What Would Selena Want?: As Netflix Series Begins, The Battle Over Her Estate Wages On

Twenty-five years after the Latina icon's death, the appetite for her story — now the subject of a new Netflix series — is as fresh as ever. So is the endlessly complex legal battle over who has the right to tell it.

Two months after the murder of Selena Quintanilla Perez, a Harvard-trained lawyer drove the 140 miles from San Antonio, Texas, to Corpus Christi, the blue-collar port city where Tejano’s brightest star had lived in a brick-veneer house with a chain-link fence next door to her parents. He had been summoned by Selena’s famously protective father, Abraham Quintanilla Jr., who wanted to ensure that his hold on his daughter’s career — a trajectory he’d been managing since she was in grade school — would continue after her shocking death.

To that end, Quintanilla had asked the lawyer to draft an “estate properties agreement” that preserved the family band’s profit-sharing arrangement and kept him in charge, endowed with “exclusive authority to exploit” Selena’s “name, voice, signature, photograph, and likeness” in perpetuity. Of the four signatures Quintanilla needed, three were a given: his wife and their two other musician children, Suzette and A.B. The only wild card was Selena’s widower, Chris Perez: the band’s quiet, ponytailed guitarist, who’d eloped with Selena a few years earlier to overcome her father’s objections to their romance.

Because Selena had left no will — she was only 23 — Perez potentially stood to inherit everything that was hers, including revenue from a trove of entertainment property such as No. 1 hits “Amor Prohibido” and “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom” that would prove more valuable in death than life. But unlike Quintanilla, who’d had the foresight even in his grief to retain a lawyer and begin planning Selena’s posthumous career, Perez says he was barely functional. He couldn’t eat. Sleeping in the king-size bed they’d shared was torture. He numbed the pain with drugs and drink. In an effort to “honor Selena’s memory” and to distribute her entertainment property in “a friendly and fair manner,” Quintanilla offered Perez a 25% share of the net profits — the same percentage Selena had received — in exchange for acknowledging his ownership of her music, image and life rights.

Where the document said “Attorney for Christopher G. Perez,” Perez signed and wrote “none.”

“When everything happened — I mean, in my mind, what it felt like is it was over for me,” Perez recalls. “I’m done. I have nothing. What am I going to do now?”

Twenty-five years later, that once-confidential 1995 agreement has become Exhibit A in a family drama over the right to bring the Grammy-winning Mexican-American singer’s story to the screen. When Netflix releases Selena: The Series on Dec. 4, it will be because the Quintanilla family blessed and executive-produced the show. “It’s a super incredible story of resilience, of never giving up, of being true to yourself, of loving your family and working with your family,” says Jaime Dávila, president of Campanario Entertainment, the series’ producer.

But Selena: The Series also exists, at least in part, because Quintanilla silenced Perez. Two years before Netflix greenlighted the series, Perez announced a deal of his own with Endemol Shine North America and Major TV to create a show based on his 2012 memoir, To Selena, with Love. “Chris has a treasure, a treasure chest of a story,” says Raymond Garcia, who founded Major TV after publishing Perez’s book at Celebra. “It’s a side of Selena that nobody other than him can tell.”

Within two weeks of Perez’s 2016 announcement, Abraham Quintanilla had dusted off that estate agreement and sued him in Nueces County, Texas, for “unauthorized exploitation” of Selena’s image. Through a lawyer, Quintanilla declined to comment for this story. But in court papers, he insisted that the lawsuit was necessary to “protect the value and integrity” of the estate and prevent Perez from “severely diluting and diminishing” Selena’s legacy. Though it never made the news, he also alleged that, over the 25-year period of their agreement, he had paid Perez at least $3 million in net profits — money that Perez “regularly accepted and retained.”

With the lawsuit hanging over his head, Perez watched his TV deal expire. Then, in a previously unreported counterclaim, he alleged that the 81-year-old patriarch had lured him into signing the agreement at the depth of his despair, “a time when Perez was most vulnerable and susceptible to Abraham’s deceit.” Perez maintains that the agreement is therefore void, that he should be free to chronicle his marriage to Selena however he chooses. But should the agreement be deemed valid, Perez has demanded an audit of Quintanilla’s finances, to ensure he has not been cheated out of his 25%.

With the Netflix premiere just days away, both sides continue to aggressively litigate their respective claims. Trial is scheduled for February 2021. “I just want to handle this in the best way that I can,” says Perez, now 51 and a divorced father of two. “And, along the way, remember what she would want me to do.”

From Elvis Presley to Buddy Holly, Aretha Franklin to Prince, battles over an artist’s afterlife are a fixture of the music business, the controversies often exacerbated by greed, sorrow and the decedent’s own resistance to preparing for the end. Strategically managing an estate after the rights have been sorted out is yet another challenge — one that requires a long-term plan for capturing the unique magic of that artist and finding authentic, credible vehicles for preserving and expanding on what captivated fans in the first place.

“Most people who approach this business don’t understand it,” says legacy management specialist Jeff Jampol, whose clients include the estates of Janis Joplin, The Doors and a host of other Rock & Roll Hall of Famers. “They’re just looking for ways to generate cash. All that does is further decay the legacy.”

In Selena’s case — as the single-name star of a family band (Suzette played drums, A.B. played bass and composed) founded by her dad, himself a frustrated musician — the Quintanillas faced immediate pressure to devise a plan for life without her.

As EMI Latin rushed to release Dreaming of You, the crossover album that would debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 (a first at the time for a Latin artist, for a posthumous album, and for one recorded mostly in Spanish) and go on to sell 3 million copies, according to Nielsen Music/MRC Data, her father fretted over the bootleggers swarming the streets of Corpus Christi. Two days after Selena’s March 31, 1995, death, according to local news accounts, Abraham Quintanilla was out for breakfast when he spotted a vendor and seized a box of cassettes from him. When he learned that a photo technician was selling Selena posters, Quintanilla stormed the store and confiscated the negative. He called the FBI for help. Within a month, he had sued dozens of merchandisers for trademark infringement.

“It just enrages me to know that these people are trying to get rich quick over my daughter’s death,” he told the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. “They’re vultures.”

Then came the writers. A veteran Texas newspaperman named Clint Richmond scored a contract for a quickie biography, Selena: The Phenomenal Life and Tragic Death of the Tejano Music Queen, which the family wanted no part of. Written in just nine days, it debuted at No. 1 on The New York Times’ paperback bestsellers list. Quintanilla groused that publisher Pocket Books was “trying to make money off of his daughter, you know, blah, blah,” says Richmond’s then-editor, Sue Carswell.

Quintanilla had already committed to a book project of his own, a collaboration with acclaimed Mexican-American storyteller Victor Villaseñor, best known for his family epic, Rain of Gold. Villaseñor embedded with the Quintanillas, answering their phones, communing with overcome fans and chronicling the public’s deep, even spiritual, bond with Selena. But when he shared an early draft — an account that portrayed Selena as a folk saint with healing powers — Quintanilla, a Jehovah’s Witness, erupted. “He said, ‘We don’t believe in saints or in angels or in miracles or any of that,’” Villaseñor tells Billboard. “Not only did he get upset with me, he brought in his lawyer and said if I write a book on them, they’re going to sue me.”

For the next 20 years, the manuscript sat on a shelf at Villaseñor’s ranch in Oceanside, Calif. — until he grew sick of staring at it and tossed it in the trash. “The father’s a very powerful, dramatic man who needs to be in total control,” grumbles Villaseñor.

The most definitive biography, Selena: Como la Flor, came from a Texas Monthly writer, Joe Nick Patoski, who had previously interviewed Selena and initially secured Quintanilla’s cooperation. But again, Quintanilla’s insistence on imposing ground rules led to a falling out, and when the book was published a year after her death, Quintanilla publicly denounced it, even barging into a Corpus Christi radio studio where Patoski was being interviewed and, as Patoski recalls today, grabbing the mic and calling him a “worm.”

“Keeping other people from telling their stories does not advance the legacy,” says Patoski, who has also written books about Willie Nelson and Stevie Ray Vaughan. “You want to elevate Selena’s star — why restrict it to only one version or one perspective? That’s not management of a legacy; it’s possessiveness.”

With his shoulder-length locks, heavy-metal roots and occasional beer-soaked antics, Chris Perez never quite resembled the kind of suitor Abraham Quintanilla considered worthy of his daughter’s affections. Selena may have been a vivacious, barrier-breaking performer in her spangled bustiers, inspiring a generation of young Latinas to embrace their roots while shooting for the stars, but she was still her father’s princess: wholesome and trusting, with a scandal-free image to maintain. Knowing he would never approve, the young couple tiptoed around, sharing sly glances and furtive brushes. When Quintanilla at last caught on, he kicked Perez out of the band, calling him a “cancer” on the family. And when Selena protested, as Perez has written, her father fired back: “Of course he loves you! You’re beautiful and you’re rich!”

Selena figured that the only way to win her father’s grudging approval was to marry. In 1992, two weeks before her 20th birthday, she and Perez snuck off to the Nueces County courthouse — the same venue where today the two men in her life remain locked in dueling lawsuits — and tied the knot before a justice of the peace.

After Selena’s death, Quintanilla asserted himself as the sole keeper of her flame. “Everybody copes with a tragedy like this in different ways,” he told the Associated Press in 1995. “I get involved with the business to take my mind off it.” He filed trademark applications, licensed a Selena doll (clad in her signature bell-bottom jumpsuit) and executive-produced Selena, the 1997 biopic that cemented Jennifer Lopez’s star power. Over the years, he would also sue (or threaten to sue) a long list of alleged infringers — from the mortuary that handled Selena’s funeral to an air freshener company to a skateboard designer to a slew of Etsy artisans — for unauthorized use of Selena’s name and image.

Some Selena fans have bemoaned those tactics as heavy-handed, but maintaining a brand’s value requires vigilance. As his attorneys explained in a 2020 lawsuit against a Houston craft brewery that had sponsored a Selena movie night and art fair, Quintanilla has “invested substantial time, energy, finances and entrepreneurial effort in developing and fostering the reputation and legacy of Selena.” They added that Quintanilla “maintains strict control” over these “valuable commercial assets,” rejecting offers to endorse products unless they are of acceptable quality and “compensation is commensurate with the exploitation and value thereof.”

Even Quintanilla’s nonprofit Selena Foundation (which funded the opening of the Selena Museum) drives a hard bargain. In 2015, it partnered with the Corpus Christi Convention & Visitors Bureau on an annual Selena festival, Fiesta de la Flor, that has generated millions of dollars for the local economy. To secure Quintanilla’s blessing, the bureau agreed to split the event’s profits, but after four years Quintanilla was unhappy to have received no more than $100,000 — so in 2019 the bureau guaranteed him $50,000 a year going forward. “Everybody is benefitting except the Selena Foundation,” the bureau’s CEO, Paulette Kluge, told a city audit committee, according to local news accounts. She added that Quintanilla had told her: “If we don’t get something for the Selena Foundation, there will not be another Fiesta de la Flor.”

Shortly after making those comments, Kluge resigned. Then, with the 2020 event on the horizon, the Selena Foundation pulled the plug on Fiesta de la Flor. (Instead, the family announced a Selena XXV tribute concert, headlined by Pitbull and Becky G, to be held at San Antonio’s Alamodome, though the pandemic soon forced its cancellation.)

While Quintanilla devoted himself to the family business, Perez sunk into a dark place. “I was kind of like a horse that had blinders on, you know what I mean?” he says. “I was afraid of what I was going to see. It was just going to be too painful. So I kept those blinders on.”

A versatile guitarist who still wields the white Fender Stratocaster that he played alongside Selena, Perez salved his wounds with music. His 1999 recording, Resurrection, won a Grammy for best Latin rock/alternative album. He left Corpus Christi, returning to his hometown of San Antonio, where he lived with his second wife until their divorce in 2008. But for years he avoided the spotlight, reluctant to intrude on Quintanilla’s endeavors or to have his own identity forever defined by Selena’s absence.

“He thought he was being selfless, sweeping everything under the rug,” says Garcia, his publisher. After Garcia encouraged Perez to open up and take ownership of the defining experience of his life, the effect was cathartic. “I think when he saw everybody’s response,” adds Garcia, “he realized it was actually more selfish for him to hold back the story.”

Even Quintanilla went along with it at first. “When I went to talk to him, out of respect, to tell him I’m going to write this book, he didn’t say anything negative,” recalls Perez, who had not even considered that the estate agreement might present an obstacle. “He didn’t say, ‘Well, you know, you don’t have the right to whatever.’ He was cool.” Selena’s siblings also endorsed it. During a YouTube chat in 2012, Suzette said, “I think it’s great that Chris is able to share a little bit of his thoughts with everybody,” and at Billboard’s 2012 Latin Music Awards, A.B. added, “You know, it’s something that he needed to do. He has every right to do it.”

It was not until Perez signed a TV deal four years later, announcing on Facebook that he was “ready to take the important step of being fully transparent and bringing my everlasting relationship to life on the screen,” that Quintanilla drew a line. That same day, family attorney Simran Singh emailed Perez’s backers at Endemol Shine, demanding they cease and desist their “unauthorized production” of any commercial project based on his book. In December 2016, Quintanilla sued.

Referring back to that old estate agreement, he alleged that Perez had breached a legally binding contract, one that forbade him from doing the exact thing he was now attempting. Quintanilla also claimed that Perez’s announcement had sabotaged a plan then underway for a scripted TV series “inspired by the life of Selena” — a deal purportedly worth as much as $6 million to the estate. As Quintanilla saw it, Perez was acting like an ingrate, taking from the family’s efforts but then going off and striking his own deal without offering anything in return. As proof that Perez had benefited from their arrangement, Quintanilla produced tax documents showing that he paid him $524,050 over a 10-year period, from a high of $167,350 in 2016 to a low of $15,400 in 2010, payments Perez “never questioned why he was receiving.” He even dragged Perez’s ex-wife into the litigation, seeking her testimony that Perez wanted to keep the payments for himself during their split.

“The monies Chris Perez has received, retained and continues to receive in connection with the Estate Properties Agreement are comprised of profits derived from my commercial administration and exploitation of the Entertainment Properties,” Quintanilla asserted in court papers. (Endemol Shine was ultimately dismissed as a party to the suit.)

No matter what he had signed, Perez didn’t think that Quintanilla had any right to dictate what he could and could not say about his own life and marriage, much less the medium in which he chose to say it. After all, Quintanilla couldn’t stop Telemundo from airing a scripted 2019 series based on the Maria Celeste Arrarás book, El Secreto de Selena (“Selena’s Secret”), despite his public lambasting of Arrarás as a “bloodsucker...profiting from my daughter Selena’s name, image and music.”

But if he was bound by the agreement, Perez wanted proof that Quintanilla was living up to his end of the bargain. If he had indeed been paid as much as $3 million since 1995, that meant Selena’s estate had earned no more than $12 million in net profits over a quarter-century — despite six posthumous No. 1s on the Top Latin Albums chart, a Forever 21 deal, a couple of MAC collaborations, a Selena debit card (“The Impossible…Is Possible with the Selena Visa Prepaid Card”), a biopic that grossed $35 million and an array of other merchandising and licensing deals.

(Speaking of that biopic: In a separate lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court just weeks ago, Selena producer Moctesuma Esparza has alleged that Quintanilla assigned him a stake in Selena’s life rights in 1995 when they first partnered on the movie; he describes Selena: The Series as a “misappropriation” of his interest and seeks millions in damages from Quintanilla, his daughter Suzette, their lawyer, Netflix and others.)

“Net” is a notoriously elastic term, of course, and the estate agreement defines it to permit Quintanilla to deduct anything from travel and advertising to employee salaries and a reasonable profit for production, plus anything else “ordinarily deducted from Gross Receipts.” To untangle it all, Perez has retained a “certified fraud examiner” and demanded that Quintanilla hand over his books, bank statements and any other materials reflecting the estate’s finances — a Pandora’s box of sensitive documents that Quintanilla’s lawyers have fought to keep shut. Perez has even requested copies of the family’s contract with Netflix and their communications with Campanario Entertainment.

“I would like to think of myself as, like, pretty mellow, you know? Just chill,” says Perez. “But the one thing that I can’t stand is when I feel like I’m being bullied.”

The sad truth is that money — access to it, oversight of it — is what also set the stage for Selena’s death. While she was alive, her father managed her career with a tight fist, paying her a “net profits interest,” according to court records, equal to that of her brother and sister; the Queen of Tejano might as well have been an employee of her dad.

In an exercise of independence, Selena invested in a pair of boutiques (one in Corpus Christi, another in San Antonio) showcasing her fashion sense and DIY creativity. It was her true passion, an enterprise that she alone controlled, but running two businesses also stretched her thin. She needed a confidante to help with the upkeep, and she made a fateful choice, putting her trust in the founder of her fan club, a frumpy former nurse named Yolanda Saldivar. Although she was selling out arenas and setting attendance records, Selena lacked a cynical eye. She couldn’t see that Saldivar had her own scheme, but her father could. When he confronted Saldivar, accusing her of embezzlement and vowing to expose her, she went straight out and bought a .38-caliber revolver. Quintanilla had become a threat: to her grift, and to her obsession with the young woman a dozen years her junior whom she called “my daughter.”

Several weeks later, when Selena went to retrieve her financial records from Saldivar at a motel, Saldivar shot her once in the back. During a nine-hour standoff with police in the parking lot, a suicidal Saldivar blamed Quintanilla for coming between them. “Yolanda Saldivar hated Abraham Quintanilla,” the former Nueces County district attorney, Carlos Valdez, wrote in his 2005 book, Justice for Selena, which reconstructs the case that sentenced Saldivar to life in a Texas prison, where she remains today.

At the trial, Saldivar’s defense attorney sought to demonize Quintanilla, telling the jury he was a “very controlling parent” who “lived his life through” Selena and ended up “reaping tremendous financial rewards.” Her lawyer even sought, unsuccessfully, to obtain Quintanilla’s business records. “What does that have to do with her killing my daughter?” Quintanilla complained at the time to Entertainment Weekly.

It had nothing to do with the crime, but it did speak to Quintanilla’s command over Selena’s finances — and, now, to Perez’s quest to probe his accounting methods. The year before her death, Hispanic Business magazine reported that Selena had $5 million in gross annual earnings in 1993 and 1994, landing her at No. 18 on its list of the richest Latino entertainers. But when Quintanilla had to inventory his daughter’s wealth for a Texas probate court, Selena (and Perez) had just $326,000 in joint assets. Two years later, the IRS sued Quintanilla and his wife for fraudulently underreporting Selena’s profits by more than $1 million and inflating her expenses while she was alive. To settle the case, they paid $590,866 in back taxes and penalties.

“If I was to die right now, this business would go down to the ground,” Quintanilla told the San Antonio Express-News in 1995. “My family and Chris don’t understand the music business like I do.”

At the 1997 premiere of Selena, Chris Perez could barely watch. “I was sitting in the seat, and I was clenching my fists and gritting my teeth and looking down,” he remembers. “Trying to put myself mentally in a different place.”

It took him 20 years to finally open his eyes. In 2017, just as the litigation was getting underway, he announced on social media that he was finally ready to watch the movie for the first time. “I got to see it from the perspective of how awesome she was,” Perez says now. “Of having been able to share time with a person like that.” In a nod to one of the movie’s most beloved scenes, in which his character charms Selena by dousing his pizza in hot sauce, he recently launched Perez Pepper Sauce, available throughout Texas at some 200 H-E-B grocery stores.

He has now warmed to the idea of being Selena’s proxy, sharing his everlasting love for her at tributes and fan fests, even signing up to headline a Selena-themed 25th-anniversary cruise planned for earlier this year (it didn’t come to pass). Whether because of the Quintanilla family’s vigilance or in spite of it, her legacy has only magnified with time. From look-alike contests to college courses, a U.S. postage stamp to a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, Selena is more of an icon than ever — a role model, a style setter, a cultural beacon, an effervescent leading lady in a male-dominated genre whose shoes have never quite been filled.

“There’s never enough you can say about Selena,” says Selena: The Series producer Jaime Dávila. At the mention of Perez’s name, though, Dávila catches himself. “This is the family’s POV,” he says of Netflix’s production. “The family’s story.”

The first part of the nine-episode series (a second arrives in 2021) explores Selena’s coming-of-age years, as the Quintanillas struggle to break through on the rough-and-tumble South Texas circuit. It features Selena’s catalog of hits (like J.Lo before her, star Christian Serratos will lip-sync to the originals) along with ’80s and ’90s music from both sides of the border. “I hope people get to know this amazing family,” Dávila says. “At the end of the day, the Quintanillas are icons and heroes for our community. What they were able to build is incredible.”

Although Netflix initially announced that the “Quintanilla family has been fully involved in the project and will be executive producers,” Dávila clarifies that while “we’ve definitely talked to Abraham,” he’s not credited as an executive producer in the end. That title goes to (among others) Suzette and to family attorney Simran Singh — the same attorney whose Beverly Hills firm, Singh Singh & Trauben, has been litigating the case against Perez. (Both Suzette and Singh declined to comment.) “We worked very closely with them on all the scripts,” Dávila says. “It was a lot of trust-building, showing them that we were going to respect the story.”

Respect. If you ask Perez, that’s all he’s ever had for Selena, all he’s tried to show since she’s been gone. “I feel like I’m always taking the high road,” he sighs. He has a lot more to say, about the story he wanted to bring to life, about feeling shunted to the side, about how tiresome it is to have to prove himself to his former father-in-law all over again. But then he thinks of Selena — about wanting to make her proud — and decides to hold his peace.