Selena. No last name, just Selena. During the 90s, she dominated the charts with her upbeat Latin-pop sound and soprano voice. However, in her private life, she struggled with family drama, secret relationships, and the betrayal of her closest supporter. Though her life was tragically short, her legacy continues to loom large and bright over the landscape of music and television.
Selena Quintanilla was born on April 16, 1971, in Lake Jackson, Texas to a family of Mexican immigrants—but she was an unexpected surprise. The youngest of three, Selena’s parents fully believed that they were having another boy up until the baby herself came screaming into the world. Shocked, Marcella and Abraham scrapped their planned name “Marc Anthony” and chose “Selena” when another hospital patient suggested it.
They had no idea that their daughter's name, as well as her tragic story, would one day go down in history.
Selena’s father Abraham used to play in a band called “Los Dinos” before settling down, so when young Selena began flaunting some serious musical talent, Abraham was the first to recognize it. He got the shock of his life while watching five-year-old Selena singing along to the radio with the purity and perfect pitch of a far more seasoned performer.
He saw star potential in her and wanted the world to see it too.
In 1980, Abraham gave the world a chance to see Selena in action when he quit his job to open a restaurant, Papa Gayo’s. The nine-year-old Selena took center stage and performed most nights for the patrons, singing an array of top 40 hits and classic Tejano ballads. With her brother Abraham III on bass and her sister Suzette on drums, the family band started shaping up and perfecting their sound. Sadly, it wasn't long before it all came crashing down around them.
Things took a turn for the worse in 1981 when the oil glut recession resulted in the collapse of many Texas businesses, including Papa Gayo’s. The Quintanilla family declared bankruptcy, forcing them to shut down their beloved restaurant. Even worse, authorities evicted them from their home. Abraham and Marcella packed up everything they had and settled their family in Corpus Christi, Texas, hoping for a better tomorrow.
Unfortunately, much of their "hopes" came to rest on Selena's shoulders...
Abraham made a bold choice in order to secure his family’s future: He appointed himself as manager of the newly-established band, Selena y Los Dinos. He started promoting the band across Corpus Christi and secured gigs at quinceañeras, weddings, and public events. With Selena at the forefront of the band, the family struggled to make enough to feed and clothe themselves.
Little did Selena know, her childhood was about to turn upside down.
The demands of band life took a toll on Selena’s academic success, taking her out of class more and more often. Finally, Abraham removed Selena from school during the eighth grade to focus on music. Her teachers weren’t happy, and one of them threatened to report Abraham to the Texas Board of Education. However, in the end, nothing could stop Selena.
In order to tour around Texas, Abraham rescued an old bus from the junkyard and fixed it up. Dubbed “Big Bertha,” this hulking monstrosity became the family’s official tour van, taking them from venue to venue. By that point, they were barely making enough to purchase gas and didn’t always know where their next meal was going to come from.
However, as dire as their situation seemed—not all was lost.
By 1984, Selena and her family started recording their very first LP, Selena y Los Dinos. Selena, who didn’t speak any Spanish, wanted to record English songs, but her father felt it important that her music reflect her Mexican heritage. So, word by word, Selena learned Spanish phonetically from her father. Through pure determination, she was able to sing fluently in Spanish, infusing every lyric with emotion.
Unfortunately, no amount of talent could save Selena from the ruthlessness of record companies.
When Selena finally finished recording the LP, there was no celebration...Their record label, Freddie Records, didn’t want to release the entire album because they didn’t think the band was ready. Abraham promptly dropped the record deal with them and took the band’s talents elsewhere, first to Cara Records and then to GP Productions.
Abraham wouldn’t take no for an answer. Determined to see Selena and the band flourish, he did everything in his power to capture success.
Abraham’s passion began paying off. By 1987, Selena y Los Dinos had several records in circulation and their newest one, Munequito De Trapo, started gaining some traction, leading the Tejano Music Awards to recognize her talents. Not only did Selena sing at the awards show, but she also brought home “Best Female Vocalist of the Year," which she would bring home seven more times in years to come.
With some success under her belt, both musically and financially, Selena was able to backtrack and finally finish her education. At 17, she completed her GED at the American School of Correspondence in Chicago. She triumphed over the teachers who had doubted her future, even enrolling at Pacific Western University for business administration. But even then, there were bigger things in store for her.
Everything changed for Selena during her performance at the 1989 Tejano Awards Show: She had no way of knowing that the heads of Sony Latin Music and EMI Latin Records were watching her in the audience. Blown away by her performance, both labels reached out and offered the star a chance at mainstream fame. Selena's dreams were finally going to come true.
Signing with EMI as a solo act, Selena wanted to introduce the world to her Tejano sound in a big way, which she did in her self-titled debut album, Selena. Her brother Abraham III worked on the record as producer and songwriter for most tracks, and the two hunkered down to record in San Antonio. Overall, this was Selena’s first album to reach the charts—but certainly not her last.
In 1990, Selena stepped out of her comfort zone—and the risk paid off. Her album Ven Conmigo displayed a new and evolving sound for Selena and her band, playing with different genres and arrangements. The band also hired a new guitarist during their album tour, a rock-n’-roller named Chris Perez, who brought a whole new dimension to Selena’s music and to her love life.
Outside of the limelight, things started getting steamy between Selena and Chris Perez. Perez, who had been a friend of Abraham III before joining the band, had only just proven his worth as a formal guitarist. But everything changed for him once he started working one-on-one with the star. It wasn’t long before he found himself catching feelings for her. Unfortunately, there was one huge problem standing in the way of their romance.
Perez couldn’t help feeling immensely drawn to Selena, but neither could he help his guilt: He had left a girlfriend behind in San Antonio. Yet the more he tried to drown his attraction to Selena, the more she drew him back in. Finally, he couldn't hide from the truth any longer. In a Pizza Hut of all places, Perez and Selena confessed their true feelings for one another...And so, they began a dangerous affair.
Perez and Selena both knew that Abraham would never approve of their relationship, potentially forbidding them from being together. Despite the difficulties and dangers, they decided to give it a go anyway. They kept their status as a couple a secret from everyone, including Selena’s mother and siblings. Like the calm before the storm, they were happy...for the time being.
Outside of the drama of her love life came the drama of her public life; out of nowhere, a fan contacted Selena and her father and asked if she could start a fan club in San Antonio. Feeling that such a club would be a boon for them, they agreed. Soon, Selena and her family grew to trust Yolanda Saldívar with more than just a fan club—a decision they would live to regret.
Just when Selena thought she couldn't rise any higher, another stellar opportunity presented itself: Salvadoran celebrity Alvaro Torres reached out to her to record a duet. The song, “Buenos Amigos”, ended up being a massive hit for both Selena and Torres, landing Selena on the number one Billboard Latin charts for the first time ever.
Suddenly, the world of Latin radio opened up to Selena, providing new opportunities to the up-and-coming diva.
But even though Selena’s professional life continued to soar, her personal life took a horrible hit—her sister Suzette caught Selena and Perez sharing a private moment together and ratted them out to her father. Abraham was completely enraged; he threw Perez off the tour bus and forbade the two from seeing one another. But did this put an end to this forbidden tryst? Absolutely not.
Though he did his best to separate Selena and Perez, it seemed that Abraham could not stand between the two lovers. But that didn’t stop him from trying. The next time he caught Perez and Selena getting too close to each other, he pulled the bus over and tried to force the issue. He even threatened to dissolve the band and fired Perez. Selena had a big decision to make.
Selena realized that her father would never approve of her relationship with Perez, and decided to do the one thing with the power to break his heart...If she married Perez, her father would have no choice but to accept him. So, on April 2, 1992, Selena and Perez decided to elope in Corpus Christi. Everyone went ballistic, especially Selena’s family, who desperately tried to find the missing singer. But it was already too late.
Most of Selena’s family quickly came to terms with their newlywed daughter, who settled next door to the Quintanillas in Corpus Christi. The only exception? Her father. He remained aloof and distant from the couple for quite some time and feared that Perez would end Selena’s singing career. But after the dust settled, Abraham finally came around and learned to love Perez like a son.
Not even a month after her elopement, Selena Quintanilla-Perez proved to the world that she could break through to a more mainstream audience with her third album, Entre a Mi Mundo. This was the band’s most ambitious project yet, blending Selena’s soulful vocals with her husband’s rocker sound, and the risk paid off.
The album skyrocketed to the top of the Mexican Billboard charts and stayed there for the rest of the year. Selena had entered a new stratosphere of fame. Unfortunately, her newfound glory came with a price.
Following the wild success of her third album, Selena booked a very prominent press conference in Mexico to discuss her music—but there was one glaring problem. Though she could sing bilingually, Selena could barely hold a conversation in Spanish. Executives at EMI felt terrified watching the singer try to string together basic sentences, worried that she’d alienate her Spanish-speaking fans.
Against all odd, Selena surprised them all.
Despite her poor grasp of the Spanish language, Selena remained unfazed. She let her bubbly personality and bright smile talk for her. When she messed up on Spanish, she’d laugh at her own mistakes. And that wasn't all. She also hugged every single interviewer before leaving the conference. By the end of the press tour, she had won the hearts of every reporter there, and they all wrote glowing articles about her to prove it.
Capitalizing on her success, Selena released a live album, Live!, only a year after Entre a Mi Mundo, which boasted a free concert that she held in her hometown of Corpus Christi. Not only did the album skyrocket in the charts, but it even brought Selena her first-ever Grammy for Best Mexican/American Album. Selena had officially conquered the Latin music world, and now, she wanted more.
Wanting to test out her acting chops, Selena accepted a small role in the hit telenovela Dos Mujeres, Un Camino, playing opposite Erik Estrada. Acting had become one of her newest dreams, and she had a great time trying it out. Over the course of her two-episode run, she connected with hit producer Emilio Larrosa and raked in record-breaking ratings for the show.
But when it came to branching out and taking risks, Selena was just getting started.
By 1994, Selena decided to turn her passion for designing her own stage outfits into a profitable business venture. She launched her own clothing line Selena Etc., which sold exclusively in her two boutique stores across the Texas area. As the boutiques started raking in profits, Selena decided to hire her fan club president, Yolanda Saldívar, to act as manager…This was a mistake.
Though each of Selena’s albums had continued her career on an upward track, her fourth studio album Amor Prohibido blew them all out of the water. This album swept to the top of the Latin Billboard charts for almost two years straight. The radios couldn’t get enough of her. Selena even brought home another Grammy. This burgeoning star was an icon in the making.
With Amor Prohibido, Selena made Tejano the music genre that everyone was listening to. The media called her “Queen of Tejano” and “bigger” than Tejano itself. This was the album that finally convinced EMI executives to cross Selena over into singing for the English-speaking world. Finally, everyone was going to know Selena’s name.
Now that executives finally felt that Selena could carry a crossover album, she went straight to work. She started working with the hottest producers, rather than working with her brother. Moreover, she began collaborating with musicians other than the Los Dinos band. The album was going to be a huge success—but the busier Selena became, the more help she needed to keep her life running smoothly.
As Selena grew busier and busier with her music and career, she needed even more help with the operation of her boutiques. So once again, she looked to Yolanda Saldívar for help. She promoted the manager of her boutiques to act as her registered agent, making business decisions in her absence. But before long, dangerous tensions began to mount.
By 1995, Selena started receiving troubling reports about the state of her boutiques—both of her shops were losing customers and employees at an alarming rate. The staff complained about Saldívar’s management, saying that she got rid of employees that she didn’t like. Selena didn’t want to believe these bad rumors about her friend, but as time passed, her suspicions continued to grow.
When Selena informed her father about the complaints she had received, Abraham started to find out more about Saldívar’s management of the boutiques and the fan club, and he didn’t like what he discovered. He found that there was over $30,000 missing from both ventures, money that Saldívar had embezzled in foreign checks. Shocked, he presented his findings to both Selena and Suzette to figure out their next move.
The three of them faced Saldívar head-on. Abraham showed Saldívar their evidence of the missing funds. He threatened to bring the law down against her. Saldivar pleaded with him, claiming that she could prove her innocence in time. Abraham wanted nothing more than to distance his family from this toxic individual…but Selena had other plans in mind.
Though Abraham wanted to stop all contact between Saldívar and Selena, the singer didn’t think it best to part ways. She credited her boutiques’ successes to Saldívar and worried that the former manager would try to take down Selena Etc. with her. Selena good-naturedly wanted to give Saldívar another chance to prove her innocence—but this was the gravest decision she could have ever made.
As Selena waited for Saldívar to bring her the documents to prove her innocence, she received a phone call from the guilty party herself. Crying loudly, Saldívar claimed that she had been violated and her car, as well as all the proof within it, had been stolen. She begged Selena to meet her alone in her motel room, promising to provide all the bank documents. Selena agreed.
Selena drove to Saldívar’s motel room to check in on her, but didn't go alone—she had Perez at her side. This was not part of Saldívar’s devious plan. Though she gave Selena a large stack of bank documents, the couple later realized that these weren’t the records they needed. That night, Saldívar called Selena and begged her to come by herself, claiming that she was bleeding profusely from the attack. How could the singer say no?
The next morning on March 30, 1995, Selena drove Saldívar to the medical clinic and discovered the truth. Though the doctor gave Saldívar a brief physical exam, she refused to undergo a gynecological exam with the kit. Moreover, the doctors told Selena that Saldívar had experienced no profuse bleeding, revealing the lies for what they were.
Fed up, Selena brought Saldívar back to her motel room...Sadly, she had no idea just how much danger she was in.
By the time that they arrived at Saldívar’s motel room, Selena was ready to cut all ties. She demanded the return of her boutiques’ bank statements and records, yelling at Saldivar that she no longer trusted her. Selena grabbed the bag that held all the documents and dumped the contents onto the bed...That's when a .38 pistol tumbled out.
At 11:48 am, Saldivar lunged for the pistol and pointed it at the singer. After all these years dedicating her life to Selena, she refused to be left behind. Staring at her friend in horror, Selena never stood a chance. She tried her best to flee the room, scarcely looking back—but she barely made it a few feet before Saldivar unloaded a bullet in her back.
Barely registering the wound in her shoulder, Selena ran as fast as she could to the lobby of the motel, leaving behind an almost 400-foot trail of blood while she yelled desperately for help. When she finally made it, she begged the staff to “Lock the door! She’ll shoot me again!” before collapsing on the floor. Her last words identified the perpetrator: “Yolanda…[room] 158.”
As Selena moaned and writhed before their very eyes, the motel staff tried their best to staunch the bleeding. They watched helplessly as the singer's eyes rolled back, her body suddenly going limp.
Ambulances rushed Selena to Corpus Christi Memorial Hospital. When they declared her DOA, the cardiology team stepped in and tried to re-establish her heartbeat. They managed to get an erratic rhythm going, allowing the trauma team to desperately try to save her life…but in the end, it was too late. By 1:05 pm, the world had lost Selena Quintanilla-Perez.
While Selena lay dying, Saldívar tried to escape before the authorities noticed her. However, when she started driving away in her pickup truck, a responding officer flagged her down. Saldívar refused to comply, and rather than get out of the car, she did the unthinkable: She put the pistol to her head and threatened to take herself down.
It took nine hours and several FBI agents to talk Saldívar out of her standoff and into law enforcement custody.
The news of Selena’s demise shocked the world. Television programs stopped to report it, radio stations played her music on repeat, and even celebrities like Gloria Estefan and Madonna reached out to her family. The official vigil itself drew over 3,000 fans and over 30,000 came to view her open casket the very next day. The world deeply mourned Selena…and wanted to see her avenged.
Revenge came swiftly in the form of Saldívar’s court case. Though the former fan club president pleaded that the shooting was accidental, both Abraham and Selena’s grief-stricken husband Perez managed to demonstrate her history of obsessive behavior and embezzlement. The jury sided with the Quintanilla family, convicting Saldívar to life with potential parole. Finally, they had closure.
In July 1995, Selena’s dream of a crossover album came to life. Dreaming Of You included all the songs that she’d been working on before her demise, a collection that she intended to break her into the English music scene. It worked. The album outperformed all her previous works. To this day, it tops Billboard’s best-selling Latin albums. But for Selena, it was already too late.
Though Selena herself never had the chance to reap the rewards of her crossover album, her music managed to forever change the landscape of pop. She established the Latin sound into mainstream music, making it familiar to people who had never heard it before. She also opened doors for other Latin artists like Ricky Martin, Shakira, and of course, Jennifer Lopez.
When Jennifer Lopez auditioned for the biopic Selena, she was one of 21,000 unknown hopefuls dreaming of making a name for herself. But J-Lo managed to get the role, eventually winning the hearts of audiences everywhere for her role as Selena. As J-Lo rose to prominence in Hollywood as both an actress and singer, she knew one thing for certain: She, like many others, would be nowhere without the Queen of Tejano paving the way.
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