In the quarter century since her death, the Tejano music legend Selena Quintanilla has been the subject of at least five books, a recent Netflix series, and a hit 1997 biopic. Fans are more than familiar with the basic touch-points of her life, from her upbringing in Lake Jackson as the youngest of three siblings to her rising stardom as the lead singer of the family band, Selena y Los Dinos. It’s impossible to tell this story without examining the driving force behind the band, the man who introduced Selena to music: her father, Abraham Quintanilla.
While Selena remains a beloved figure and cultural icon, Abraham has a more complicated relationship with her fans, many of whom have characterized him as headstrong and brash at best, and controlling and manipulative at worst. In his new book, A Father’s Dream: My Family’s Journey in Music, Abraham sets out to challenge those criticisms. He draws on anecdotes from his music career, as well as reflections on the beginnings of Selena y Los Dinos, his daughter’s rise to fame, and her tragic death at age 23 in 1995.
From its first pages, the book often feels defensive. Following glowing forewords from actors Edward James Olmos, who played Abraham in the 1997 biopic, and Jennifer Lopez, who played Selena, Abraham acknowledges that the memoir could be seen as an attempt to capitalize on his daughter’s fame. To the contrary, he writes, at 82 years old, he simply felt it was time to tell the story “as we lived it.”
We don’t learn much about Abraham’s early years. There’s no mention, for instance, of the fact that he dropped out of his Corpus Christi high school to pursue his dreams of becoming a professional singer. Instead, he dives right into his start with Los Dinos a few years later, in the fifties. Abraham heard Los Dinos performing at a high school dance when he asked if he could join their group. One of their lead vocalists was quitting, and after an audition, he was brought on as their third vocalist. For more than a decade, Abraham dedicated his life to the eleven-member doo-wop group, traveling the country and networking with promoters and producers. Though he briefly had to leave his passion for music behind during a two-year stint in the U.S. Army, and later for jobs as a cook at Denny’s and a forklift operator at Dow Chemical, he kept coming back to it. “To me, music is like a stubborn obsession,” he writes. “Once it gets into your heart, you’ll never kick it out.”
Abraham seems to lack awareness that some of his stories don’t paint him in a particularly generous light. In one, he recalls a marital conflict when he was on a three-week tour with Los Dinos, while his wife Marcella and their toddler, Abraham (A. B.), traveled to Wapato, Washington, to spend time with Marcella’s parents. While he was away, she called to deliver an ultimatum: “If you love me, you’ll forget about music and be with your wife and son.” Abraham packed up his car and drove for 22 hours from Phoenix to Wapato, where he answered his wife’s ultimatum with his own. “I’m taking A.B. with me,” he recalls telling her. “Are you staying or are you coming?” She relented and followed him back home. Rather than reflecting on the situation, he merely says this was the last time Marcella suggested he leave the band.
Eventually, Abraham did decide to quit Los Dinos. The family, which by 1967 included a second child, Suzette, moved from Corpus Christi to Lake Jackson. There Abraham began a job at Dow Chemical. When Selena came along in 1971, everything about her arrival was unexpected. A doctor mistook Marcella’s early pregnancy for a tumor; he wanted to operate, but the family got a second opinion. Later, after delivering her third child, Marcella had been planning for a boy and didn’t have a name picked out for her daughter. The mother in the hospital room next to hers had just given birth to a boy, and suggested Marcella and Abraham take the name she couldn’t use: Selena, from the ancient Greek goddess of the moon, Selene.
What follows is mostly familiar territory from last year’s Netflix series, on which Abraham and Suzette served as executive producers. Abraham walks the reader through Selena’s humble beginnings, the speed with which she honed her singing, and the years spent on the road slowly growing the band’s audience. Here, he reiterates that his goal was never to push his kids into music careers. He just wanted them to pick up a skill and to learn to work together; over time, he says, he watched as each began to pursue music as a passion.
We’re told, with lots of adjectives, more than we’re shown about Selena’s personality—that she was a kindhearted person, generous, hardworking, and funny; that she was a natural talent who never took lessons, but was born to be onstage. If you want to get a better understanding of who Selena was, you’re better served reading her widower Chris Perez’s book, To Selena, With Love. Perez writes from a place of grief, but the way he captures Selena and his perspective as someone who fell in love with her provides a more intimate glimpse into the woman she was becoming.
Still, readers may perk up in the later chapters of A Father’s Dream, when Abraham finally begins to write about his feelings about his daughter and her death. Following the introduction of Selena’s fan club manager and eventual killer, Yolanda Saldívar, Abraham’s pain is palpable. At one point, while describing Saldívar’s trial, Abraham recalls sitting in the courtroom, wondering, “How did all the roads lead to this place . . . What horrible wrong turn was made that caused us to drift from that joyful road to this painful one?”
The defense team repeatedly tried to shift the focus away from Saldívar and toward Abraham, arguing that Saldívar was fearful of him after he fired her, and was so upset that she had actually intended to use the gun on herself. Instead, they argued, she waved the gun around as Selena was leaving and accidentally discharged it. Over the course of the trial, the defense levied some of the same accusations against Abraham that he’s continued to hear from fans: That he pushed his children into music to try to live out his own failed dreams. That he controlled every aspect of Selena’s life because she was his ticket to fame and fortune. That he was threatened by Selena’s relationships outside of the family. Abraham doesn’t hide his contempt for these claims, which it seems were largely unfounded. The jury dismissed the accusations against Abraham, convicting Saldívar, and over the years A. B. and Suzette have defended their father.
In the final pages of the book, Abraham wisely turns the reins over to his children and his wife, who share favorite memories of Selena and details of how they’ve navigated life without her. The portrait of their grief begins to come together, with each family member addressing battles with depression and suicidal thoughts. “The truth is that after Sel died, I didn’t want to be here anymore,” Suzette writes. “The hole that is in my heart where Selena is or was once can never be filled. I’ve learned how to let go, to accept what I’m feeling on any given day. Accept whatever has been put in front of me and put one foot in front of the other.”
Having to share their grief with that of Selena’s fans made it complicated for her parents and siblings. Almost immediately after Selena died, the family was confronted with speculation and conspiracy theories. Abraham addresses the persistent rumor that, citing religious reasons, he denied his daughter a lifesaving blood transfusion. As they later testified in court, Selena’s doctors did administer blood transfusions in an attempt to save her.
Then, during the closed-casket funeral, Abraham describes one mourner shouting that it was a hoax; that Selena wasn’t dead. “It was a bad decision on my part,” Abraham writes. “I permitted the casket to be opened. Although we requested ‘No photographs,’ some people took pictures of her in the coffin . . . To this day, those sad photos show up on social media. The immoral act of spreading our daughter’s picture causes deep pain for my wife.” The emotion he shows in this moment is poignant, especially because so much of the book lacks that same vulnerability.
Reading A Father’s Dream as a Selena fan is an exercise in empathy. Abraham might not be the easiest person to like or understand, but by the end of the book, I did have a new outlook on the extreme measures that he’s taken to preserve his daughter’s legacy. He mentions multiple times that he and Marcella felt that Saldívar attempted to tarnish Selena’s image and spread lies about her. In response, they committed themselves to maintaining Selena’s reputation as a role model. That approach has led to criticism from fans, particularly those who watched the recent Netflix series, who feel that Selena’s story has been flattened and sanitized.
Abraham’s book mentions Selena’s widower only sparingly, and to understand the tensions between the two, we must turn elsewhere. As Rolling Stone reported in April, Abraham’s company, Q Productions, can be aggressive about its control over Selena’s image. Q Productions has sent cease-and-desist letters to Selena impersonators and fans over the years, and since 2016, Abraham has been involved in a legal battle with Perez over the rights to Selena’s story.
Just two months after Selena’s death, Abraham retained a lawyer who drew up a legal agreement that would leave him in charge of Selena’s “name, voice, signature, photograph, and likeness.” “It was just a horrible time,” Perez told Rolling Stone. “I just had complete trust in the situation and who was handling it and everything and no legal representation because why would I need it, right?” Years later, Perez announced his intentions to create a show based on his 2012 memoir. Within two weeks, Abraham filed a lawsuit to stop him. The lawsuit was dismissed in 2019 after both parties reached an agreement.
Though I can’t agree with his approach, I can understand how Abraham’s instinct was to obstruct anything that might harm his daughter’s reputation. Selena’s story remains complicated and beautiful. It’s genuinely frustrating that as fans, we haven’t been given the opportunity to see her as a fully realized, imperfect person. A Father’s Dream may not change many fans’ views of Abraham, but you might recognize some of the same drive, stubbornness, and ambition in him that made Selena someone to root for.