As is proper in Texas, especially in Corpus Christi, our group gave thanks for the Whataburger. “Thank you, Jesus, for the food we’re about to eat,” intoned Sylvia D. over her number one combo with cheese. “Bless the hands that made it and the good company I’m in.” She took a bite. “Mmmm, thank you, Lord.”
Amen. Strictly speaking, though, it wasn’t Jesus who had brought our group together on this cloudy spring day. It wasn’t even the Whataburger. Rather, it was another of God’s and Corpus Christi’s children: Selena Quintanilla-Perez. Just Selena, if you please.
The legendary singer, who was murdered 20 years ago, on March 31, 1995, would have approved of our sacrament. As with nearly every other detail of her brief 23 years on earth, Selena’s love of Whataburger is well documented. In the early days of her career, when she traveled around Texas with her family band, her father-slash-manager, Abraham Quintanilla, paid her and her siblings-slash-bandmates in Whatameals; when, at age 17, she accepted the award for Female Vocalist of the Year at the 1989 Tejano Music Awards, she reportedly yelled, “Whataburgers for everyone!” So it seemed fitting for our small congregation to partake in the daily bread of the Queen of Tejano, a down-home girl with talent and drive. Una artista del pueblo, they called her. “An artist of the people.”
There were seven of us, and we were feeling jovial and optimistic, unaware of the wrath that our devotion would soon incur. That crisis was at least an hour away. We represented a near-perfect cross section of Selena admirers—majority female, diverse in ethnicity, national identity, age, and sexual orientation. Those at our table included a Stripes convenience store employee whom Sylvia D. had brought closer to the Lord; a skinny pop singer with blond stubble and his female friend; a young man sporting discount tattoos who had driven thirteen and a half hours from Georgia; and a Selena impersonator.
At the center sat Sylvia D.—full name Sylvia Dancer—a voluminous personality packed into a pretty, compact frame. Between bites, the cheerful 53-year-old with a tightly pulled ponytail outlined the itinerary for the next day’s Selena tribute she was organizing at Molina Veterans Park, a city-block-size field in the neighborhood where the Quintanilla family had once lived. No detail was too small to mull, especially since it was to be the last time Sylvia D. would host the event. She had first put on the tribute—a musical showcase she funded and organized, all on her own—right after Selena’s death. Like so many others in Corpus Christi, she had been left reeling by the loss, particularly the grim details: the singer had been killed in a fit of pique by the president of her fan club, Yolanda Saldivar, who shot Selena in the back with a .38-caliber pistol at a Days Inn. For two decades, Sylvia D. had made it her mission to keep Selena’s memory alive. Now she was calling it quits.
There were a couple of reasons for this last cumbia waltz. For one, Sylvia D. was moving on. The longtime Corpus Christi DJ was going all in for God, producing and promoting local gospel acts. More important, Corpus Christi had finally decided to put on its own Selena-themed music festival, a shindig known as Fiesta de la Flor, to be held at North Bayfront Park, downtown. It was scheduled for mid-April, to coincide with the singer’s birthday, and unlike the tribute in the park, it boasted not only heavy financial backing but also the blessing and support of the Quintanilla family. Though many in Corpus Christi had assumed the two events were one and the same, Sylvia D. made pains to note that there was no affiliation; in fact, for quasi-legal reasons that will soon become apparent, she had stripped her tribute of any direct reference to Selena. It was officially titled the 20th Anniversary Sylvia D. Talent Showcase. Not that anyone was confused about what a “20th Anniversary” event—held twenty years to the day after Selena’s murder—was meant to commemorate.
Nestled against Sylvia D. was Monica Peralta, a petite 21-year-old Selena impersonator from California who had taken her first-ever plane ride to attend the showcase, her second appearance in as many years. Monica wasn’t in full Selena mode now—it was just lunch at Whataburger—but she had worn wine-red lipstick, combed out her black hair, and put on a nineties-inspired outfit. Monica had grown up dancing to Selena songs, and between bites of burger, she and Sylvia D. described how last year’s event had been her coming-out-as-Selena party, even though, as the two explained with the fluidity of a call-and-response duet, this had practically required a miracle.
“Monica got real sick last year. She started burning up with fever before the—”
“I was supposed to stay at a hotel, but she took me in—”
“I told her, just come stay with me—”
“I really didn’t think I was sick—”
“She got sick on the night before the event. So I told her that I was going to bless her, but it was too powerful for me. So I took her to my pastors, and I let them pray for her and I assisted. I said, This is overwhelming, so I prayed for her. And she felt so much better—”
“I really did. Because I had a fever and there was pain and then, after that, the pain went away.”
As they talked, Monica and Sylvia D. shared what seemed like a habit of mutual, absentminded grooming. Monica’s fingers trailed through Sylvia D.’s hair, straightening strands as she talked, and vice versa. Watching the two, a nickname suddenly—terribly—came to mind: m’íja. It’s the term of affection Saldivar said she had for Selena. “She was like a daughter to me,” the killer once claimed. Like I said, a terrible thought, but the connection was hard to shake.
Anyway, the prayers had had mixed results. While the pain was exorcised by showtime, the fever remained. “But I still did it—”
“She got better afterwards. She got blessed.”
Since then, it had been the spirit of Selena moving Monica. She’d performed as her hero at least once a fortnight for the past year, picking up fans along the way. And now, thanks to her enthusiasm and entrepreneurial efforts, her role would transcend that of mere performer. In about an hour, she planned to host a meet and greet, a scavenger hunt, and then a trivia contest, a haphazard medley of activities to be held in the Q Productions parking lot, the Quintanilla family studio that also houses the Selena Museum. Afterward, Monica and her fans would take the museum’s $3 tour.
But first things first: after the meal, we were all to caravan to Veterans Park to make final arrangements for the next day’s event. Sylvia D.’s main point person for logistics was the skinny musician, whom she introduced as Ethan D. (all denizens of Sylvia’s universe are christened with the surname “D.”), a Corpus-based singer who after performing at the tribute one year had assisted ever since. When we reached our destination, it was Ethan (real last name Walker) and his friend, Brooke, who talked to the nearby parks-and-rec workers to ensure that the grass would be cut in time. It was Ethan whom Sylvia D. listened to when the group gathered to discuss where, exactly, the stage should be positioned. And as the convoy loaded up to head to the museum, it was Ethan who motioned for me to ride with him and Brooke. There were subtle hints that this was a good idea: the Stripes employee seemed to go wherever the spirit took her; the man from Georgia looked a little lost; Monica fidgeted in anticipation of her meet and greet; and from the sounds of it, Sylvia D. had a million and one things to do herself. I jumped in the car that had more physical and psychic space.
Selena’s post-mortal impact—her “staying power,” as the lingo goes—cannot be overstated any more than her life’s story has been over-told.
Like Brooke, whose mother had worked at the Days Inn where Selena was shot, Ethan had several connections to the singer. His adulation made him a frequent source for Corpus Christi Caller-Times stories on the singer. He showed me a picture of his extensive collection of Selena paraphernalia—a menagerie that includes Selena T-shirts, Selena posters, Selena koozies, Selena dolls, even Selena pencils—and every year, he drops off a bouquet of flowers at the singer’s grave. The self-described “white boy who sings her music” had also been named one of the top ten “hottest singers of South Texas,” with some of his own songs produced by the keyboard player for Los Kumbia Kings, the band fronted by A. B. Quintanilla, Selena’s brother.
When we pulled up to the museum, I marveled at the compound before us. This was the home of the Quintanillas’ musical empire. When Selena’s father, Abraham Quintanilla, founded the studio, in 1993, the place had been nothing more than a body shop—two old warehouses with a patch of dirt in between. Now there were tour buses outside, several professional studios inside—some with beautiful hardwood floors and space enough to fit a small orchestra—and, in the back of the complex, a massive state-of-the-art soundstage, with an overhead sound-and-lights room. In an industrial part of an already industrial city, the family had built a castle.
Off to the side, I caught sight of Monica, gathering her fans and followers, along with a few stragglers who must have thought she was some sort of official tour guide. Ethan and Brooke quickly snaked past them, whispering to me to stay close. The next hour is something of a blur.
“Ethan, I am pissed.” That’s the first thing I remember hearing. The words punched the air before their author came into focus. It was Suzette. Yes, that Suzette—Selena’s older sister and drummer and, in recent years, the family spokesperson and heir apparent to the business. Standing at the far end of the museum’s foyer, she wore a newsboy cap hung low, her hands on her hips like a mother about to give her child a whupping. I’d seen only old photos and hardly recognized her. Gone was the chubby shine of a twentysomething in nineties attire. Before us was a fully realized woman, fit and in command. She was as beautiful as she was terrifying. Her eyes narrowed, and I found myself inching toward the exit, plastering myself as flat as I could against the wall.
A disagreement ensued. Apparently some girl, a fan of Ethan’s, had come by earlier. She was there, she’d said, for Ethan’s personal tour of the facilities. She even had a flyer. Ethan told Suzette he had no idea what that was about. Had he told a few out-of-towners exactly where the museum was located? Yes. Had he promised a personal tour? No. Had he made any kind of flyer? Absolutely not!
Suzette drilled him, going back over facts, repeating allegations, like a police interrogation. Then, as the back and forth continued, a door toward the rear opened. There was no mistaking the man who walked through. It was Mr. Quintanilla, the archetype of a father, with an oak-solid head, a guayabera-ish shirt over a slight paunch, forearms dangling at his sides. Out he came, lumbering toward us with all the slow, smooth, unstoppable force of a steamroller. His famous tinted glasses barely shaded his unblinking stare. Suzette had kept some personal distance with Ethan. Mr. Quintanilla, not so much.
What few inches of space he did leave were filled by his reputation. To know Selena is to know Mr. Quintanilla, for they are, in many ways, one and the same. It’s a complicated story, a tale of an uncompromisingly dedicated father who transferred his own ambitions onto his talented daughter, who monitored and controlled nearly every aspect of her personal and professional life from the day she was born, who never let anyone or anything get in the way of her perfect success, even after the worst tragedy. Everyone has a hot take of the man. Most of them are unflattering, if you’re the type of person who cares about that kind of thing—which Mr. Quintanilla is not. Everyone who has ever reported on Selena has a story about his or her own frightening interaction with him. An editor at this magazine has one.
“The group outside,” he demanded, “are they with that Sylvia woman? Are you with the group?”
Ethan feigned passable ignorance. Of course not! He was just coming in to show this Texas Monthly writer around! Until that moment, Mr. Quintanilla had all but ignored me and my pasty-white-wallflower impression. I’d used the opportunity to shift positions, wedging myself into a corner, fantasizing about somehow dissolving into the plaster. But now, suddenly, I was in Mr. Quintanilla’s warpath. You know how a traumatic experience can trigger a blackout? There was some of that. All I remember is my heart. It was going bidi bidi bom bom.
Mr. Quintanilla had a few beefs. The first was Sylvia D.’s tribute. “If you, or anyone from Texas Monthly, or any reporter, goes there, they will be banned from the April event,” he said, karate-chopping the air as he moved toward me. Some cross-arguing ensued—between Suzette and Ethan, between Ethan and Mr. Quintanilla—but this much was clear: the Quintanillas were unhappy that there was a “celebration” taking place not only on the day of Selena’s death but also in their old hood. That a group affiliated with this celebration, or deathiversary, had shown up at the museum to incorporate it into its event—with the trivia, the scavenger hunt—only added to the insult. It implied that the family supported the activities of some impersonator from California and of Sylvia D. (a “nut,” as Mr. Quintanilla called her), which they most certainly did not.
There could not have been a worse moment for a Selena impersonator—especially a Sylvia D.–endorsed one—to come through the museum’s front door. This is exactly what Monica did. Seeing her, all dark hair and red lips, Suzette and Ethan fell silent. Mr. Quintanilla froze, watching with a gargoyle’s glare. I held my breath.
Monica, bless her heart, was completely oblivious. This was her first visit to the museum. Her eyes went all saucery; she got fan-girl flutters. She vibrated toward Mr. Quintanilla, talking unsteadily, offering a handshake, which he refused. Taking it all in, she looked around, as if reassessing where she was. Overwhelmed, she began to weep.
A lifetime passed in those sixty seconds. At what seemed like civility’s breaking point, a herd of tourists came through the front door, forcing everyone to suddenly act as natural as possible. Mr. Quintanilla, lips pursed, steamrolled to a desk near the entrance, deftly avoiding any photographs. He took a seat while Suzette, ever the professional, obliged with pictures.
As Monica’s followers left to tour the museum, Mr. Quintanilla seemed to calm down. I made a desperate attempt at small talk. “We got our lawyers on Texas Monthly,” he told me, unhappy with this publication because he took umbrage with a line, misreported and later retracted, in a short article about Selena written during a time when my age fit on two hands. We talked too of Sylvia D. “I plan to just get our lawyers on her. I’m going to stop her from using Selena’s name or image. It’s a copyright name. We own it,” he said, as a Selena song played over the loudspeakers. Once again, Mr. Quintanilla reminded me of his stance toward unapproved Selena tributes. “You’d better decide if you’re going there or if you want to be [at the Fiesta de la Flor]. If I find out that you went there, I’m going to block you. I’m not going to give you [your credentials].”
This was confusing, since it seemed that the Selena-fest was being put on by the city. Mr. Quintanilla immediately provided clarity. “Who do you think owns Selena’s image and name and everything?”
What I meant to say in response, what was in my head, was, “Mr. Quintanilla, with all due respect, you can’t commodify everything. She was una artista del pueblo. Part of her belongs to everybody.” The words that tripped out of my lips were a little bit different.
“Oh, no, right.”
Selena’s post-mortal impact—her “staying power,” as the lingo goes—cannot be overstated any more than her life’s story has been over-told. When the Corpus Christi Caller-Times suggested in 1995 that “the outpouring from Selena fans may be more than a temporary craze,” it was one of the few accurate media-generated predictions of any lifetime. But what happened, and continues to happen, is something close to reincarnation. In a March cover story on the twentieth anniversary of Selena’s death, the San Antonio Current noted that “during Selena’s 1991–1995 reign, her name skyrocketed from 780 to 91 in the rankings of most popular baby names in America,” and in the five months after her death, more than six hundred babies born in Texas were named Selena. Some of these new Selenas are famous, like Grand Prairie–born Selena Gomez. Others, like the twin sisters Selena and Selina out of Corpus, made only brief appearances in the local paper.
“My daughter is in God’s memory for the future time when she is resurrected,” said Mr. Quintanilla in the weeks after Selena’s death. And perhaps he was right, though in ways the Jehovah’s Witness could not have expected. To be named for Selena is one thing. But to wholly imitate her is quite another. It is a way of becoming her, of embodying everything that Selena was and represents—a resurrection, almost, of the legend herself. Each weekend, her legacy is reborn as scores of impersonators sashay and strut across stages large and small, attempting to evoke Selena. This phenomenon dates back to almost immediately after the singer’s death, when, in 1996, the Selena movie announced its open casting call. An audition hotline received more than 70,000 calls. In Los Angeles, more than 8,000 aspiring Selenas showed up for tryouts on a single day; a week later, 2,000 showed up in Chicago. In San Antonio, the crowd was estimated at 6,000. All told, about 19,000 young women came to the nationwide auditions. That number trumps the famous casting call for Gone With the Wind, which attracted about 1,400 would-be Scarlett O’Haras, and makes Selena either the largest or the second-largest casting call in Hollywood history, depending on which vague source you believe and whether you’re willing to ignore the reality-show open-call frenzies held for productions like American Idol and The Voice (I know I am).
Even twenty years later, you can’t do a hip-shaking, Selena-inspired “washing machine” across the Internet’s dance floor without bumping into an impersonator. New York’s Unique Entertainment Corp., which lists almost 900 impersonators for hire (everyone from “Danny Divitto” to “Al Pecino”), provides four Selena impersonators (with the correctly spelled name). In Mexico City, you can hire the husband-and-wife team Dueto Fortuna (presumably, or not, it’s the wife who does all the Selena moves). Suffice it to say, “birthdays, weddings, or corporate events are especially fun” when you hire someone like Las Vegas–based impersonator Deborah Galan.
It’s Monica, however, who first made clear to me that playing Selena is a bona fide business. Among other promotional efforts, the college senior hosts a Facebook page dedicated to Selena (and herself) and a YouTube channel where she demonstrates various hairstyles, posts dance tutorials, and gives advice for other Selena imitators. She’s even started a side business selling custom-embroidered bustiers. Selena-Selena had a fan club. Monica-Selena has a total media presence.
And then there are those who appear to be called less by profit than by destiny. In a crowded field of Selena impersonators, Honey Andrews stands above them all, for reasons apart from being taller than the average Selena look-alike. The five-foot-eight transgender hairdresser is perhaps Corpus Christi’s best-known performer, one whose story blipped on the national radar last year when Mario Gomez, the organizer of a splinter Selena tribute in Corpus, denied Honey a spot in his lineup. “NOBODY. WANTS. TO. SEE. A. MALE. PERSON. DRESS. UP. LIKE. A GIRL,” wrote Gomez in a Facebook message to Honey. This was not only completely inaccurate on a couple of fronts—Western civilization’s performance arts were built on men dressing up as girls, and anyway, Honey is all woman—but also drew sharp public criticism from LGBT advocates and supporters. Mario’s backpedaling in the press had all the smoothness of a drunk unicyclist.
I first met Honey backstage at the Sanctuary, a local gay nightclub with a decidedly unfabulous exterior. All brick and no windows, the place doesn’t even qualify as “warehouse chic”—its neighbor is Wienerschnitzel, the drive-through hot dog chain where you can buy a bagful of regret for under $5. The inside, however, has been wonderfully renovated, and in the Sanctuary’s upstairs dressing room, Honey and two other performers leaned in toward the wall-length mirror, turning their faces into vibrantly colored tapestries in preparation for the Sunday night drag show.
“For the past couple of days, I’ve been doing a lot of interviews,” said Honey, slathering foundation on her cheeks. “I just did one this past Friday for Univisión. Telemundo two weeks prior to that.”
Indeed, before and since the Gomez incident, if you want to talk to a true Selena impersonator, you talk to Honey. Born in Monterrey, the 29-year-old moved to Corpus when she was 9, in the same month Selena was killed, and she has certainly made the city both her home and her stage. With her big, pouty lips, high cheekbones, thick, painted brows, and—I’m just going to say it—scrumptious trunk, Honey’s impersonation is pitch-perfect. To be fair, she’s had time to master it, having debuted her Selena performance during her first ever drag show, at 16. And she’s branched out since, winning Miss Corpus Christi USA in 2011 as well as Miss Harris County and Miss Texas Continental in 2013.
The media are, of course, titillated by Honey’s background, but the attention is also due to the fact that she is, without a doubt, the best damn Selena impersonator around. I am confident in this declaration. In twelve hours, I saw no fewer than eight Selena impersonations by women of varying heights, builds, and ages. None could touch a heel to Honey. When she delivered her signature Selena medley at the Sanctuary—complete with the slow-intro live version of “Como La Flor” and, of course, “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom”—the crowd, slim as it was, erupted into cheers. Why is Honey the best? It’s difficult to describe, but perfection usually is. While those whose gender would never be questioned by Gomez certainly have a grace to them, their Selena comes across as a glossy covering. With Honey, not only is there a grace and precision, but there’s a magnetism like that of a supernova: dense and radiant. And since this was a more adult-themed performance and Honey was wearing a rather revealing outfit, I feel obliged to note that her ample curves should come with their own caution signs.
It’s hard to pull out of Honey what precisely made her gravitate toward Selena. But she does say that it started when she was young, when she knew that she was a girl and Selena—every Latina’s idol after her charm offensive in her debut Mexico press conference, in 1992—was the woman she wanted to be. “She was one of the first female figures I saw,” explained Honey. “To me, growing up, she was just perfect. That’s who I wanted to embody.”
The identification only grew from there. From the dancing to the risqué clothes to that voice, “she had everything you want to see from a female artist.” You can read just about anything you want into that to explain why Selena is such a hit in the drag community, or why she has a legion of gay fans even today. Read between the lines, too, in the talk of how Selena loved all her fans. Honey reminded me that part of Selena’s community outreach had been raising awareness about AIDS during a time when it was still taboo and largely considered a “gay disease.”
Academia has certainly latched on to Selena as a symbol for certain marginalized communities. As a Tejana, her very existence made her something of an outcast, not fitting perfectly into either Mexican or American culture. In Selenidad, a treatise on the sociological implications of Selena’s legacy, University of Texas professor Deborah Paredez zeroes in on the impersonator phenomenon, arguing that these performances—be they of Selena or Elvis or Michael Jackson or Marilyn Monroe—are “less often acts of re-creation than of self-creation” and that Latinas become Selena both to revere and to replace her. This is key, since an integral element of Selena’s legacy is being a role model, not just in Tejano culture but for Latinas everywhere.
Putting on an Elvis costume, in other words, is entertaining, and anyone can do it, especially for laughs. But “to become Selena,” writes Paredez, “is not to flee from the constraints of one’s own body or bodily markings, but to more fully inhibit them.” To this agnostic, that sounds like more than just a metaphorical rebirth. It sounds like a transubstanciación del pueblo.
“[Sylvia] thinks she’s a singer,” Mr. Quintanilla ranted as we talked at the front desk. Somehow, following the maelstrom at the museum, we had continued talking. Still peeved by Monica’s arrival, he grumbled again about the next day’s deathiversary tribute and Sylvia D. “It’s her ten minutes of fame and glory.”
The grousing went on for a few more minutes, and then—it stopped. Just. Like. That. Mr. Quintanilla offered a curt apology and, in one quick motion, beckoned me to follow him. The bluster and gruffness were replaced by reserved silence, and for the next thirty minutes, he gave me a private tour of Q Productions. In one studio, he bear-hugged his grandson, who was mixing some music, before cranking up the volume. Mr. Quintanilla would do this repeatedly during the tour—crank up the volume to hear the music.
That’s what people forget, what I’d forgotten. Mr. Quintanilla is a musician, through and through. The man knows talent; he is the song, the beat, the note, the dance. It was good to be reminded of this, especially since there’s an elemental, if unspoken, component to Selena and her success, often ignored in favor of her je ne sais quoi or intangible “it” factor: Abraham Quintanilla is also Selena. She was manufactured, and her primary creator still lords over all.
To say Selena was manufactured is not a slag. Janis Joplin and Townes Van Zandt were about as real as it got, and look what happened to them. There are also plenty of manufactured products, to be sure. Justin Bieber came out of a Canadian test tube, and at best, he’s one of pop culture’s more egregious creations; at worst, he’s going to be with us for a very long time. The Spice Girls were also completely contrived, and their squeaky-clean message was girl power. Point is, some people have unimaginable talent but can’t work the angle to save their career; others have an angle but wouldn’t know talent if their publicist hit them in the face with it. Selena, she was the one in a million who had both. And she had a dedicated manager-father who had all the drive of, say, Joe Jackson or Michael Lohan, with none of the vices.
It took a decade of hard work on the circuit, but the year she became a legal adult, Selena not only signed with mega-label Capitol but also inked an endorsement deal with Coca-Cola. That was when she became “a full-blown commodity,” as former Texas Monthly writer Joe Nick Patoski puts it in the biography Selena: Como la Flor. This wasn’t an accident. As Raúl Coronado Jr. noted in his academic paper “Selena’s Good Buy,” it was instead the product of a “honeymoon between Tejano music and multinational record corporations,” which kicked off in 1989. After her death, Mr. Quintanilla was reluctant to capitalize on her name or image until the “vultures” (his words, though true and appropriate) began selling pirated CDs and unofficial shirts. “Our lawyers have told us we’re going to have to put things out there because if we don’t, others will, and then we’ll have to fight them in court,” he said at the time.
So protect her commodifiable legacy they did. Famously, the family had full control over the Selena movie, but their efforts have been rather restrained since then. “I could have Selena on ice cream if I wanted to. She’s not, and there’s a reason why,” Suzette told me two days after our first encounter. “I could probably do a lot of things that would make tons and tons of money off of her.” No one could doubt that. The museum received about 16,000 visitors last year, all by word of mouth; the family has never advertised. Instead, the museum is exactly how Suzette describes it: “quaint.”
These minimal efforts lend credence to the Quintanillas’ expressed desire to protect Selena’s legacy. “We just feel as a family that it cheapens who she was, what her legacy is,” said Suzette. If Mr. Quintanilla represents the old guardian of the Selena image—that of a clear-cut, black-and-white, rags-to-riches American story—it’s Suzette who is now the arbiter of Selena’s marketable legacy, one in which the line between protecting the family and protecting the commodity can get a little blurry. “I don’t put anybody down,” she told me, “but we protect her legacy and our image because she was my sister and my dad’s daughter.”
In commemorating Selena, it’s too easy to overlook the fact that at the center of these memories is a tightly knit family. Imagine: tomorrow marks the day your beautiful and talented daughter or sister or wife was brutally shot, and a look-alike of your deceased loved one suddenly comes up to you, elated by her own good fortune, asking for a picture. How do you not take it personally? Especially when, even years after the death, the family ties are still strong. When hurricanes threaten the museum’s glass display cases, packing up all the clothes inside turns into a reunion, where a niece might try on a pair of Selena’s shoes before Suzette and her mom, Marcella, laugh and tell her to get back to work. To transport the artifacts to safety, Mr. Quintanilla and A.B. drive the trucks themselves.
And what about all of Selena’s clothes not on display? The family still holds on to them, perhaps worried they’d hit the auction market much like Selena’s old beater of a car did nearly twenty years ago. But the items aren’t stored in some climate-controlled fortress. Like other families who have lost a loved one, the Quintanillas hold on to these physical mementos; in this case, the father keeps his dead child’s belongings in his bedroom closet. I don’t want to contemplate anything more heartbreaking.
Then there’s the constant, uninvited attention. It began immediately after Selena’s death and is the main reason the family—Mr. and Mrs. Quintanilla and widower Chris Perez next door—moved from Bloomington Street, near Molina Veterans Park, within a year of her death. The onslaught of tourists, rubberneckers, and late-night vigilists had simply become too much. “My parents couldn’t step out the front door,” said Suzette. “People were always there.”
Even now, people approach Suzette on the street all the time. They recount where they were when they heard of her sister’s death, and “they go through the whole story about how they felt,” she told me. “I understand they’re relating to me, and I get it. I get it. But it’s hard.” After the cameras turn off, after an unfamiliar gringo journalist witnesses a scene that might make Suzette or Mr. Quintanilla look like the bad guys for telling a bunch of fans to stop misrepresenting their loved one, it’s Suzette, as she says, who has to “pack my heart back up and deal with life all over again.”
However, the attention isn’t entirely uninvited. Consider the museum: both Suzette’s and Mr. Quintanilla’s offices flank the main floor, and in no part of the reliquary can you escape the sound of the Selena episode on A&E’s Biography playing on a very loud loop. Well within earshot, Mr. Quintanilla sits at his desk, the door open, as the narrator ominously describes the details of Selena’s murder for the umpteenth time. Mr. Quintanilla never paid it any notice when I was there. After our interview, Suzette walked out of her office—itself filled with all sorts of Selena memorabilia and remembrances—only to be stopped by fans, with whom she graciously posed for photos. It took her five minutes to walk twenty steps.
The Quintanillas face a challenge most grieving families are fortunate to never confront: how to properly honor the life of their loved one while remaining true to the spirit and success of the brand they all worked so hard to build. Don’t mix business and pleasure, goes the adage. To see the Quintanillas’ struggle, one might say the same of business and grief. I couldn’t help but wonder: Are the Quintanillas concerned more with how Selena is portrayed or with the unauthorized commercialization of her name? The memory or the commodity? “Both, because it goes hand in hand,” said Suzette. “If you cheapen something, no matter what it is, it brings down its value.”
That value is both tangible and intangible. But I still had questions. Like, how does a Quintanilla-approved debit card with Selena’s image fit into this legacy preservation? Or the recent announcement that MAC Cosmetics is rolling out a Selena-themed makeup line? And if those things are okay, does a local tribute really spoil the value? As I quickly found out, that depends.
The deathiversary festivities began the next day at Seaside Memorial Cemetery. The Quintanillas had long ago bought the plots surrounding Selena’s grave and put up a fence to prevent pilgrims from trampling everything. Already, there were purple-and-white bouquets covering the burial site. Suzette never visits. I could see why. It was a garish, some might say disrespectful, scene.
Sylvia D.’s crew had arrived in a white stretch limo. Ethan was absent, but the group had grown to include a middle-aged woman who would be something of a presence the rest of the day. With everyone gathered at the front of the grave site, she gripped the microphone of a cheap portable karaoke machine, belting out Selena hits with all the talent and star power of a dying cat. This was her ten minutes. Monica did her own thing too, either talking to the local news reporters who had appeared or doing some washing-machining before her crowd of a dozen. Sylvia D. circled the perimeter like a buzzard, camcorder in hand.
The group then piled back into the stretch limo to head to Mirador de la Flor, the Selena tribute statue on Shoreline Boulevard, where they’d planned a mini-celebration. Before following, I watched as a succession of cars pulled up. Several women—always women—got out, walked quietly to the grave, bowed their heads for a moment, then left.
At Mirador de la Flor, simply not being among the dead gave the scene a much more lively, festive air. An eclectic mix of at least 75 people had formed a semicircle around the bronze figure of Selena, who leaned on a pillar, one leg propped behind her, as she looked toward the Gulf. A purple-clad Selena impersonator was machine-washing. Monica followed with her own encore. The karaoke woman scratched out her Selena hits while staring up longingly at the statue. There were new faces too. A female couple had caught the attention of reporters because their entire truck had been adorned with Selena images; photographers clicked away as the two held up large Selena paintings. One of the women had the singer’s portrait expertly shaved into the side of her head.
Television crews had descended like, to borrow a term, vultures. The obscenely attractive on-air talent of a Latino TV station herded admirers behind her so that she could do an intro shot. They stood obediently, holding homemade signs and smiling big. After four takes, she cheerfully yelled, “¡Uno más!” and adjusted one of the signs. Several more takes and cries of “¡Uno más!” and then she did her on-air thing. “¡Perfecto!” she exclaimed afterward, as much to herself as to the crowd. Off to the side, unperturbed by the commotion, a tough-looking guy—neck and knuckle tattoos, mustache and goatee, shirt buttoned to the collar—solemnly held a portrait of Selena and a rose in a glass vase.
The day’s events thus far seemed more than a little unprofessional, even uncouth, but you could be less of a cynic at the tribute hours later. Not that parts weren’t grating. Despite all of Sylvia D.’s worrying, the grass at Molina Veterans Park had been cut, the stage had been arranged, and everything was seemingly in order as attendees milled about, bunched in groups or perusing the row of concession stands. As the emcee, Sylvia D. had a habit of screaming into the microphone, reminding people of all the food available (including the raspas at her sister’s snow cone stand) and castigating the performers for not being ready (it seemed that they had been overbooked). The event, which has moved around the city over the years, has seen attendance fluctuate: hundreds came to the inaugural show at the Times Market Food Store, the corner store on Bloomington and Elvira that will forever feature a mural tribute on its south wall. The ones in 2011 and 2013 at Cole Park attracted modest attendances. At this year’s showcase, some one thousand people had turned out.
It was amateur hour—or hours. One Selena impersonator after another stood awkwardly as her track of choice got queued up on the sound system, and then the songs rarely varied: “Como La Flor,” “La Carcacha,” “No Me Queda Mas.” So much bidi-bidi-bom-bom-ing, so many Astrodome-era costumes. There was supposed to be a candlelight vigil, but this never materialized because, said Sylvia D., Ethan was supposed to have picked up the supplies for it; after the museum incident, he’d chosen to be more of an observer than an organizer of the showcase. The talent show never had a clear winner. It didn’t matter. This was something of a family picnic.
It wasn’t pretty, but it was certainly del pueblo. None of the impersonators got a full ten minutes of fame, but three and a half minutes seemed enough to satisfy them. They lingered by the stage, all pent-up enjoyment, holding their fake microphones, each ball stained lipstick-red. Meanwhile, older women with Selena shirts that didn’t look to be officially approved plopped down in lawn chairs; kids played tag under the shade of adults. Dark came before the only actual band hit the stage, a local multipiece conjunto group named Grupo Imagen, which turned out to be the best act of the evening. Some of the audience had dispersed, but the crowd seemed to take on new life as soon as the band started up. People even began dancing. Is it too reckless to say that Selena would have approved?
As I wandered through the crowd, talking to fans, I heard more Selena stories. The first couple I spoke with explained how Selena used to come to the dry cleaner’s where the woman worked. Even a pop star needs a place to clean her clothes. Tales like this one, which I heard plenty of as the night went on, reinforced the legend of the hometown girl with a heart of gold. I was reminded of Sylvia D.’s own memories. She had told me that she used to go into Selena’s boutique, Selena Etc., and hide in the clothing racks until the singer, who would call her out by name, found her. Later, Sylvia D. went with her sister, who was dying of cancer, to one of Selena’s final concerts, where after some wrangling with security, they managed to get a photo with the star. In it, Selena is using her shimmering Tejana locks to give Sylvia D.’s sister a funny-looking wig. Smiles all around. The actual degree of friendship between Sylvia D. and Selena is immaterial—Selena was everyone’s friend.
Everyone’s friend but not everyone’s daughter. A few hours after the incident at Q Productions, Sylvia D. had called me, distraught. The story of our group’s run-in with Mr. Quintanilla had already reached her. “Now you know why I didn’t want to go, because I didn’t want y’all to get humiliated or me to get down,” she said. Actually, I hadn’t known she didn’t want to go; at the time, it seemed she had slipped away for some other business. It was obvious now that she knew the Quintanillas were not going to be happy to see her. “I don’t know what I’ve ever done to them. They take it real personal,” she said, near tears. “For them to say that my thing is a circus—how dare they, or how dare he. I’m not clowning around. I’m not a clown.”
I tried to offer some encouragement. Less well-versed in devotionals, I used language from old sports coaches: I told her some version of “finish strong,” to “go out with a bang.” But the pep talk wasn’t much help. Sylvia D. instead sought comfort in a much better coach. “The Lord is always guiding me,” she replied. But in that too, she gave herself over. “It’s time to hang it up, honey.”
When Fiesta de la Flor, the two-day Selena-themed festival held on April 17 and 18, was announced back in January, the Corpus Christi Convention and Visitors Bureau made it very, very clear that it had the approval of the family. The constant reminder, repeated by city officials in press releases and interviews, seemed like a nervous tic, like someone walking through a tough neighborhood invoking the name of the local mafia don. In the end, Mr. Quintanilla did nothing to prevent my access to the event. At the Fiesta itself I overheard a friendly official working a security line for Chris Perez, who was sitting for photos, assure a fan from New Jersey that the event was Quintanilla-blessed. The Jersey girl hadn’t even broached the subject.
To be fair, the approval was something of a coup. The CVB had approached the Quintanilla family last spring with the idea, and “it took time to build a relationship and go over the vision,” explained a bubbly CVB spokesperson. As with the Selena movie, the Quintanillas had had a direct hand in every aspect of the Fiesta. They were in charge of the visuals that would be displayed. They approved the CVB’s process for selecting food and merchandise vendors. Chris Perez and A.B. Quintanilla y Los Kumbia Kings All Starz were headliners. During our conversation a few weeks before the festival, the spokesperson frequently used words like “respect” and “honor” when it came to Selena’s legacy. “Everything we do in planning this event is with the blessing of the Quintanilla family. They are our partner.”
As far as partnerships go, this seemed to be one of the first times that the city leadership, which is predominantly Anglo, had gotten along so well with its Tejano constituents. Maybe that was sort of the point. “The Hispanic culture is so much a part of what the story of Corpus Christi is. That’s what we’re doing here at the CVB, trying to tell the story of what Corpus Christi is in an authentic way,” said the spokesperson. It’s a noble effort, particularly since the story of Corpus includes long chapters of animosity between its white power structure and its Latino citizens, who represent about 60 percent of the population. When Selena died and the Latino community began to mourn, there was a noticeable confusion by white residents as to why it was such a big deal. The confusion turned to objection when public conversation then shifted to ways in which the city should memorialize Selena.
Corpus is not the prettiest of cities. Much of it looks like Cuba, had the island country been invaded by VFW Post #3837 and colonized by the local Kiwanis Club. Every Corpus Christian has a specific gripe about his or her town, like the lack of nightlife or the rough roads that scramble your innards better than a blender. But the city is trying. A contentious $44 million bond for a revitalization project named “Destination Bayfront” failed in 2013, but voters did approve $13 million for the Shoreline Realignment Project to spruce up downtown’s oceanfront areas, and the city is also close to finally building the 34-acre Bayshore Park. Yet the struggle to attract dollars—from locals and tourists—is an old and continuous one. Harbor Bridge, with its relatively new $2 million LED system, is about to be torn down to make space for a super-expensive bridge in the hopes it will accommodate the cruise line industry. And the city has been less than nuanced when trying to shoehorn Latino heritage into its idea of multiculturalism. When replicas of Christopher Columbus’s three ships were leased from the Spanish government in 1992, the big, costly effort came to be described by the Texas Observer as part of the city’s “convoluted politics of ethnic commemoration.” The attraction was a financial and litigious nightmare—two of the ships were damaged by a runaway barge in 1994, various groups squabbled over the millions of dollars in lease and repair costs, and there was criticism that city leaders failed to understand why honoring the original Spanish colonizers of the Gulf Coast wasn’t the best way to celebrate Latino culture.
In 1997, with this quagmire as a backdrop, the hugely influential local philanthropist Dusty Durrill, who had also lost a daughter, pushed ahead with the seaside memorial we know today as Mirador de la Flor. Durrill’s charity funded and commissioned the work, and so, with little effort on its part, the city had its first Selena shrine. And boy, did the pilgrims come. Unfortunately, el pueblo brought with them their sometimes unrefined ways of showing respect and adoration, scrawling mementos and leaving trinkets all over the memorial until a barrier was erected and signs placed, with the Quintanilla stamp of approval, asking for some civility.
That aspiration to civility continues to this day, even if there are still articles being written with headlines like “How to Explain the Secondary Status of Corpus Christi?”. The CVB spokesperson and I did a lot of dancing around the issue of a pueblo that sings awful karaoke; that uses barber tools to turn half a head into a Selena portrait; that spends her weekends being the best drag-Selena around. Or how, yes, the city had received numerous inquiries from “lots of different kinds of people” doing “different kinds of events” but wanted to “respect” the Quintanilla family. The cultural divide is still prevalent, however subtle. When I asked if anyone at the CVB had some institutional knowledge of previous efforts to celebrate Selena, a co-worker was buzzed over to talk to me. “She’s awesome,” the peppy spokesperson said. “She’s our little Hispanic girl. We love her in the office.” The person who appeared a moment later was a grown woman with years of municipal experience.
Still, by the city’s metrics, or any for that matter, Fiesta de la Flor was a hit. When the spokesperson and I chatted, at the beginning of April, the area hotels were already 70 percent booked. After the Fiesta, the CVB sent out a proud email noting that “collective attendance for the weekend was approximately 52,000. Of that, 76 percent were from outside of the greater Corpus Christi area, with only 24 percent of the total attributed to the local market.” Twenty years after her death, Selena could still pull in the crowds—and the bucks. The “conservative city-wide economic impact” was estimated to be $13 million.
Most significant, it was fun. For everyone. It was a Selena-fest on a scale that the pueblo deserved, one coordinated with and approved by la familia. Between acts, the onstage video screens operated by Q Productions displayed some of Selena’s performances or clips from the Selena movie, such as the comical “Anything for Selenas” scene, in which two Latino youths—officially credited as “first cholo” and “second cholo”—heap praise on the singer. (“Anything for Selenas!” they declare, while trying to pull Selena’s tour bus from the sand using their fabulously decorated lowrider.) There was riotous applause after the scene in which Edward James Olmos, who plays Mr. Quintanilla, gives his speech about Tejanos having to be “more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans, both at the same time!”
I’d talked to a few professional observers (read: local journalists) who thought the city had bitten off more than it could chew. It appeared organizers underestimated the people’s desire—or the market demand—and the seams showed. Fans were denied tickets, and some who already had tickets were denied access because of capacity. Dozens of onlookers posted up behind the perimeter fences. Food lines were too long, and there weren’t nearly enough women’s port-a-potties. But, hey, it was the inaugural effort, and this isn’t a concert review.
Two tents had the longest lines. One was for merchandise, which included Quintanilla-approved remembrances, like the shirt with “20th” plastered across the front. The other, whose line stretched at least one hundred yards, was a Stripes stand, garish in its own way with an enormous banner ten feet above the crowd. Beer, I thought, as I wondered how best to abuse my press pass. But this was not the case. People were waiting to stand in front of a green screen and have themselves instantly Photoshopped next to Selena herself. The photo of her, a Stripes rep assured me, had been personally provided by the Quintanillas.
There was a similar vibe of enthusiasm emanating from people by the stage. When old concert footage appeared on the screens—footage of a digital Selena encouraging a digital audience to participate—it was the real audience who responded. In fact, those digital efforts appeared to be something of a test run. Ten days before the Fiesta, the family, through Suzette, announced that they were developing a Selena hologram. Well, not a hologram. Something better. This would be a “walking, talking, singing, and dancing, digital embodiment,” according to a statement published on Selena’s official Facebook page. Reanimated Selena would “release new songs and videos,” “collaborate with current hit artists,” and “go on tour in 2018.” The backing band for this tour? Selena’s original Los Dinos. The venture garnered a few complaints on the page, but Suzette told Billboard that the experiment was by no means “creepy or weird,” stressing that “it’s not about replacing Selena in any shape, way, or form; it’s just something to help her legacy continue growing.”
If it’s just Remembrance 2.0, then why does it feel a lot like a resurrection? And how was that more or less disrespectful than the unapproved, unpolished, “different” attempts at re-creation? Or does it even matter? The weather was unforgiving that day, yet the crowd stood happily in the mud between spits of rain, and when a real downpour hit, those stranded near the stage put their umbrellas together to create a community canopy. After about thirty minutes, the sun came out and everyone went back to having a great time. I never heard a single complaint from fans or saw a sour face. As with every Selena celebration, everyone here was having a blast.
The fun continued at the Sanctuary’s very-much-unofficial after-party. Three large bouquets of white roses (Selena’s favorite) sat onstage, and countless people were wearing their new Selena merchandise. Ethan may have pulled out of Sylvia D.’s tribute, but he shimmied in style for this one, doing an impassioned non-drag number. (A few months later, he told tell me that shortly after this performance, he took down all of his Selena memorabilia and packed it away.) Then along came Honey. She was dressed all in red. Her calf-length boots covered leggings so skin-tight they might as well have been painted on, and the jewels on her matching bustier caught the spotlight like stadium flashbulbs. The crowd was shoulder-to-shoulder, extending tithings of folded dollar bills as she bidi-bidi-bom-bom’d.
Maybe the big questions—of who owns Selena’s legacy, of the blurred line between a manufactured memory and the public’s collective co-opting of that memory, of resurrection versus remembrance—don’t need to be answered. Her legacy works in mysterious ways. Take it easy and beware of covetousness. Let us eat Whataburger, drink Coke, and be merry washing machines, until the future time when we are all resurrected.
Anything for Selenas, amen.