Twenty years ago, Latin music lost a legend. On March 31, 1995, in what has become music folklore, singer Selena Quintanilla Perez — known simply by her first name — was shot and killed by the former president of her fan club (now serving a life sentence) at the age of 23, two weeks before her birthday. During her short life, Selena made history, pushing the Texas-based folk music known as Tejano to mainstream heights it had never seen before — or since. She landed five No. 1 singles on Billboard‘s Hot Latin Tracks chart and, most impressively, a Billboard 200 No. 1 with her fifth and final studio LP, Dreaming of You — a first for a Latin female act. Her light still hasn’t dimmed: Six posthumous Selena releases have gone to No. 1 on the Top Latin Albums chart since her death, the most recent in 2012. And this year, on April 17 and 18, two days after her birthday, Selena’s family is throwing the inaugural Fiesta de la Flor in her hometown, Corpus Christi, Texas, where she died, to celebrate her legacy and music with a festival featuring performances from Los Lobos and other Tejano stars as well as a screening of Selena, the 1997 biopic starring Jennifer Lopez in her breakout role. In a remarkable case of life imitating art, Lopez went on to become the only other Latin female star to top the Billboard 200. Eighteen years after her portrayal of the singer made her a household name, Lopez, 45, spoke with Billboard about the young legend who, she says, moved “the world in a different way.”
Why do you think Selena is still so beloved 20 years after her death?
The grace with which she handled the business, the grace with which she handled her life, the humor. Her spirit of loving what she did. Her sense of family. That’s the tragedy of everything that happened and why she left such an imprint — because she was gone way too soon.
What sort of grace do you mean?
The fact that she was so young and doing all of these things that people go through that maybe she wasn’t ready for. The clothing line she was starting, getting married so young, things like that. I felt she had a sense to live in the moment, that you’re not promised tomorrow. For me that was the biggest lesson. That affected me in my life far more profoundly than the movie did in career terms.
Was there a moment during filming that really drove this lesson home for you?
Right after I got the part, I knew I would be traveling to Corpus Christi and spending time with her family, but that wasn’t going to be for a few weeks, so they sent me tons of tapes to watch. I sat on my couch watching them for days and all of a sudden, the tape cut off on me. I was shocked. And I thought to myself, “That’s what happened.” This amazing, beautiful spirit, full of joy and music and so much feeling, was just cut off in the middle of being. It affected me so much and made me realize the importance of what I was doing.
The film includes a big concert that was staged at the Houston Astrodome. What was that like?
It was a real concert; 30,000 to 40,000 people showed up, just for her, for that scene, to re-create it. Afterward, her mom came and hugged me and held me and cried. It was very emotional. It touched the family very much. For me as an actress, at that moment I had learned how to really become a performer and give everything I had to the audience. That really freed me up, and it was a very powerful moment.
Is that what inspired you to launch your music career?
It had a lot to do with it — all those performances. I sang in musicals before, but as part of a cast, never as a solo artist upfront or a recording artist. It made me realize, “Don’t neglect parts of yourself and let people put you in a box because you’re an actress. You can do this, and you can also do that. Life is short, and you don’t know what’s going to happen. Go for your dreams and don’t let anyone hold you back.”
Does it bother you that two decades after Selena’s death, only a few Latin stars — you being one of them — have reached that same level of mainstream stardom?
It has always bugged me that people would try to think that there’s a “next Selena.” It’s like saying there’s another James Dean or Marilyn Monroe. People like that don’t come along every day. There is never going to be another Selena. And as far as music goes, that’s what’s beautiful about artistry. Somebody is going to come along and move the world in a different way. There was Celia Cruz, there’s Gloria Estefan. I’m still around. Marc Anthony is an iconic Latin artist, Ricky Martin. But it’s not something that happens all the time. It’s a special thing that Selena had. That’s why we’re still talking about her 20 years later.
This story originally appeared in the April 4, 20015 issue of Billboard.