Remembering Selena on the 20th Anniversary of 'Selena,' the Movie

Selena Quintanilla
Vinnie Zuffante/Getty Images

Selena Quintanilla in the press room at the 1994 Grammy Awards in New York City. 

On March 31, 1995, Selena Quintanilla Pérez left her home at 9 a.m. with plans to go to the recording studio to lay down vocals for a demo. Instead, at 11:49 am, Selena stumbled into the lobby of a Days Inn motel clutching her chest, a trail of blood behind her. “Help me, help me!” she shouted as she collapsed to the floor. “I’ve been shot.”

By 1 p.m., she was dead, just weeks shy of her 24th birthday.

Sudden, tragic death has the bittersweet effect of turning stars into icons and younger stars into legends. Selena was already well on her way to becoming both.

A charismatic performer who possessed a distinctive voice -- both husky and sweet -- and was intuitively aware of the requirements of stardom (she designed all her outfits, including those now-legendary bustiers, and choreographed all her dance moves), Selena had been able to push Tejano music into mainstream awareness. With only two years of a major recording contract under her belt, she’d placed five No. 1 singles on Billboard’s Hot Latin Tracks chart and a No. 1 debut album -- “Amor Prohibido” -- on Billboard’s Top Latin Albums chart.

Because she was a homegrown star, she was widely recognized both by Latin and non-Latin fans. In a world of telegenic, imported Latin pop stars, Selena was an anomaly; bilingual and bicultural, she not only looked like her fans, she was like them; Selena Gomez, in fact, born in 1992, has said she was named after Selena Quintanilla.

Selena was shot in the back by Yolanda Saldivar, president of her fan club, as she left a Days Inn Motel on March 31, 1995. While Saldivar is serving a life sentence, Selena’s legacy has remained very much alive.

In the two decades since, flowers and devotees have continued to flow into Corpus Christi and fans have continued to purchase her music with surprising regularity; six Selena albums have gone to No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Latin Albums chart since her death, the most recent in 2012. Two posthumous singles have made it to No. 1 on Hot Latin Songs.

On March 31, 1995, Selena was slated to record in English. The month before, she’d picked up her first Grammy award on national television, and her crossover album was almost done.

Dreaming of You wasn’t released until almost five months after her death, but it still debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 Chart, a first for Latin female act. Ironically, only Jennifer López would equal this feat, years later, after her role in the film “Selena” jump-started her singing career.

The film, which was released 20 years ago today, continues to air like clockwork on the anniversary of Quitanilla’s death.

“She had a sense of living in the moment, living in the present and following her heart,” Lopez tells Billboard on the anniversary of Quintanilla’s death.  “For me that was the biggest lesson [of playing her]."

Those close to Selena, beginning with her father and mentor, often speak of her God-given talent and natural charisma. This much is obvious from the earliest footage that documents her performances, when she was only eight years old.

From the beginning, Selena was telegenic. That may explain the abundance of visual material that accompanied her career.

Those first tapes, in black and white, show a little Mexican American girl with a shy, but already-brilliant smile, and awkward stage presence. Her voice isn’t particularly strong, but it’s steady and always on tune. From those tapes alone, you couldn’t pinpoint any one particular quality; it was the package as a whole what was engaging.

A mere five years later, the teenager playing the Johnny Canales show is a whole other matter. She is forceful and in control, a natural performer who glides easily onstage to a cumbia beat. Her demeanor is that of a seasoned professional.

The band that her father -- Abraham Quintanilla, Sr. -- had put together all those years ago, went on to become a touring group that picked up fans literally town by town, country fair by country fair.

It was called Los Dinos, and its members included Quintanilla siblings A.B. on bass and Suzette on drums. Later, Chris Pérez would join them on guitar, and the professional relationship would lead to romance and eventually, marriage with Selena.

But back then, it was the Quintanilla kids, on an endless bus that they thought would eventually take them to stardom. They were a humble family from Texas, and perhaps, because they were poor, and also, because music ran through Abraham Qintanilla’s veins, they figured there was nothing to lose.

“It’s the American dream, to take nothing and make it into something,” says A.B. Quintanilla, when asked about his sister’s enduring appeal. “The story applies to any angle in life. And the most important thing is the music, of course.”

In the beginning, the music was, for the most part, Tejano cumbias. Basic stuff, but catchy, infectious. A.B. Quintanilla, a man with a knack for penning winning hooks and choruses, wrote or co-wrote most of it. In addition to being the bassist for Los Dinos, he was also  the group’s (and later, Selena’s) producer, arranger and writer.

There are early video snippets of a very young Selena, sporting short, short hair, and already wearing eye-catching outfits. She sings her early hits -- songs like “Estoy Contigo” and “Sentimientos” -- with delightful enthusiasm.

Those were the songs that propelled her to win Tejano Music awards, one after another after another, and that finally brought her to the attention of EMI Latin. After catching the tail end of one of her Texas shows, then-president Jose Behar signed her on the spot.

People who met Selena had an intense, visceral reaction. Few Latin female acts today that have that effect, perhaps because acts of Selena’s stature are usually untouchable divas that don’t interact with their fans at a grassroots level. Selena was fond of literally touching the people who went to see her, of talking to them, of making them dance.

Death didn’t minimize Selena’s appeal, and over the years, her popularity has continued unabated, even though unlike other fallen stars, like Tupac, she left no catalog of unreleased material behind. Instead, myriad compilations have continued to populate the charts. This insatiable hunger for Selena’s voice, for her songs, has prompted endless searches for “the next Selena," in vain. 

“People like that don't come along every day,” said Jennifer Lopez.  “That's why we're still talking about her 20 years later.”