Kacey Musgraves ascended the star-shaped stage at NRG Stadium, where the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo convenes every year. Bathed in purple light, the East Texas–bred country musician began a song her audience likely wasn’t expecting: a twangy take on Selena’s smash hit “Como La Flor.” Watching the performance on YouTube, the viewer can barely distinguish Musgraves’s voice from those of thousands of ebullient fans scream-singing along to the chorus, “Ah-ah-ay, ¡cómo me duele!”
Musgraves’s homage, on February 25, 2019, held a bittersweet significance: almost exactly twenty-four years earlier—on February 26, 1995—Selena had performed at the Rodeo in what would be her last televised concert before her death a month later. Famously, Selena had kicked off her sold-out Astrodome show with a genre move that was every bit as audacious as Musgraves’s. Rather than open with one of her cumbia-imbued hits, she launched into a disco medley, blitzing through the likes of “I Will Survive,” “Funkytown,” and “Last Dance.” If any of Selena’s 61,000 fans in attendance were disappointed, it’s impossible to tell from their impassioned response preserved in the YouTube video of the medley, which has been viewed more than 38 million times. At her peak, Selena could do things no other tejano artist dared to, and her audience followed along rapturously.
The Astrodome show stands as a testament to how popular and potent a cultural figure Selena Quintanilla Pérez was—and still is today. In late February, the streaming service Spotify said that more than 5 million listeners had played her songs over the previous four weeks. (By contrast, her fellow late Texan Janis Joplin drew roughly 4 million listeners.) Just two years ago, Selena’s 1990 album Ven Conmigo, the first tejano record by a female artist to go gold, was inducted into the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry—an honor bestowed on recordings deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
Selena would have turned fifty this April 16, and as the stories in this commemorative package demonstrate, her enduring legacy extends far beyond her songs. The Lake Jackson–born, Corpus Christi–raised musician served as a role model for a generation—and counting—of young Latinas trying to make their way in a fraught multicultural society. Her strides in fashion design at once celebrated and subverted her Tejano roots, expanding our sense of what it could mean to be a Latina in the limelight. Her conflicts with her conservative-minded family resonated with many queer fans; for queer Tejanos in particular, she’s regarded as a heroine, much as Judy Garland served as an idol for earlier generations of gay men. And, of course, there’s the music, which continues to inspire everyone from tejano bands to punk rockers.
Perhaps the greatest testimony to Selena’s legacy is that, on what would have been her fiftieth birthday, the writers we’ve gathered to celebrate her are part of a generation of Latinos who came of age after her heyday. A couple of them hadn’t even been born before she died. Yet their devotion is as strong as that of anyone who stood and shouted with joy all those years ago in the Astrodome.
This article originally appeared in the April 2021 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Selena at 50.” Subscribe today.