Where were you were when you heard the news? I was at work at the Dallas Morning News, and someone poked his head in and said that Selena had been shot. A few minutes later, the co-worker returned to say the Tejano superstar was dead. I sat there stunned, wondering why and how and who and where. Then I went back to work.
Many, many more people didn’t.
On March 31, 1995 — “Black Friday” — Hispanic teenagers walked like zombies, and older people wore the look of being hollowed inside. Construction workers drank their beer in silence, and cars slowly crept in a somber promenade. To most of America, the Selena tragedy was just a fascinating episode of CNN, but in Mexican American communities it hit like Nov. 22, 1963, an earthquake of the soul.
Selena Quintanilla embodied the aspirations of young Tejana, and in the end she showed just how fast dreams can die. The fact that anyone can point at someone else and make them dead is a sad reality of life in a country where guns are as rampant as delusions.
Cruelly, Selena’s dreams of being an American sensation, not just a regional star, came true after her death. The posthumous Dreaming of You debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard album charts, selling 331,000 copies in its first week. Much of the sales were, no doubt, stimulated by the heightened awareness of Selena following the tragedy. Still, the LP’s main selling point was the soulfully elastic pop voice that had attracted millions of fans in a single region before her death.
The buzz words of the Selena story are hard work and determination, but she also had a tremendous gift as a singer. Vocally, she could bury Madonna and Gloria Estefan, the two singers with whom she was most often compared. In terms of worship and deification, Selena can also be compared to the original Madonna, the Virgin Mother, frozen in time as a representation of all that is good and pure. She died perfect, though the murder, at the hand of her former fan club president, was ugly.
Shot at about 11:48 a.m. in Room 158 of the Days Inn on Navigation Boulevard in Corpus Christi, Selena was pronounced dead at Memorial Medical Center at 1:05 p.m.
As spontaneous expressions of grief broke out across the country, the singer’s killer, 34-year-old Yolanda Saldivar, sat in a red pickup in the parking lot of the Days Inn with her .38-caliber revolver placed against her temple. After a 10-hour standoff, Saldivar surrendered to police. There was talk of gang members trying to raise bail money so Saldivar would be released — and they could kill her.
Selena woke up that dark day of March 31 at 7:30 a.m., donned a sweat suit and headed to Saldivar’s room at the Days Inn with two purposes. First, she planned to take Saldivar — who had claimed she was raped in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, two days earlier — to the hospital for an exam. Then Selena planned to ask her former confidante, who had spent the previous three weeks dodging accusations of financial improprieties, about some missing bank statements.
After the doctor couldn’t find evidence that Saldivar had been raped, Selena angrily confronted Saldivar back at the motel about the missing money. Saldivar pulled out a gun, she told police, and put it to her own head. When Selena started to leave the room, Saldivar shot her once, in the right shoulder, which severed an artery. Selena made it to the lobby, then collapsed.
Saldivar had begun her association with Selena as an exemplary employee, founding the fan club in 1991 and managing the clothing boutigue Selena opened in Corpus in 1994. Working for Selena gave the former nurse a fresh sense of purpose.
But employees started noticing the books just weren’t right, that Saldivar appeared to be skimming profits. They told Selena’s father, Abraham, who ruled his daughter’s musical career with a steel grip, but generally kept out of her fashion business.
Selena, her father and sister Suzette confronted Saldivar on March 9, 1995 and demanded she produce a full accounting.
Two days later, Saldivar went to a San Antonio gun shop/firing range and bought a .38-caliber revolver, but soon returned it for a refund. On March 26, 1995, she went back to A Place To Shoot and repurchased the revolver. Her embezzling was about to be exposed. Her life was over.
At her trial, which moved to Houston for safety concerns, Saldivar pled not guilty, claiming that the gun discharged accidentally. The jury deliberated just two hours before finding Saldivar guilty of murder. She’s currently serving a life sentence in the Gatesville prison. The gun used to kill Selena was ordered destroyed by a judge, lest it one day become a grisly souvenir.
There is no longer a Room 158 at the Days Inn on Navigation. So many fans flocked to the site, many writing on the walls outside, that the motel changed the room numbers and posted signs saying that only registered guests are allowed on the property. (The room where the murder took place is now No. 150, a hotel employee confirmed when pointed out that it’s the only room number tag that is bolted down.)
Besides similarities in talent, Selena’s story resembles the first part of Michael Jackson’s life, singing in her family band — Los Dinos — before her age hit double digits. Both artists were driven to perfection by ex-musician fathers who projected their own hopes of national recognition through their prized offspring. As a 9-year-old prodigy, Selena’s aim was to go where no other Tejano star had gone; the Billboard pop charts, MTV, the Tonight Show, a side career in the movies. Ambition is the sauce that flavors the truly great ones, and Selena’s sounds were marinated for the big time. In her late teens she was already dubbed “La Reina de la Onda Tejana,” the queen of Tejano music.
By its very structure, Tejano is a blend of two cultures, and Selena was a bridge between them. Such tunes as “Techno Cumbia,” with its Michael Jackson-like trills, and the reggae-heavy “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom” present a seamless blend of convex styles. Dreaming of You also contains a duet with world music frequent flier David Byrne on “God’s Child,” with Selena handling the Spanish parts with fire and grace. She could sing it all, from Latin soul to mariachi to Valley pop to lounge act schmaltz.
The countless quickie bios told us that Selena loved to shop at Walmart, even after she was rich and famous. Her favorite restaurant was Pizza Hut. Like most Tejanas, her first language was English. She was very much a product of her surroundings.
The indigenousness extends to the music of Selena y Los Dinos, who got their act together in the Gulf Coast party town of Corpus Christi. Sound travels over water like a marble rolls across glass, so such styles as reggae from Jamaica, tropical from Miami, cumbia from South America and good ol’ New Orleans funk slid into Corpus like they were just over the border from Texas. Selena and her band leader brother A.B. Quintanilla absorbed it all and reinvented it. Her father used to tell Selena that being a Mexican American meant having to be the best of both worlds, and no one succeeded better at that than Selena.
The problem with role models is that they’re playing roles, but Selena just naturally, effortlessly represented the positive side of the Hispanic community: the tight family, the religious convictions, the birthday parties in the carports of little swimming pool-colored houses. Even on stage wearing a black bra and tights, Selena was the kind of performer who exuded wholesomeness. Selena really was one with her fans, and when she died little pieces of her stayed inside each one of them.
Superstars don’t come from New York or Hollywood. They come from places like Gary, Ind., Aberdeen, Wash., Tupelo, Miss., and Corpus Christi. They are the boys and girls with big dreams and the luck to win the talent lottery.
Selena was so far above the rest of the genre, in terms of both ability and popularity, that it was almost like she was the campfire and the other Tejano acts were fireflies.
It almost seems like part of a divine plan, this tragic loss. That the queen of Tejano would die such an unlikely death brings near-religious implications. Her life ended so senselessly, beauty losing out to hideousness, that her uplifting music is forever ringed in sadness. But her fans, many not born before her death, can’t stop listening.
“One thing we will never hear is people calling up our stations and saying, ‘You’re playing too much Selena,’” said Lupe Contreras of the Border Media radio conglomerate. “There’s no burnout with her. The music is timeless. Selena will always be current.”
Featured photo by Scott Newton 1993.
This is one of 42 profiles in “All Over the Map: True Heroes of Texas Music” by Michael Corcoran. Other artists include Janis Joplin, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Harry Choates, T-Bone Walker and D.J. Screw.