At the time of her death, at the age of 23, Selena Quintanilla Perez was many things to many people: cultural icon, role model, sex symbol. Above all, she was a study in contradictions. The Queen of Tejano Music was a third-generation Texan who initially struggled to speak Spanish, even as her Spanish-language songs, which she had learned to sing phonetically, climbed the charts. She was the third-highest-earning Latino performer in the U.S. but remained a down-home girl even after winning a Grammy. (Her one concession to stardom, a red Porsche, was often parked just beyond the chain-link fence outside her unassuming Corpus Christi home.) Her final concert at the Astrodome broke all previous attendance records, and yet to many Anglos, she was a complete unknown.
That changed on the morning of March 31, 1995, when Selena was murdered at a Corpus Christi motel, shot once in the back by Yolanda Saldivar, the president of her fan club. News of her death was greeted with the sort of widespread mourning usually reserved for a political assassination. For Selena’s fans, writes ethnomusicologist Manuel Peña, “it was as if their collective aspirations, embodied in this sultry, yet down-to-earth, barrio-bred hermana (sister), had been punctured just as surely as the bullet-shattered artery that killed the young diva.” When her first English-language album, Dreaming of You, was released posthumously that summer, it sold 175,000 copies in a single day. Selena became a crossover star only in death.
Since then, Selena has been canonized, sanctified, and resurrected. There has been a glossy Hollywood biopic, a touring musical, and talk of featuring her on a postage stamp. In South Texas and beyond, she has been elevated from popular singer to something more ethereal: cult hero, martyr, patron saint. Thousands of her fans still travel each year to Corpus Christi, where her family’s recording studio—as well as her home, former boutique, grave, and memorial—has become Texas’s own Graceland.
Fifteen years after her death, texas monthly asked those who knew Selena best to look back and reflect on her life, her music, and her legacy. Here, for the first time, all the prominent players in her journey from obscurity to fame—her family, her husband, her bandmates, her childhood friends, the fashion designer with whom she collaborated, and the record executives who recognized her talent early on—tell her story in their own words, and consider what might have been.
“Selena Quintanilla Perez … is presumed dead.”
As reports of Selena’s death broke on the afternoon of Friday, March 31, 1995, South Texas was consumed by grief. Anguished fans gathered at the Days Inn where she had been shot; at her clothing boutiques in Corpus Christi and San Antonio, which were hastily transformed into shrines; and at impromptu vigils around the country. Outside Selena’s home, mourners paid tribute with flowers and photographs; the line of waiting cars measured five blocks long.