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25th Anniversary Issue

Current 25: My own private Selena: Top-selling Latin artist of the '90s isn't done yet


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“Have you heard of Selena Quintanilla?” my editor at the Los Angeles Times, Bob Hilburn, asked me on the morning of March 31, 1995.

“You mean Selena?” I said. He nodded, before giving me the news: She had been murdered by Yolanda Saldívar, the president of her fan club.

You know the rest of the story: the whole Latin world was shocked, everyone felt the aftershock, the murderer was jailed for life, and yet Selena still lives.

She lives in the memory of countless little girls who weren’t even alive in the ’90s but who nevertheless want to look like her. She lives in books and a major movie, she lives in her music, and in the memories of those who saw her perform live. She was beautiful but not intimidating, larger than life but accessible; her band’s music was basically bland Tejano cumbia-flavored commercial pop, but her voice and especially her timing and stage presence brought the best out of her band and turned the whole thing into a powerhouse. And that smile … as genuine as herself. Even before her death, her truly humble, friendly nature was notorious among those in the industry who had a chance to meet her.

I only spoke to her once, under unusual circumstances. She called me on a Saturday while I was at a party in Los Angeles to talk about her upcoming show at L.A.’s Universal Amphitheatre (now Gibson Amphitheatre). But she felt so bad for “bothering” me and spent the whole conversation apologizing. I kept telling her it was OK, but she kept telling me, in the sweetest voice, to give her a call on Sunday, and gave me all her numbers, including her cell. She didn’t sound like a woman about to fill a 6,000-seat amphitheatre; she was an egoless, sweet, smart, and talented girl from South Texas.

For whatever reason, we never talked again, but I did see her show, and was blown away by her charm and joy. The movie Selena (1997), which turned Jennifer López into a superstar, was partly filmed in San Antonio, a city Selena knew well. “San Antonio was very special for us,” Abraham Quintanilla, Selena’s father, told me last week. “She had a lot of fans there, and it was there that she saw Laura Canales the first time we went there.”

Canales, who passed away in 2005, was the undisputed queen of Tejano when the 10-year-old Selena opened for her in Market Square in 1981.

“Selena was so thrilled,” Quintanilla said. “‘Oh, Dad, I’m so excited!’ she’d say. ‘I’m going to play with Laura!’ Laura had arrived in a white limo, and for the rest of her life, whenever Selena saw a white limo she would say, ‘There’s Laura.’ She never forgot her.” Little did anyone know that that 10-year-old girl would only a few years later receive Canales’ crown.

Selena exploded onto the national scene in the early ’90s. The look-alike contests began immediately and continue to this day. The most recent winner is 19-year-old Ilyssa Sáenz of Hebbronville. She won the 2010 Telefutura Buscando a la Doble de Selena (Looking for Selena’s double), the $10,000 prize, and was seen by more than two million viewers. The show broke network records, another testament of Selena’s enduring power, and Sáenz is already recording her first album under the production of Quintanilla.

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