I remember riding in the back of my parents’ car, gazing out the window and spotting a sign announcing Selena y Los Dinos among the bands performing at the regular weekend dances in the Texas border town of Eagle Pass, where I grew up.
Still too young to attend, I would see Selena’s name from afar each time she came to one of our town’s ballrooms. It wasn’t until I was in junior high that I managed to purchase my own "Amor Prohibido" cassette, which I would take with me on the long bus rides that came with out-of-town school field trips. I’d hit play on what was surely a knockoff Walkman and drift to another world that spoke directly to me.
It’s been 25 years since the death of Tejano music superstar and pop culture icon Selena Quintanilla-Pérez.
On March 31, 1995, at a Days Inn motel in Corpus Christi, former fan club president Yolanda Saldivar fatally shot the 23-year-old star, who was on the brink of crossing over into the English-language music market. But just like that, we lost a beacon of light, someone who’d represented promise.
For many Mexican Americans, especially in Texas, she’d become more than a beloved Grammy Award-winning artist. With each accomplishment, we cheered her as she blazed a trail for others. News of her murder sent shockwaves through the Tejano community and resulted in candlelight vigils, impromptu shrines and a massive memorialization that caught the attention of national media outlets. Even after her death, Selena kept blazing trails.
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Selena became the first Latina on the cover of Texas Monthly. She became the first Latina featured in a special People magazine commemorative issue, previously only published for Audrey Hepburn and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Two printings of that special issue sold out and prompted the launch of People en Español.
But as a teenager, I didn’t know any of that. I just knew I liked her, enjoyed her music and was crushed that she was gone. I didn’t examine why. As the years went by, I found myself attending Selena musicals in Mexico City, watching old Selena interviews, including one with television host Don Francisco for the iconic variety show "Sábado Gigante." And, of course, writing about Selena.
I’ve interviewed Selena-inspired drag performers; scholars who have studied the Queen of Tejano music; multigenerational superfans waiting to get their hands on limited-edition Selena makeup; Tejano music artists who knew her and saw her grow up in the industry; journalists who covered her death; Selena tribute bandleaders; and many more folks who help keep her legacy alive.
What I’ve learned from all of those conversations is that Selena’s time on the planet, though short, taught us key lessons.
» RELATED: SELENA INDUCTED TO TEXAS WOMEN’S HALL OF FAME
Don’t underestimate the power of women
In male-dominated Tejano music industry, Selena’s talents and ability to draw a crowd were questioned early on because she was a female artist.
Selena’s barrier-breaking accomplishments represented something bigger than herself when she became the first female Tejano artist to win a Grammy and broke attendance records for three consecutive years performing at the Houston Astrodome. Her posthumously released album "Dreaming of You" made her the first Latin artist to have a mostly Spanish-language album debut at the top of the Billboard 200 charts.
In an interview, Selena chuckled when she thought about all the promoters who didn’t think she could attract large audiences. "Wrong!" she said with a smile.
Beauty comes in all forms
Like many women throughout the mid-to-late-1990s, I donned the famous Selena up-do for countless special occasions. Selena’s influence on beauty and style went beyond fashion, hair and makeup, though.
Many young women, some for the first time, saw themselves in Selena’s curvy body type, dark hair and skin color. Selena talked about loving pizza and served as a spokesperson for Coca-Cola. Not only was she relatable, but she helped redefine beauty standards that helped women embrace their own looks.
You don’t have to speak perfect Spanish to be Latina
"We have to be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans, both at the same time! It's exhausting!"
Selena fans will remember this line from the 1997 Jennifer Lopez movie "Selena," where actor Edward James Olmos, who plays Selena’s father, explains the complexities of biculturalism and expresses caution about Selena performing in Mexico for the first time because her Spanish wasn’t perfect. He worried that Mexicans wouldn’t accept her there.
The issue of "enoughness" continues to plague generations of U.S.-based Latino communities, since we don’t fit neatly into a box. Am I Mexican enough? Do I speak Spanish well enough? I remember asking myself those same questions, especially at 26 when I moved from Texas to work as a journalist in Mexico City. I hold dual nationality and speak two languages but operate in the blurred space in between.
In Selena’s Spanish-language interview with Don Francisco on Univision, he asks her if she’s always spoken Spanish well. She’d been doing fine during the interview, but the question seems to make her self-conscious, and she trips over a couple of words. She acknowledges that she’s improved over time but is still learning and deftly moves on.
Selena shared her story without apology and hopefully showed that there’s more than one way to be Latina.