Published in D Magazine
On the afternoon of the day of his daughter’s death, March 31, 1995, Abraham Quintanilla sat inside Q Productions, the music studio he built in Corpus Christi. His daughter had had a 10 AM appointment to record there. She never arrived at the studio that was tangible proof of how far the family had come.
Abraham had once dreamed of making his living from music. With his group, Los Dinos, he sang doo-wop in the 1950s and ’60s, back when, because he was Mexican, he and his group faced overt discrimination. On tours, they had to sit at the back of the bus; they couldn’t rent hotel rooms. The dream eventually died. He settled with his young family in Lake Jackson, three hours up the coast from Corpus Christi, near Houston.
In Lake Jackson, Abraham worked at a chemical plant. One evening after work, while waiting for dinner, Abraham passed the time doing what he always did. He strummed his guitar and sang. On that night, his youngest child—a 6-year-old girl—began singing along. “I was amazed at her ability,” Abraham would say.
With time, he saved enough money and quit his job at the chemical plant. He opened a Mexican restaurant where his youngest child, then 8 years old, would sing.
Oil prices dropped. The Quintanillas’ restaurant shuttered. In 1982, as the oil crisis began, Abraham moved the family back to Corpus Christi, to live in an unused room at a family member’s house. That was 13 years before his youngest child was shot and killed.
And on the day his daughter died, inside that music studio, Abraham played her music. He cried. And although she, Selena, was 23 years old when killed, all he could think of was her singing as a little girl.
“I still remember that day vividly,” José Santos says. José was the director of programming for Dallas’ lone Tejano station, KICK FM, when Selena died. That day was chaos. Phone calls from crying listeners inundated Spanish-language radio stations across Texas and the country. Between sobs, people asked if the news was true. They wanted to make sure this wasn’t some early, macabre April Fools’ joke.
“Not only were we breaking news,” José recalls, “but we were trying to figure out, first, that Selena was shot—that was the first breaking news. Then information started coming in. She was shot at a hotel in Corpus Christi.”
Rumors started. In a time before social media, some of them spread. One rumor said the wife of a Tejano singer shot Selena when she found out about an affair. He received death threats. Another rumor said Selena could have survived had her father, based on their religious beliefs as Jehovah’s Witnesses, not declined a blood transfusion. Both rumors were false.
Locally, you could hear the shock of Selena’s death on Dallas’ Tejano radio station. “We played two Selena songs and then put people on the air to let them vent their frustrations, cry, tell stories about the last show,” José says of the complete shift in the station’s usual format. “What made it even more interesting is that one of her last shows she performed, she did it for KICK FM in Dallas. So everything was very fresh because we had just seen her perform for the radio station, and did a show and everything, just weeks before.”
As night fell on that dark day, across Texas and the country, candlelight vigils dedicated to Selena illuminated crying faces. In downtown Dallas, hundreds gathered around Kennedy Memorial Plaza. It was a fitting site—as Joe Nick Patoski, one of her biographers, has noted—because, for Mexican Americans, Selena’s death was like the day of Kennedy’s assassination. There, fans played her music, sang her songs, and cried while speaking of what Selena meant. “Our kids never had anybody to identify with,” one woman from northeast Dallas said.
At Reverchon Park, there was another gathering to pray for Selena. A few days later, yet another crowd—this one to defend her—formed on the corner of Las Colinas and O’Connor boulevards, in front of the building that broadcast Howard Stern’s radio show. Stern had mocked Selena’s death. He played her music, alongside gunshots, and spoke in an exaggerated Mexican accent.
Days later, Stern—who would eventually cancel a book signing in Dallas, fearing a riot—apologized in broken Spanish, too ignorant to realize most of her fans spoke English. Too ignorant to realize that her bicultural, bilingual life was one reason Selena meant so much to so many people. It’s why she was the queen of Tejano music.
“The music is our culture,” J.D. Gonzalez explains. “It’s our heritage. It’s who we are. There’s not too many genres of music where you can say that.”
Today, J.D., based in Dallas, oversees Spanish-language content for the broadcast company Entercom. He knew Selena from his time working at a Corpus Christi radio station. As his career progressed—he eventually even worked at a Tejano station in San Antonio—J.D.’s and Selena’s relationship grew.
Working in radio for almost 40 years, J.D. has seen artists evolve. He was there when a young, unknown singer named Mariah Carey performed for a small crowd.
“I’m thinking, ‘Well, here’s another one,’ ” J.D. says. “But [Selena] was special, because she comes from my area, she comes from my culture, and the world really hadn’t seen anything like that. Sure, there was Gloria Estefan, but she wasn’t a Tejana. This was our chance. This was our chance to really show the world our place in the entertainment world. So I was so proud of her. Very proud of her.”
Between memories, J.D. gathers his thoughts.
He often thinks about the day 25 years ago that Selena died. “Oh, man, I replay that day in my mind over and over again.” He also remembers the good, exciting times. The night Selena told him that she was going to record an English-language album. That night, Selena’s excitement showed in that smile that never seemed to leave her face.
“Yeah,” J.D. says at last. “And I remember Yolanda was with us, too, that night.”
He says her full name—Yolanda Saldívar—so as to not mistake who she is.
Yolanda Saldívar didn’t even like Tejano music. In 1990, when someone told her she must see Selena perform, Yolanda was a registered nurse in San Antonio. Yolanda went to that concert and what she saw changed her life.
“Selena just inspired me—with her talent, her motivation,” she would say. “She gives her whole to you.”
A year after that fateful night when she felt so inspired, after several phone calls and leaving countless messages about starting a fan club, Yolanda met Selena and the Quintanilla family. With their permission, she launched that fan club.
Within four years, it grew from a few members to thousands. Impressed, Selena made Yolanda her personal assistant. Soon, Yolanda handled seemingly everything surrounding the budding star.
Selena’s schedule and finances—Yolanda handled that. On a personal side, she became a confidant who gave life advice to the Tejano star. “Yolanda was the one who encouraged me to go to college,” Selena said.
Yolanda also managed Selena’s boutiques in San Antonio and Corpus Christi. Problems began soon after the second store opened.
First, it was phone calls from furious parents saying they paid their $22 dues and hadn’t received the t-shirts, cassettes, and pictures the fan club promised. Then, notices of unpaid bills arrived. After that, money—around $30,000 in five months’ time—vanished. Abraham found checks that Yolanda had written to herself, her sister, and her mother. Financial records went missing.
It was those records that Yolanda promised to return to Selena on the morning of March 31, 1995.
Pat Arreguin was in elementary school when Selena died. She and her friends would sing and perform her songs during school recess. “I became obsessed with her,” Pat, 32, remembers. “That was the first time that you saw somebody and felt like, ‘Whoa, that could be us one day.’ ”
A few years after Selena’s death, when a biopic starring Jennifer Lopez was in the works, Pat and her cousins would pretend to audition for the movie in their backyard. More than Selena herself, it’s the movie that Pat’s younger sister, Eva, remembers. Each morning she’d wake up, watch the movie, and, like her sisters and cousins, sing and dance along with scenes. “I could just watch the DVD every day and that’s exactly what I did for a couple of years,” Eva, 26, remembers. “And I didn’t even realize I was doing it. It just felt natural.”
That’s also the movie Rafa Tamayo auditioned for, one of the tens of thousands across the country who answered an open casting call. When that call went out in four cities, looking for a young Latina to play the role of young Selena, 20,000 hopeful actresses arrived. And even months after Selena’s death, at these auditions, when some of the young hopefuls spoke of what she meant to them, they’d do so through tears.
“As I’m walking up, kids are walking out,” Rafa, 36 and a former child actor, recalls about his audition. “As I’m leaving, kids are walking in. And I was just like, ‘Aw, man, this is crazy. This is not something that I’ll ever have a shot in the dark for.’” To Rafa’s surprise, producers called him back. And then again. They sent him to San Antonio to bond with the Quintanilla family before casting him in the role of Selena’s brother, A.B., as a young boy.
Pat, Eva, and Rafa all grew up in Dallas. Together, they formed De Colores Collective to help celebrate diversity in Dallas’ underrepresented communities. Part of this celebration includes Selena.
In 2013, Rafa and his friends Arturo Donjuan and Trino Lopez decided to honor the Tejano singer. Together, they could reach different parts of the culture; Arturo is part of the Sour Grapes Crew (which is made up of visual artists), and Trino is a member of Faded Deejays (a troupe of DJs and an emcee that throws monthly parties). “We kind of came together and said, ‘Let’s throw a party in honor of Selena,’ ” Rafa says, explaining the origins of what became 214Selena.
Every year, beginning in early January, all three start plans for what’s become an annual celebration. They recap the previous year’s events to see what they can improve. From a lowrider car show to music to a lookalike contest, an art show, and even karaoke, the early spring event is held across Oak Cliff (this year March 27–29), which has become a Dallas hub for honoring Selena.
But celebrating all that Selena now represents doesn’t just stop once 214Selena ends. You can see it year-round in the various Selena murals across Oak Cliff. One of them is at Country Burger, which is itself filled with Selena memorabilia. Outside the building, a large black-and-white mural features Selena’s face, “Selena Forever,” written around it.
“I actually grew up watching the movie,” one of the mural’s artists, Theo Ponchaveli, says of Selena. “To me, she was before her time. She is, to this day, iconic.”
If you stand outside Country Burger, it doesn’t take long before you see someone take a picture of that mural or snap a selfie beside it. People will do the same at another of the Selena murals in Oak Cliff—near West Jefferson Boulevard and South Bishop Avenue. That large, vibrant mural captures Selena in her famous jumpsuit.
“That particular image is, for even the layman, probably the most iconic image,” Jeremy Biggers, the mural’s artist, says of the Selena painting. “People who don’t necessarily know who she is and what she’s about, they can recognize that particular image.”
That image and outfit are from her concert—about a month before she died—in the Astrodome, as part of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. At that point, Selena drew a record crowd to the event.
That concert was the same inspiration for another of the Oak Cliff Selena murals—the one that used to be behind the Family Dollar at U.S. 67 and South Polk Street before it was painted over. Fidel Pineda’s mural showed Selena—in black and white—singing into a microphone.
“I wanted to portray that emotion where she’s, almost in a sense, overlooking Oak Cliff,” Fidel says. He, like most Latinos of a certain age, remembers who Selena was when she lived. He remembers what it meant when she died.
“I was in elementary,” he recalls. “My grandma was crying. I asked, ‘What’s wrong?’ She answered, ‘Selena died.’ ”
Selena met Yolanda at a Days Inn. Inside that hotel, they argued. While Selena demanded that Yolanda return the financial records, Yolanda ordered Selena to return a gold and diamond ring she had given her as a gift. As Selena tried to return the ring, Yolanda shot her in the back. The bullet hit a major artery, went through her right lung, and exited the singer’s chest.
Selena ran out of room 158. Yolanda followed behind her, still pointing a gun at Selena. “Bitch!” Yolanda yelled before going to her vehicle and driving around to the hotel’s parking lot.
In her last moments of life, Selena stumbled into the lobby. She bumped into a door, causing blood to splatter, and then fell to the floor.
“Lock the door,” she yelled between cries. “Because she’ll shoot me again.”
“Who shot you?” the front-desk worker asked. “Yolanda,” Selena responded. Her eyes rolled back. A pool of blood formed under her.
Minutes later, when paramedics arrived, Selena—covered in thick blood from her neck to her knees that turned her emerald green jogging suit dark brown—no longer had a pulse. As a paramedic searched for a vein to insert an IV, he grabbed Selena’s right arm. Her lifeless grip gave way and a bloody ring fell to the floor.
And as Selena passed—pronounced dead at 1:05 pm—Yolanda sat inside her red pickup truck. For more than nine hours, she held a .38-caliber revolver to her head. It was the same gun Yolanda had used to kill the woman she had considered her sole friend.
“I don’t think I can forgive myself or God can forgive me,” Yolanda said while she cried hysterically. “Just let me die.”
A quarter of a century. That’s how long it’s been since Selena last sang, danced, and smiled. Since then, fans have remembered her in celebrations and murals, in places like Dallas and across the rest of the country. Little girls and boys still sing her songs, dress like her and characters from Selena, and reenact scenes from the movie.
Selena is more popular now than when she lived. That popularity has expanded beyond the fans of Tejano music. Even non-Latinos know her name, even if when she died many did not understand the commotion. And since she’s as relevant as she ever was, what she means today is something far beyond what she meant then.
There are people for whom Selena has always been present—emotionally, metaphorically, symbolically—even if she hasn’t been there in the physical sense. That is Selena: a constant. Even as things change in neighborhoods once predominantly Latino—like where Selena lived, like where her murals and celebrations are now—she maintains a continuing, if evolving, presence.
Selena has become a ubiquitous symbol of Tejanos and Texans. Of Chicanos, Latinos, and Latinxs that live across the United States, Mexico, and elsewhere. She means something to many others. Something different to each. It’s why in the Latino neighborhoods of many cities, you can see who she was then and how she’s seen now, eternally young, frozen in dance and song and smiling in murals that are larger than life.
It’s better like this. To think about it any other way is to remember that the death of Selena was one of the most incredible tragedies of the last quarter-century, a bilingual, bicultural Shakespearean tragedy of a rags-to-riches story that inspired those who felt invisible, only to have it all taken away. A tragedy set in Texas, where Dallas was just one of the many locations people cried at what they saw and felt. It’s painful to remember it that way. To know that we never got to see her age, that the closest we’ll get to it is seeing the sun eat away at a mural’s color.
Maybe that’s why all of this makes more sense as a love story: about someone taken and those left behind, refusing to forget who she was. Maybe that’s why she lives on in fragments—a memory here, another one there, a sort of mosaic.
Maybe that’s why, a quarter-century after her death, remembering her life, in murals and yearly celebrations in places like Oak Cliff, still makes people dance, sing, and smile.