ON MAY 29, 1995, TWO MONTHS AFTER THE TRAGIC death of tejano star Selena, a tribute was staged in her honor at Houston’s Astrodome. Although many well-known acts performed that day, including hometown superstars La Mafia and Selena’s former bandmate Pete Astudillo, it was an unknown eleven-year-old dynamo named Jennifer Peña who made the biggest impression. Confidently bouncing around the stage while singing her idol’s biggest hits, “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom” and “Como La Flor,” Jennifer won the hearts of the 32,000 fans in attendance—and so impressed Selena’s father and manager, Abraham Quintanilla, Jr., that she landed a contract with his Q Productions, an artist-management firm that represents such groups as Los Agues and Imagen Latina. “That one appearance launched her professional career,” says Quintanilla, who saw many similarities between the petite, brown-eyed Corpus Christi resident and his own daughter. “That was really exciting,” says Jennifer, who is now thirteen. “There were so many people there. But it wasn’t scary. It was a lot of fun and an honor for me to be there.”
Relying on the same keyboard-driven, pop-inflected cumbias that took Selena to the top of the charts in the early nineties, Quintanilla produced Jennifer’s debut single, “Ven a Mi,” and her debut CD, Dulzura (EMI Latin). When they were released this past April, she was more than ready to seize the moment. “My parents were at school to pick me up when we heard the song on the radio for the first time,” she says. “My friends were there. It felt really good.” The album promptly entered Billboard’s Hot Latin Tracks chart and by early September was at number twelve, with more than 70,000 copies sold. That earned Jennifer a gold record, an unprecedented accomplishment for a female tejano singer’s first release.
Jennifer’s interest in music and dancing began at age five and was encouraged by her parents, Jaime and Mary Lee Peña, who have been a stabilizing influence during this summer’s success. “We decided to keep her in public school,” Mary Lee says. “We’re trying to keep her life as normal as possible.” Still, fame has come at a price. To record, tour, and stay on the honor roll at Elliott Grant Middle School, the eighth-grader has had to sacrifice gymnastics and forget about trying out for the drill team. Football games, violin lessons, and trips to the movies with friends are things of the past. “She’s being taught that no matter what she pursues, education is always important,” Mary Lee says. “She has to leave the door open for the career choices she’ll have to make when she gets older.”