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“For Latin music enthusiasts, the most apt comparison was with the death of John Lennon,” wrote Bill Hewitt at People Magazine.
On March 31, 1995, the president of the fan club famous singer, Selena Quintanilla-Perez, shot her. She was only 23, and an absolute legend as a pop icon.
According to Bill Hewitt, Selena was “the reigning queen of Tex-Mex music,” and her death caused “an almost inexpressible grief” among many of her fans. All over North America, she had mourners, and at one point, there was a rumor that she was still alive and her coffin was empty. However, her family opened the coffin to confirm that she was dead.
On March 31, Selena had gone to a room at the Days Inn motel in Corpus Christi to confront her fan club president, Yolanda Saldívar. Saldívar was suspected of embezzling funds from the family, and Saldívar was aware that Selena and the Quintanilla family knew.
According to Susan Candiotti at CNN, Saldivar was a registered nurse in Texas before she killed Selena. After she saw Selena at a concert, she wanted to run her fan club. The Quintanilla family was taken aback by her enthusiasm and agreed after rejecting numerous other offers.
Authorities said that Saldivar killed Selena after Selena arrived at the motel, once in the back with a .38 caliber revolver. Then, Selena staggered into the motel lobby and was later rushed to the hospital.
Saldivar was confronted in a parking lot by authorities but threatened suicide for nearly 10 hours while she sat in a pickup truck. She expressed significant remorse before police convinced her to get out of the truck. She was then arrested.
Hewitt notes that Selena was “the undisputed superstar of Tejano music,” and played at concerts with up to 80,000 people. In 1994, Selena won a Grammy for best Mexican-American album. Often, Selena would be labeled, according to Biography, the “Mexican Madonna” due to her dance moves and sexy outfits.
Some of Selena’s best known albums include Amor Prohibido and Selena Live. After Selena died, her last album, Dreaming of You was released posthumously.
Selena has been popularized the recent Netflix show, Selena: The Series. This is the story of Selena, the Queen of Tejano music, and a rising star who died too soon, and Saldivar, the obsessed fan who killed her.
Who was Selena?
Selena Quintanilla was born on April 16, 1971, in Lake Jackson, Texas, a city close to Houston. Her father’s name was Abraham Quintanilla Jr., and her mother’s name was Marcella Ofelia Quintanilla. Quintanilla was a musician who was a member of “Los Dinos” when he was younger. When Selena grew up, her father managed their group, Selena y Los Dinos, and according to biographer Joe Nick Patoski, Selena had both Mexican and Cherokee ancestry, and she was raised a Jehovah’s Witness, like the rest of her family.
Selena grew up mainly speaking English, but her father taught her to sing in Spanish to have music that resonated with the Latino community. He originally found out she could sing while he was teaching his son, A.B. Quintanilla, how to play the guitar. She eventually learned how to speak Spanish fluently, and became the lead singer of her family band as early as 10 years old.
According to Hewitt, Quintanilla then started a band with his three children, with A.B. on the bass, his daughter Suzette on drumms, and Selena as a singer. He opened a Tex-Mex restaurant in their home of Lake Jackson, but the restaurant went out of business a year after it opened during the Texas oil bust.
This pushed the family into poverty. They lost their home and many of their possessions. They were forced to declare bankruptcy. Quintanilla started seeing music as the only way out of poverty, so the band started touring all over South Texas and playing a variety of events.
“If we got 10 people in one place, that was great…We ate a lot of hamburgers and shared everything,” Selena said.
During gigs, the family’s only luxury was a foldout bed in the back of the car. Eventually, the family settled down in Corpus Christi, Texas, a coastal city in South Texas. According to Rick Mitchell at The Houston Chronicle, Selena spent almost every day after school rehearsing with her family band. In junior high school, she had to miss Monday and Friday classes because the band was traveling so frequently. She dropped out a few months after enrolling in junior high.
Maria Celeste Arraras writes that one teacher, Marilyn Greer, threatened to report Selena’s father to the Texas Board of Education since the conditions she was exposed to were inappropriate for school her age. Other teachers were worried about how tired Selena looked every day when she came to school. Quintanilla told Greer to “mind her own business.”
Some family members disapproved of Selena being pushed into music too. Quintanilla’s brother and father told him:
“You’re going to ruin your kids. They’ll be surrounded by drinking and drugs. It’s going to have an effect on them.”
However, Selena would earn a diploma from the American School of Correspondence in Chicago, at the age of 17, and then went to Pacific Western University to study business administration.
While Selena and her father’s group was touring, they used an old bus named “Big Bertha,” which was used as the family tour bus. At the beginning, the family could barely pay for food and gasoline, but eventually, Selena recorded her first LP record. Selena said she lost a lot of her teenage years due to traveling so much and not going to school, but she also became significantly more mature.
The band slowly and steadily became more successful, and they started to go to ballrooms and make albums. In 1987, Selena won the Tejano Music Awards for female vocalist and performer of the year. The band venturing into Tejano music was a major risk — it was a male-dominated industry, according to San Guadalupe Miguel in Tejano Proud: Tex-Mex Music in the Twentieth Century.
Despite their success, the irony, according to Hewitt, was that Selena could barely speak Spanish. She had to learn the lyrics phonetically with lyrics written by A.J. She didn’t start learning Spanish through lessons in the early 1990s. Her father pushed her into learning Spanish to be on Spanish language radio and interviews, and more than anything, she had a “Texas twang” accent, according to Hewitt.
Selena’s stage presence started to become increasingly dependent on her sexuality, which her father didn’t like to see. Quintanilla was a Jehovah’s Witness, and, in the words of Hewitt, he “didn’t like seeing his daughter dancing on stage in heavy makeup and bare-midriff costumes,” but Selena asserted her independence.
Selena started a relationship with Chris Perez in 1989, the guitarist of “Selena y Los Dinos,” and the two of them kept the relationship secret. According to Perez, they expressed their feelings for each other at a Pizza Hut. But both were very worried that Selena’s father would try to break up their relationship. Quintanilla eventually found out himself after catching them flirting on the bus.
In 1992, Perez and Selena got married, and Selena felt like her father would have to accept the relationship if she got married. She hoped they wouldn’t have to hide their feelings from each other. They moved into an apartment together after Quintanilla didn’t take the news well. In his words, he didn’t approve of the relationship because he didn’t know Perez very well.
“What if he was a macho type, a machista, because there have been incidents, like they get married and say, ‘Well, you’re not going to sing no more.’ And all the work, all the sacrifices that we’ve done, will go down the tube,” he said.
According to Hewitt, Quintanilla wanted to hush the relationship because he was scared it might “undermine her youthful image,” but her popularity spiked instead. She was not only a talented musician but resonated more with ordinary people. The family kept living in Corpus Christi with three adjoining houses, and they lived like ordinary people with the only exception being the red Porsche Carrera Selena drove in the driveway.
A month before Selena died, she performed at the Astrodome in Houston to a crowd of 60,000 people. She was nominated for a Grammy for best Mexican-American performance for Amor Prohibido. The year before, she won the Best Mexican-American Album Grammy for Selena Live! Right before she died, she was working on an English-language album that she started recording in Tennessee.
Saldivar and Selena first met in 1991. Saldivar approached Selena wanting to make a fan club for her. Usually, the family would reject other people’s intentions to create a fan club since they wanted to publicize the band and Selena themselves. However, what differentiated Saldivar was her intense enthusiasm for Selena.
Saldivar was a registered nurse who worked at two hospitals in the San Antonio area. She was never married and had no children, but she took care of her brother’s three kids after he abandoned them. She was singularly devoted to helping Selena, and Selena raved about the job she was doing.
“She’s doing exceptionally well…Fan clubs can ruin you if people get upset and turned off by them. But she’s doing really good,” Selena said.
Selena rewarded Saldivar with gifts, including an $800 rug with a cow on it. She also bought her a cow phone, since Saldivar was very passionate about cows. Saldivar was also almost fanatical about Selena, with her home being a shrine to Selena that included a cardboard cut-out of her.
The two of them became very good friends, and eight months before Selena’s death, she put Saldivar in charge of a new business Selena was starting — Selena Etc. The business was a line of Selena’s signature fashion and jewelry. It would also have salons for hairstyling and manicures. Saldivar controlled the business checking accounts, and would be so close with Selena she had a key to the home Selena shared with Perez.
Behind the scenes, Saldivar would have issues with other employees. One employee Hewitt interviewed, Martin Gomez, called her mean and manipulative. He eventually quit in exasperation since she was possessive of Selena, and her possessiveness scared her.
Other people started to see red flags in the possessive attachment. First, the shrine of Selena in her home was a bit alarming, and Saldivar would get intensely angry if she was crossed. Martin said:
“She’d get, like, very angry if you crossed her. She would play so many mind games, say people had said things they hadn’t said,” he explained. “So many things would happen to the clothing I was working on. I knew that I had finished a certain piece, but I would come back from a trip to New York and the hems would be ripped out. It was very strange.”
According to Sue Anne Pressley at the Washington Post, other employees suspected Saldivar had questionable accounting practices. She bought “tons of clothes” according to Gomez, and she would use several rental cars and cell phones. At some point, many fashion models weren’t being paid for their work.
Gomez quit his job. Right before he quit, he told Selena to be very careful of Saldivar, saying he was afraid of her. Privately, he thought she was capable of hurting Selena.
According to Biography, people started to reach out to Quintanilla about receiving nothing from the fan club after paying dues. After he looked into it, he became convinced Saldivar was embezzling money. Quintanilla, Selena, and Suzette accused Saldivar of stealing the money on March 9, 1995. Quintanilla fired her, but Selena kept in contact with her since Saldivar still had several financial documents. Prosecutors would later allege that Saldivar embezzled $30,000.
Saldivar stalled. She told Selena she was sexually assaulted in Mexico on the day Saldivar returned to Texas — March 30, 1995. When Selena took Saldivar to the hospital on March 31, the medical staff found no evidence of sexual assault.
Adam Janos at A&E Television notes that the two of them returned to a hotel, the Days Inn, where Saldivar gave Selena the financial documents after Selena insisted. As Selena turned her back and exited the hotel room, Saldivar shot and killed her with a revolver. The bullet went into Selena’s back and came out through her upper-right chest.
During the trial, Saldivar said the gun accidentally went off.
However, according to many eyewitnesses, Saldivar came out of the room right after shooting Selena, with a gun in her hand, and pointed to Selena. Michael Graczyk at the Associated Press notes that Trinidad Espinoza, a witness, said Saldivar chased a screaming Selena through the courtyard. Other witnesses, including two housekeepers, saw Saldivar chasing Selena with a gun, yelling “Bitch!”
Essentially, the shooting was not an accident. Selena, right before she died, told the hotel receptionist the name of her shooter before she collapsed, heavily bleeding. She was taken to the hospital where she was pronounced dead from blood loss and cardiac arrest.
Meanwhile, at the Days Inn, Saldivar would get into a standoff with police. She would lock herself in her car threatening to kill herself. Larry Rucker, the negotiator for the Corpus Christi Police Department, told Janos that he was on the phone with her for seven and a half hours, and Saldivar wanted to know what was going on with Selena and whether she was okay. Saldivar told Rucker that Selena was her best friend, and she would do anything for her.
The trial for Saldivar eventually had to be moved from Corpus Christi to Houston, Texas, since Selena was famous and very well-known in Corpus Christi. Saldivar would be charged with first-degree murder, and the jury would return a guilty verdict. Saldivar was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole in 30 years. She is now serving her sentence in a maximum-security women’s prison in Texas, eligible for parole in five years in 2025z
Selena would later be memorialized all across the country. First, her funeral in Corpus Christi drew tens of thousands of fans. According to Ross Milloy at the New York Times, 50 people per minute came to mourn her death at the Bayfront Plaza Convention Center in Corpus Christi, and the head of the police department said the casket would be viewed by 30,000 to 40,000 people. Tejano stations started to pay tribute to her, and other celebrities would call the Quintanilla family. Her death would be compared by multiple news stations to the deaths of John F. Kennedy, John Lennon, and Elvis Presley. It would be on the front page of the New York Times for two days, according to Patoski.
“I don’t know why it happened. We live in a crazy world, a dangerous world. Selena was a trusting person. She didn’t realize how popular she was. She didn’t realize there were people out there who would harm her,” Quintanilla said.
What we can take away from the death of Selena is that she was a life taken far too soon. And perhaps her father and others were right that she was too trusting — browsing YouTube comments of videos memorializing Selena, I found countless people wondering why Selena went to confront Saldivar all by herself. However, hindsight is always 20/20, and the family would have never let Selena confront Saldivar if they thought Saldivar was dangerous.
Even in death, however, Selena inspires countless people. According to Nancy Flores in the Austin American-Statesman, Selena succeeded as a woman against all odds in the male-dominated Tejano music industry. She was the first Latinx artist to have a mostly Spanish-language album debut at the top of the Billboard 200 charts. She was one of the most famous Spanish-language musicians in America ever, without having perfect Spanish and learning it later in her life.
But Selena was still just a human being, and Saldivar worshipped her like a God. Was that possessive devotion what led to her killing Selena? I don’t know. Since Selena’s death, however, there has been no hate spared for Saldivar. For a large segment of the population, she is construed as a monstrous villain. Inmates send letters to Quintanilla expressing desires to kill Saldivar and avenge Selena. Saldivar’s public notoriety is perhaps best evidenced by the fact that Natasha Perez, who plays Saldivar in the Netflix series, fears for her own safety:
“The actress in me is fascinated by the journey of a complex character, but the human in me has all sorts of feelings. The actress in me is also worried for her safety… A lot of people take this very seriously and think that it’s real, and in this case, the character is real, but it’s not me. I’m not her.”
At the end of the day, memorializing Selena without ill will towards Saldivar is possible. In a 2018 Univision interview, Quintanilla said he and the rest of the family don’t care if Saldivar is freed for parole, because “nothing will return my daughter back.”
Originally published on CrimeBeat on December 8, 2020.