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Remembering Selena: the legacy of a murdered star

Sarah Hughes
·8-min read

Luis Miguel Ramírez can still remember where he was when he heard that Selena Quintanilla, the biggest star on the Tejano music scene, had been shot dead at the age of 23.

“I was six years old and sitting on the bus when my brother came up running saying: ‘Selena died! She got shot in the back!’,” says the 32-year-old lead singer of Latin alternative band, Son de Rey. “When I got home my dad was crying – a few months ago he told me the reason was that he couldn’t bear to feel what the Quintanilla family was going through while he was figuring out how to raise five young kids of his own. The next few months were spent in mourning for this tragedy that didn’t make sense.”

The Ramírez family’s reaction was by no means unique. Selena – like Beyoncé and Madonna – is always referred to by her first name alone. At the time of her death at the hands of Yolanda Saldívar, her recently dismissed fan club manager, she was the celebrated Queen of Tejano, a blend of folk and pop music that originated on the Texan border and draws inspiration from both Mexico and America. She had recently performed in front of 66,000 people at the Houston Astrodome in the US, a stadium record. The previous year she had become the first woman in Tejano music to win a Grammy. She was expected to become a global superstar. Instead, she has been dead for 25 years.

Saldívar had been accused by the Quintanilla family of running the fan club as a fraud scheme and embezzling money from it and the singer’s popular fashion boutiques, Selena Etc. She was found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole in 2025, 30 years after the singer’s death.

In the years since the murder, Selena’s legacy has only continued to grow.

Next month sees the arrival on Netflix of Selena: The Series, focusing on the singer’s early life. Last year a series of concerts titled Selena for Sanctuary was organised by the music manager Doris Muñoz, herself a huge Selena fan.

A 2016 MAC make-up collection inspired by the singer, known for her daring bright red lips, sold out in minutes, as did a second collection last April. Jennifer Lopez, who played Selena in a 1997 biopic, published an Instagram tribute on the 25th anniversary of her death asking followers to share their own feelings about the star.

She’s an alter ego everybody would want to be and I want the world to know how much I love her

Cardi B, rapper

When Selena’s star was unveiled posthumously on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2017 it attracted a record 4,500 fans and vivid murals continue to adorn her home town of Corpus Christi, Texas. The actor and singer Selena Gomez, who was named after her, has talked about the emotional connection she feels to her namesake and celebrities from Khloé Kardashian to Demi Lovato have spoken of their love.

Selena’s stage style, largely consisting of sparkly jumpsuits, bejewelled caps and brassieres and, of course, that bright red lipstick, is regularly recreated by fervent fans. The rapper Cardi B described herself as the “trap Selena” on the 2018 song Motor Sport explaining: “She’s an alter ego everybody would want to be and I want the world to know how much I love her.”

Wendy Rojas, a Chicago-based Spanish teacher, agrees. “I loved her music, but what meant more to me was that a girl who looked just like me could be such a superstar, especially in the US,” she says. “I was five when I first heard her music, but even at that young age I’d realised that to be white and American was more beautiful than brown and Mexican. Selena changed that. She gave me hope. When she died it was like losing a family member.”

The sense that Selena’s death was more than just a terrible tragedy rings particularly true to anyone who spent time in Texas after her murder.

My first job in journalism, aged 23, was as a junior sports reporter at the Houston Chronicle. It was the year after she was killed, and the city still felt as though it was in mourning. My closest friends were Mexican-American, and they spoke of Selena like a beloved sibling.

Selena shows that the Latinx community in the US is a force to be reckoned with

Luis Miguel Ramírez, singer

I can remember bars covered with pictures of her, T-shirts printedwith her image that my friends wore, and a memorable night at a Tejano club where candles and pictures of saints lined the room and the only music played was Selena’s. Bouncy and accessible, it felt like the soundtrack to a thousand nights getting ready with your closest friends. But her appeal had spread far across the US.

“What people forget is that a female Tejano singer was still very unusual in the 1990s,” says Esmeralda Cordea, an office manager in Brooklyn. “It was still a predominantly male industry and here was this singer who looked like us, spoke like us and was making such an impact. She had a strict upbringing, which was so relatable, and made music that crossed the generations – my mum and I used to dance together in the kitchen to her songs. When she died it felt a bit like our dreams had died with her.”

There was another reason too why Selena spoke to young Mexican-Americans from Texas in particular. Like many of them she had not learnt Spanish as a child, instead speaking a mixture of Spanish and English slang known as Spanglish. She would later embrace her heritage and the internet is full of clips of her tentatively trying out phrases. “I didn’t have the opportunity to learn Spanish when I was a girl, but … it’s never too late to get in touch with your roots,” she told an interviewer in Mexico in 1994.

That struggle when you flip between two languages and cultures, accused of belonging to neither, is one many Latinx people in America identify with: last year the politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Twitter admission that she was struggling to stay fluent in Spanish attracted many supportive comments.

Young mourners outside Selena’s home in Texas the day after her death in April 1995.
Young mourners outside Selena’s home in Texas the day after her death in April 1995. Photograph: David J Phillip/AP

“Selena is one of the reasons that I decided to refine my Spanish and become a teacher,” says Ramírez about his day job. “I use her example to teach my students that it’s OK to learn about their roots and language later in life, even if it’s not spoken at home.”

Nor is it any surprise, he says, that the beleaguered Latinx community, largely ignored by both major US political parties until they need votes, has found in Selena an image to celebrate. “When our soon-to-be-ex-commander-in-chief labels us rapists and criminals then a figure such as Selena allows us to find self-love. She shows people that the Latinx community in the US is a force to be reckoned with and we are here to stay.”

A similar thinking drove the Selena for Sanctuary concerts, which came about because Muñoz wished to respond to the Trump administration’s toxic immigration policies including the separating of families, placing of children in cages and increasing raids by ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] on those they suspect of being undocumented. “In the spring of 2017 we were adjusting to the new administration and all the fearful rhetoric that was used to attack the Sanctuary title of our city,” Muñoz explains. “The first concerts were in Los Angeles [and set up] to raise funds for my parents [who were undocumented] and full of friends but we got so much support that that we were able to help non-profit immigrant rights organisations from coast to coast.”

The decision to use the not-particularly-political Selena as the figurehead came about, because “Selena is a universal language of joy. Her crossover success opened a lane for our community to thrive in…She allowed us to accept ourselves for who we are, [the fact that we are] from neither here nor there.”

Mariel Guerrieri Valinotti, a Bronx-based dental hygienist, agrees: “She’s still a symbol of pride for Mexicans in the US, not only for her success but because her life was taken in a very … unfair way,” she said. “People are still mad about it, the same way they are mad at immigration laws.”

It is also the case that in death Selena has become an image on to which ideas can be projected. To Rojas she is a symbol of “empowermen” who shows young Latinx women that they too can become stars; to Ramírez she has become “a symbol for Latinx identity within the US … having taught us that rather than assimilating to European ideals of beauty we can bring our culture to mainstream America and it can be loved and accepted.”

Ultimately, however, her continued appeal comes down to one thing: that hummable, joy-filled music: “After 10 years of playing in and around Texas I can say with confidence that nothing moves a crowd better than Selena’s music,” says Ramírez.