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