This past year marked an important, though largely unnoticed, milestone for fans of Selena Quintanilla Perez, the hugely popular Tejano singer who died at 23 on March 31, 1995: She has now lived in our memories for longer than she performed professionally. She was 9 years old when she started singing at parties and weddings around Lake Jackson. Over the next six years she sang in a range of venues in Texas and around the country—anywhere her father, Abraham Quintanilla, could get the family a gig. Beginning with her first radio hits, in 1985, she steadily built a larger and larger audience with a remarkable run of albums and a stage persona that was basically irresistible. When it all came to a tragic end, she had been performing for fourteen years. As of this month, she has been a memory for fifteen.
The transition is significant, since this “memory phase” (or whatever you might call it) of Selena’s career has been so impressive. As with any famous musician who dies too soon, she has been celebrated with a biopic, tribute albums, concerts and merchandise, but in her case the commemoration has risen to a higher plane. Like Elvis, Selena’s afterlife has also been filled with impersonators, shrines, an endless stream of pilgrimages to her home, and a level of extreme posthumous veneration (what the writer Deborah Paredez calls “Selenidad”). In life she was a star; in death she became a legend.
Part of this surely has to do with the shock of her murder. Most people can recall where they were when they first heard that Selena had been shot and killed by the president of her fan club. But as dramatic as her death was, it was the incredible story of her life—recounted this month in senior editor Pamela Colloff’s oral history, “ Dreaming of Her”—that made her a hero to so many people.
Selena meant more to her fans than most pop stars do. She reached the height of her fame in the nineties, a decade in which America was gradually becoming aware of the increasing political,