Happy Birthday, Selena

In which I reflect on a life I learned a lot about just in time

CW: gun violence

This is just to say that Selena Quintanilla-Pérez, the intersectional voice of an underrepresented generation, would have turned fifty years old today.

While, as the “Queen of Tejano Music,” she might not be thought of in the same category as other pop icons due to the specificity of her genre, her impact puts her on a level with some of those icons, and her story combines eerily familiar elements.

  • She and her siblings, brother A.B. and sister Suzette, began touring their act at a young age—Selena herself was only ten—under the direction-cum-management of (guess who) their dad. One day someone has got to do a comprehensive story on the dads of music history; they shaped their kids’ lives, whether they were absent or way way too present.
  • She was a Texas native who died in her early twenties, just as she was cementing her reputation as independent artist, industry fixture, and role model for countless musicians inside or outside Latinx communities.
  • She was shot by a fan—in fact, the president of her fan club (and former manager of her boutique).

Netflix recently released Selena: The Series, a limited bio-series about her life and career (only one season up currently, but a second is pending), and, having next to no knowledge of either, I was curious. I quickly got invested in the narrative surrounding the whole family: they obviously cared for one another deeply but didn’t always understand one another’s ways of caring.

As kids growing up in a Mexican-American community, the band played English-language material until their father Abraham decided they would make better inroads by switching to Spanish. This put extra pressure on both Selena, who sang the songs, and A.B., who wrote them, since their household was not bilingual. Up to that point their parents had been concerned about strategic assimilation, and language was a casualty of that. I understood.

All the more impressive, then, that Selena went on to win Female Vocalist of the Year at nine consecutive Tejano Music Awards starting in her teens. That someone who wasn’t even a native speaker created such a platform for Spanish-language pop music—that she was able to garner an adulatory fanbase from the people who used to ignore her—really gives a proper sense of how beloved she was and still is.

Not only that, her mother Marcella had Cherokee ancestry as well. A mainstream artist of Indigenous heritage (and with Indigenous features) is rarely seen even today.

Her identity grew more and more distant from that of the band as she embarked on a wildly successful solo career, even though they continued to back her on tour and A.B. became her producer. She also developed a romance with her new guitarist, Chris Pérez, a relationship to which her overprotective father was initially opposed; but they eventually married and Chris was accepted into the family.

In 1994 Selena realized her long-held dream of branching out into fashion design. Her boutique line, Selena Etc., was managed by friend and fan Yolanda Saldívar. That year’s album, Amor Prohibido, was a bestseller and made the Tejano genre truly viable in the US pop market for the first time. Selena was still promoting that album in March 1995 when she discovered apparent embezzlement from the fan club and boutique, confronted Yolanda on it, and received a mortal wound in the shoulder.

Fans lined up for miles to mourn her and view her casket in the following days. She was buried in Corpus Christi, TX. Her death was an international event. So many people who had never seen themselves represented in popular music had very literally considered her their voice. A couple generations of artists now—not least among them Jennifer Lopez, who portrayed her in the 1997 biopic—cite her as a primary influence. As a young woman both in and beyond the music business, she broke barriers and challenged the people who would control her, forging her own path and using her newfound privilege to pursue opportunities she had once despaired of ever being available to her.

Hers is a flame worth tending. Or, better yet, a flower.

Update: I am told that today is the International Day of Voice—the celebration coincides in a way that I think must be more than coincidental.

Image: from a 1994 performance on the Johnny Canales Show, a media vehicle that propelled her to stardom

Published by Cecilia Gigliotti

Cecilia Gigliotti (she/her) lives in Berlin with a beloved ukulele named Uke Skywalker. She co-hosts and produces the music commentary podcast POD SOUNDS. Her free time goes toward dancing, reading books new and old, drawing cartoons, taking city walks, and devoting too much thought to the foibles of her heroes. Connect with her on Instagram (@c_m_giglio, @ceciliagphotography, @pod_sounds_podcast) and see what else she's up to (linktr.ee/ceciliagigliotti).

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