The Enduring Beauty Of Selena's Legacy
On March 31, 1995, the world was shaken by the untimely death of Tejano singer Selena Quintanilla-Perez.
At just 23 years old, her career was skyrocketing toward crossover success. But just as she was settling into her fame, it was taken away in the blink of an eye when she was shot and tragically killed by a former president of her fan club. No one foresaw the harrowing ordeal coming, and the news arrived with no warning. As a result, Selena, who was poised for pop culture phenomenon status, would unfortunately never witness her efforts and hard work fully materialize.
Her star took flight in earnest one night in 1989, when Selena performed at the San Antonio Convention Center. The occasion was the ninth annual Tejano Music Awards. Her irresistible charm lit up the stage as she sang the likes of "Terco Corazon," "Yo Fui Aquella" and "Carino Mio." Even at just 17 years old, she was confident and stylish and vivacious — all of which helped flex her musicianship rather than detract from it. It also didn't hurt that she was beautiful. But the latter wasn't what caught Cuban-American music executive José Behar's eye.
At the time, Behar, a former A&R rep and head of Sony Discos, had just opened up EMI Latin, the first Latin music label under Capitol Records. Like prior years, his attendance was based on intentions of scouting fresh Latin talent.
"It was just coincidental that just weeks after we opened up EMI Latin [I found Selena]," Behar continues. "I ended up staying and watching her perform, and I thought she was amazing."
Selena wound up taking the Female Entertainer of The Year award home that night, but knew nothing of the even better news that awaited her the following day.
Selena's rise feels like something ripped out of a fairytale. After convincing the singer and her father, Abraham Quintanilla Jr., who was also her manager, to take a breakfast meeting, Behar immediately signed Selena.
"The whole thing with the Selena signing was … back then female artists didn't sell in the Tejano music market. There wasn't one female artist that ever really sold or had any substantial success in Tejano music," Behar explains.
"But I never really signed her as a Tejano artist. I thought she was my Gloria Estefan. That was truly the emphasis on signing her. We signed her with the vision of crossing her over, never really thinking we're going to have that huge success on the Latin side. It was always, always, always about the crossover."
And crossover from largely Latino audiences to American ones she did.
But first, she laid the groundwork with four successful Spanish-language albums in a five-year span: Selena (1989), Ven Conmigo (1990), Entre A Mi Mundo (1992), and Amor Prohibido (1994). While Amor Prohibido became one of the best-selling Latin albums in the United States, Behar notes that Selena's first GRAMMY win was a major game-changer.
"She was like a little 10-year-old girl whose dream was coming to fruition," he says.
At the 36th GRAMMY Awards in New York on March 1, 1994, Selena made history as Live!, her first-ever live album released in 1993, won Best Mexican/American Album. The singer became the first Tejano artist to win the category.
On Feb. 26, 1995, Selena performed a historic concert at the Houston Astrodome. Nearly 67,000 people were in attendance for the show, a part of the popular Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. Marking what would be her final televised appearance, the concert was broadcast live on Univision and later received a posthumous release by EMI Latin in 2001.
As Selena's résumé became chockfull with impressive accolades, she was helping to open the doors for the next wave of talented Latino musicians. However, just one month later, the Latin music community was silenced when the news of Selena's death broke.
In a case of the bittersweet, Selena's success wasn't truly etched into the history books until Dreaming Of You, her fifth and final studio album, was released posthumously on July 18, 1995, just four months after her death. During the time Selena began recording sessions for the highly anticipated multigenre work of American pop and Latin music, Behar can only describe it with one word: "magic."
"It was a dream come true, it was going to happen," he says. "She was in disbelief that it was coming together."
Dreaming Of You would go on to be critically acclaimed and an immediate commercial success. Selling 175,000 copies on its release day in the U.S., the album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, in addition to ranking in the top 10 best-selling debuts for a musician, best-selling debut by a female act, and the fastest-selling U.S. album of 1995.
Beyond Dreaming Of You, the reality of Selena's enchanting presence has remained alive and well, all while growing her cultural relevance and welcoming a new generation of fans. Decades after her death, it's certain that the entertainer's legacy has been among the most famously celebrated. There was the 1997 movie Selena starring Jennifer Lopez, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2017. The film not only catapulted the rise of J.Lo's career, it is known as one of the highest-grossing musical biopics of all time.
MAC Cosmetics released a special Selena makeup collection after an online petition was created for the company to honor the singer for the 20th anniversary of her passing. Selena-branded T-shirts have been popping up in retail stores like Macy's, Urban Outfitters, Target, and Forever 21. And her hometown of Corpus Christi, Texas, there's The Selena Museum showcasing the singer's awards and memorabilia. Corpus Christi is also home to Fiesta de la Flor, a two-day festival celebrating the life and legacy of Selena. And in 2016 the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce announced that the Mexican-American superstar would be honored on the prestigious Hollywood Walk of Fame.
"To me, that's what solidifies a true legacy," says Mexican-American singer/songwriter and actress Becky G, who cites Selena as a major influence. "That even after she passed away, she's affected so many people's lives and inspired even more."
Becky remembers "Como La Flor" being the first song of Selena's she ever heard as a young kid. But beyond the music, which is the true foundation, she connected with Selena on a deeper level, a connection that Behar believes lies in the fact that she was a bicultural artist in the true sense of the word.
"She represented this bridge I needed so badly in my life. You know, being born in the States but identifying with Latin culture and being Mexican through blood and by heart," Becky G says. "It was so hard to feel like I belonged in either or. I really resonated with the part in the movie where Selena's dad says, 'You're either too Mexican for the Americans or too American for the Mexicans, but you can't be in the middle.' To me, Selena was the middle, like I was born here but I'm Spanish and no one can tell me any different. From that, I found a confidence within because I knew someone else already broke those barriers for me and. And that person is Selena."
Though Selena achieved much success and lived out her dreams, there's no simple answer as to why her legacy continues, but it's one that certainly is meant to be.
"I've worked with a lot of artists throughout my career and she really was a good soul," Behar says. "Never spoke ill of anyone. Her smile was genuine and wholesome. She had a lot of love, no disdain. Not jealous of anything or anyone. It was just all about focusing and being a good person and a great artist. That's really what she was about. It's not like a persona."
With her good soul attributing to the otherworldly force of success that has followed her, Behar also claims that the core of Selena's foundation is her music.
"It's like a beautiful Christmas tree with no decorations," he says. "If you have a little shriveled up tree ... [and] if you put decorations on that tree, it's never going to be a beautiful tree. It's got to a beautiful tree. That's the first thing you pick out every year. And as an artist, it should always be about the music. And [Selena's] music has stood the test of time. Great music, amazing music. And then you have all that other stuff and it's a grand slam.
"These kinds of things don't come every day and it takes a long time for that to come together. Maybe every 20 years an artist will come along and do that, but I don't think I could ever compare anyone to Selena. She was truly unique."
(Ashley Monaé is a Brooklyn-based writer. Her work has appeared in the pages of PAPER and Nylon and online at Pitchfork, Billboard and Highsnobiety, among others.)