at his mother’s skirt: “Look, Mommy. Bidi Bidi Bom Bom.”

The Long Good-bye

Downtown, for nearly a mile, people lined the sidewalk of Shoreline Boulevard on their way to Bayfront Plaza Auditoruim. They were waiting to see Selena’s closed casket, which was surrounded by five thousand white roses—Selena’s favorite.

The fans started showing up as early as four in the morning, though the doors didn’t open until nine. Still, things went smoothly until a rumor spread through the crowd late in the afternoon: The coffin was empty; Selena’s death was a publicity stunt. To calm the well-wishers, the family had the casket opened. The body was Selena’s. Her hands, folded across her chest, clutched a single red rose. By ten, when the doors finally closed, almost 60,000 people had paid their respects.

I drove home that night but the next morning impulsively decided to drive back to Corpus. It was too late to attend the private funeral service, but since it was being broadcast live by San Antonio TV and radio stations, I listened while driving down the highway—with my headlights on. Minister Sam Wax, a Jehovah’s Witness, preached in English about the resurrection of Jesus according to the faith. “Jesus said, ‘Do not marvel at this.’” The service lasted less than twenty minutes. At the family’s request, each of the six hundred mourners placed a white rose on the coffin. Before long, a two-foot pile of roses rested atop the casket, which was eventually cleared and lowered into the ground.

I pulled into the parking lot of the Days Inn precisely 24 hours after my first visit. Just as many people were walking the grounds and searching for traces of the crime, but the façade of room 158 had been transformed. Messages scribbled in ink, pencil, and felt-tip marker covered the door, the window, the sidewalk, even the limestone block interior. From a distance, room 158 looked like an altar.

When I first heard Selena had been shot, I thought I was witnessing the end of an era and the shattering of the great American crossover dream. Now I wasn’t so sure. At the very least, my Anglo friends finally knew how to properly pronounce “Tejano.” And I was getting a life’s education in the art of grieving, the power of family, and the cycle of life and death. How sad it all was—and yet how vibrant and full of life this send-off was. These people, most of them strangers to Selena, had gathered to say their good-byes. I heaved a deep sigh, wiped the tears from my eyes, and took one last look around.

The Wisdom of Abraham

It was midafternoon when I arrived at Q Productions, an old auto body shop along Corpus Christi’s Leopard Street industrial strip that the Quintanillas had transformed into a company office and recording facility. Most of the mourners had already cleared out, and Eddie Quintanilla, Selena’s uncle, was happy to regale me with tales of his childhood and of his brother Abraham’s high school group, Los Dinos. Abraham loved street corner doo-wop music and rhythm and blues, Eddie said, but he played traditional Tex-Mex fare—polkas and waltzes with Spanish lyrics—to pay the bills. He recalled how Abraham took a good job, working for Dow Chemical in Lake Jackson, to support his family. With money he saved, he opened a nice Mexican restaurant, quit the plant, and re-formed Los Dinos with his older children. Selena began singing in the restaurant when she was eight. Then oil prices slumped, people quit eating out, and the restaurant went under.

In 1982, Eddie said, Abraham moved the family back to Corpus Christi. Music provided them with sustenance as they traveled across Texas and the United States in a battered van pulling a broken-down trailer. “That was a long, long time ago,” Eddie added with a smile.

I found Abraham Quintanilla sitting in a chair in the studio control room while a TV crew packed up its gear. A broad bull of a man, Abraham had impressed me as a classic band manager, a streetwise type who instantly sends the message that he’s not to be trifled with. He certainly knows the rules of survival on the tejano dance hall circuit: how money at this level of show business is generated (in gate receipts and merchandising, not CDs and cassettes), who was most likely to steal it from you, which disc jockeys can sell an extra 10,000 copies of an album, which promoters skim off the door.

Above all, he knows talent. Even when the shy Selena was singing country music in English or, later, when the members of Los Dinos were jumping around in shiny space suits, Abraham saw something. And, indeed, in 1989 he managed to sign a breakthrough six-figure deal for the band to cut Spanish-language records for EMI’s new Latin division. Then came last year’s English-language contract with SBK records. The beat-up van and rickety trailer were replaced by a tour bus, and a semi full of production and staging equipment. Selena y los Dinos had become a mini-empire. I couldn’t help but wonder then if Selena would someday ditch her father and sign with a big-time management firm in New York or Los Angeles. Now, that was beside the point.

Since Selena’s death, Abraham had been on automatic pilot—talking to reporters, overseeing funeral plans, conceding that he had always been wary of Yolanda Saldivar, even lamenting the death threats that Emilio Navaira’s wife had received. But as the crowd began to leave, he spoke with dread abut the future. “When I see that empty place and I know she’s not there, I’m going to start missing her,” he said. “It’s a tragic thing that happened. It’s a reality.”

We talked of respect, of family, and of the senselessness of the crime. Abraham railed against the concealed-weapons bill that the Texas Legislature would likely pass: “We live in a dangerous world. Why make it worse? My God, everyone’s armed to the teeth. Anybody is liable to kill you for a minute thing.”

But life would go on, he vowed. He manages six other bands, and his other children are certainly gifted enough to perform on their own. Selena had already recorded four tracks for her English-language debut, and four more songs in English are on the sound track of the new movie, Don Juan DeMarco, in which she has a cameo appearance. There was enough material for a new album. “Of course, it would never be the same,” he said. “There will never be another Selena. But we’ll go forward with it.”

I told him what I had seen, how people were looking for answers. Were there any lessons they could take from the tragedy?

He paused deliberately. “Parents, it’s time to go back to the old-fashioned way of teaching our children,” he said. “About morals, about the dangers of life. They’re too trusting. They don’t think there are bad things out there. I hope that a lot of young people see this and grow cautious. I don’t think Selena knew how popular she was getting. I would tell her, ‘Mi hijita, don’t go to the store by yourself at night. Don’t go to the mall alone. There are people who will kill you for no reason, just because you are famous.’”

Abraham Quintanilla knew all that, but he also knew his daughter was old enough to make her own decisions. She would listen, then tell him, “Dad, you think all people are bad. I can take care of myself.”

Abraham talked about the band’s first Mexican tour. The promoter warned them that the media there thrived on sensationalism. Yet Selena disarmed everyone at Los Dinos’ first Mexican press conference by walking in and hugging every single journalist. “By the time she started doing interviews, they were in the palm of her hand,” Abraham said, smiling. “The next day, all the articles praised her. They said she wasn’t some prefabricated blonde. Several remarked about the color of her skin.” It was the brown tone of the masses not the pale white of the Castillian Spanish. “They called her una mujer del pueblo—a woman of the people. She never forgot where she came from.”

You may soon have a problem, I told him. The veneration of Selena was taking on a life of its own.

He shook his head. “Selena wouldn’t want that. She believed worship should go only to the Creator. Just remember her as a good person who loved people and loved life. I don’t think Selena would be pleased to be part of any form of idolatry.”

I told him how sorry I was for him and his family and hugged him in an abrazo.

Moments later, I was back on the highway, holding back sniffles, ready for the long weekend to end. I turned on KEDT-FM to listen to the news when an announcer broke in, saying there had just been a shooting at a refinery inspection company in Corpus Christi. Five people were shot by a former employee with a pistol. The company was only about five miles from Q Productions. It happened at the same moment Abraham Quintanilla and I were talking about guns and violence.

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