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A Singer's Life After Death

Mexican American Fans Keep Tejano Artist's Legacy Alive

By Sue Anne Pressley
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 21, 1997

CORPUS CHRISTI, Tex. -- In her home town they remember that on the day she died, the skies turned stormy and black. People rushed to her house in the West Side barrio, intertwining white roses -- her favorite flower -- into the chain-link fence, tying ribbons of purple -- her favorite color -- onto the branches of trees.

They spoke of her then as they do now: She was beautiful. She was talented. She was gracious and kind. She was generous. She was patient. She was sweet. She believed in home and family. She believed in education and hard work. She never got a big head. She never forgot where she came from. Throughout the long, grieving night, they played her music, the sprightly, carefree "Bidi Bidi Bom Bom," a cruel counterpoint to their shock and pain.

Selena -- the Tejano singing star, the hope of young Hispanics with soaring dreams -- was dead at age 23. But in a sense, that was only the beginning.

It does not seem possible here in South Texas where Selena is so revered, where her memory is captured in the hall renamed Selena Bayfront Auditorium, that two years have passed since she was gunned down by a trusted assistant. A movie about her life opens nationwide today amid great excitement, but there is no real need for any reminder here. She has hardly been forgotten.

Young girls at school talent contests pose as Selena look-alikes, with the jet-black hair, the purply-wine lips, the tight-fitting yet not too revealing costumes. At the boutique she started, Selena Etc., men and women alike scoop up the just-released Selena doll, a Barbie-esque figure in a glittery purple jumpsuit. It is not unusual to spy vehicles with "Selena" stickers in script on the back windows or the singer's face painted boldly on the doors. There is a crop of toddlers named Selena.

Everyone here seems to know her story: how she started out as a youngster with Los Dinos, the family band started by her father, Abraham Quintanilla Jr.; how she became a breakout star of Tejano music, a lively blend of Tex-Mex rhythms and fancy polkas; how, at the time of her death, she was a Grammy-winning celebrity on the verge of crossover fame that might have put her in the league of Gloria Estefan or even Madonna, that would have finally gotten her the kind of recognition she deserved from the Anglo community. Despite her growing fame, she still drove her red Porsche alone to shop at the Corpus Christi malls, cheerfully signing autographs for admirers young and old.

"She taught me to be very kind to people, to respect them and they will respect you," said Yvonne Gonzales, 8, who often sings at school events a la Selena, has a bedroom decorated with Selena posters, and cherishes her memory of a post-concert meeting with the star. Yvonne had convinced her father, Omar, 45, to take her to wait outside the benefit screening of "Selena" here Friday night, hoping to catch sight of some of the celebrities, dreaming about her own future date with the limelight.

If in life Selena was on the verge of realizing her own dreams, in death she is mythical. More than 7 million of her albums have been sold since she died. At the recent Tejano Music Awards, held March 1 in San Antonio, she won four categories, including song of the year, for "Siempre Hace Frio" ("It's Always Cold"), and vocalist of the year, the grand prize. Her family accepted the honors with tears in their eyes.

"Selena had a natural magic about herself. She projected it," said Lee Garza, the talent agent for Q Productions, the family's recording company, who worked with the Quintanillas from the time Selena was 11. "There was always a humbleness, always an electrifying contact with the audience. She could relate to the kid from the barrio or the governor of the state. She had that people appeal.

"To somebody like myself, it's like her death happened yesterday. I still get the emotion to cry. None of what's happening is worth not having her with us."

Why did she strike such a chord? Russell Guerrero was working at a San Antonio television station on the day she died and he remembers well the shock of the news and the frantic hurry to dispatch a camera crew to Corpus Christi. The only station official who questioned the decision, an Anglo, was quickly persuaded that this was something that would resound in people's memories for years.

"I remember he said, 'This is just a Tejano star,' and we said, 'Oh no, this is not just a Tejano star, this is Selena. She is the standard-bearer.' "

Since then, Guerrero, 37, now an official at Trinity College in South Texas, has thought long and hard about the singer's appeal, and he thinks he understands what she brought to her fans.

"For the longest time," he said, "the Hispanic community had been in need of someone like her -- not only the best at what they do, but someone who makes us proud of who we are. I can remember growing up and being ashamed of my heritage, feeling inferior about being Mexican American. We don't have as many obvious role models as Hispanics. The black community has Martin Luther King and others, but we have never had too many. Selena was someone we knew was good, and other people outside the community knew she was good, and she didn't seem to mind having to live up to the high standards we gave her, being a symbol of Mexican American success.

"She knew a lot of people lived through her. That's why people felt so personally, so viscerally, about her death. She was going to be the big star, and she was going to make us all look good."

It is hard now to find the real Selena, so shrouded in myth is her image.

Although she built her reputation on songs sung in Spanish, she had to learn to speak it; English was her native tongue, but her breakthrough album was the first to feature songs in English. Although she preached to Hispanic youths to stay in school, to value their education, she herself quit high school to tour and studied to obtain her GED. Although her voice was her ticket to stardom, friends say that fashion was her real passion. At her boutiques in Corpus Christi and San Antonio, her "Selena" designs are displayed on the walls -- suits with leopard-print collars, short-shorts in turquoise and yellow, sarong skirts in bright fruit prints.

And, although her image was in part that of a temptress clad in glittery bras and form-fitting stretch pants, she was in fact a young married woman hoping to find the time to have children. Her husband, Chris Perez, was the guitar player in her band.

That she died so young, a few weeks before her 24th birthday, and at such a pivotal point in her career has only added to her allure. And the circumstances of her death still carry a hint of mystery. Her killer, Yolanda Saldivar, the founder of her fan club who became her personal assistant, shot Selena in the back after they had argued at a Corpus Christi motel over Saldivar's apparent embezzlement of fan club funds. Family members and associates say that Saldivar, so devoted to the beautiful young woman, had become increasingly obsessed with Selena and could not bear the thought of being banished.

To the singer's fans, however, the relationship with Saldivar was just another sign of Selena's goodness. "Selena was too trusting," said Alex Baltazar, 40. "Yolanda was so jealous."

To Ester Delgado, a family friend, the Molina neighborhood where Selena moved as a young girl and lived until her death is "Corpus Christi's Bronx."

If that is true, the similarity is not in its physical features -- small frame houses with faded blue and green and yellow trim and yards filled with birdbaths and desert plants -- but in its attitudes. People work hard here and still struggle to hold on; gangs and drugs entrap the young people; there is little hope of escape. And yet, even as her reputation and her bank account grew, Selena and her family did not leave, occupying three of the nicer brick homes on the edge of the neighborhood, eventually adding chain-link fences to keep the fans at bay.

After she died, her neighbors said they found it touching -- and telling about her down-to-earth values and her modest personality -- that she had stayed.

"She could have gotten real fancy," said David Salazar, 42, a neighbor and truck driver, who was working on a car in his yard one recent afternoon. "But she didn't act like she was somebody big. She was just Selena. When she was in town, she would drive by and wave. Her success didn't go to her head, and everybody loved her for that. She was a nice, good person."

For Hector Fernandez and his wife, Toni, today's opening of "Selena" carries a personal interest that goes beyond their 10 years of following the star's career, attending her concerts and clipping her newspaper features. In the movie, Hector, a retired steelworker, dons a white coat and assumes a bittersweet role, that of the doctor who must inform the Quintanillas that their beloved daughter is dead. Toni had sent in both their photographs in answer to a casting call for the scenes shot in Corpus Christi and, although he has no lines, Hector said the moment he portrays onscreen still gives him shivers.

"A life that young and beautiful cut short, it is unbelievable, unbelievably sad," he said, as Toni nodded in agreement. "None of us have ever really gotten over it."

Seaside Memorial Park is near the grand section of this half-Hispanic city of 250,000, where the big, stately homes, occupied largely by Anglo residents, line up alongside the water. Tour buses make regular pilgrimages to Selena's grave, spilling out fans of all ages who stand with heads bowed, sad and uncertain.

On a recent cloudy, windswept day, with sea gulls gliding overhead, Selena's cousin Frank Quintanilla and his family came to pay their respects. Quintanilla wants his daughter, Elaine, 14, and son, Frank Jr., 15, to remember what Selena stood for, to take strength and inspiration from her memory.

"My 10-year-old niece is also such a big fan," said Rose Quintanilla, Frank's wife. "She will sing Selena's songs in Spanish and I will ask her, 'Do you know what you're saying?' 'Nooooooo.' But it doesn't matter, you see. She understands what Selena was all about. We all do."

The wind whipped the American flag near Selena's grave, and ruffled the blanket made of dozens of white roses, tied with bright purple ribbons, that the family always keeps fresh. With a sigh, Selena's cousins lined up behind the black marble bench that serves as her monument, with "Selena" carved simply in script, and posed for a round of photographs -- eyes moist, not quite smiling.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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