Selena: Latin Music Loses It’s Precious Princess
Dressed in a bright red jacket, her hair perfectly coifed, she tearfully, simply told the reporter, “She was like a child to me.” She dabbed her eye. The woman was seated in a rather plain room. The reporter listened intently, non-committal. The woman later mumbled, “God knows it was an accident.” The “accident” was the untimely, tragic death of Selena Quintanilla Perez. The woman talking was Yolanda Saldivar. The date was November 9, 1995 inside the Nueces County jail in Texas. Saldivar had been convicted just two weeks earlier for the murder of the talented Latin music sensation her fans around the world simply referred to as Selena.
Selena’s father, Abraham Quintanilla, would always feel a tinge of guilt. He had guided Selena into the world of music, into the world of celebrity, from a very early age. He had rehearsed her to a professional level, molded her performance on stage, and taught her how to be gracious with her fans. He had ruled over every aspect of her brief life with a caring, yet stern, hand. He had also felt slightly responsible for allowing Yolanda Saldivar to remain in their comfortable world without definitively responding to the dangerous aberrations she was increasingly exhibiting as the years went by.
Abraham, himself, had been a musician. He was born and raised in the Corpus Christi area of Texas in the 1940s. The collaboration of musical styles, meshing Anglo-European dance hall songs with traditional Mexican music was common throughout the region. This mixture was rather plainly known as musica alegre (or happy music), a bouncy, joyful blend of sounds. It was also referred to as Tex-Mex. Corpus Christi was known as the ‘seed,’ the creative capital of Texas, music and otherwise, during this time. As the 1950s rolled in, local groups began to incorporate big band sounds, like those of Benny Goodman, into their Tex-Mex music, resulting in a more orchestral or “orcuestra” style. Abraham became enamored with the music scene as rock ‘n’ roll started to present its world-changing influence on their local environment.
South Texas’ first major star was Freddy Fender. He led the way for other Texas-Latin crooners like Sunny Ozuna and the Sunliners, Rene & Rene, and Flaco Jimenez to shine during the late 1950s. Abraham, in his late teens, joined a group called The Dinos (an Italian slang word for “the boys”), and they sang doo-wop at local clubs and dance halls. When he returned to the group after a two-year stint in the Army in the early ‘60s, Abraham found that the market had changed. Radio mavens no longer cared for hispanic-looking groups singing in English. There was no encouragement for this kind of “crossover” anymore. The Dinos started playing gigs, singing in Spanish, throughout the 1960s, but by 1969, facing recurring prejudice on the road, internal squabbles, and finally, audience indifference, Abraham left the Dinos. He settled with his wife Marcella and their two children, son A.B., and daughter Suzette, in Lake Jackson, Texas, a small community 55 miles south of Houston, and went to work for Dow Chemicals.
A woman sharing the maternity room with Marcella on Easter Sunday morning in 1971 had thought of a name for a boy and a girl, depending on which gender she was about to deliver. She gave birth to a boy. Marcella wound up using the female name the woman had thought of for her own baby girl that day, April 16th. Selena.
Abraham still pined for the music life, as he toiled in the industrial environment of Dow. He got A.B. a bass guitar and started teaching the boy to play. Selena would try to get her father’s attention by singing. Abraham later said, “I saw all the qualities in her at a very early age. She could dance and had charisma as a little girl, she had stage presence. I knew she would go places.” Abraham nurtured her nascent gift, and along with Suzette, he began shaping his children into a musical group, much like The Beach Boys’ dad, and the Jacksons’ dad had done before him.
By the summer of 1980, Abraham wanted to work for himself. He and a friend opened a Mexican restaurant, Papa Gayo’s, and everyone in the family labored to keep it afloat. Selena and her siblings would often sing for customers. One day, a local DJ, Primo Ledesma, heard her singing and recorded it on a portable tape recorder. When he played Selena’s tune on the radio the next day, the phone lines lit up with people curious about the new talent.
The restaurant foundered in one year’s time. Abraham, broke and practically living on the streets, moved the family to Corpus Christi and began pushing them as a full-fledged group, named after his previous one, Los Dinos. They recorded a few singles at a local studio and received a little airplay. While working at a truck leasing company and teaching Selena to sing in Spanish (she could hardly speak it), Abraham booked the kids, and their backing players, Rena Dearman on keyboards and her husband Rodney Pyeatt on guitar, into as many restaurants and ballrooms as he could.
In the 1980s, the local music, long since being referred to as Tejano, was becoming widely popular. Plain Tejano music consisted of traditional Mexican music, along with a blend of polka and country. An accordion was almost always a part of the mix. But by the 1980s, merengue, Colombian cumbia, Anglo rock, pop, and R&B were all being added in as flavor.
Los Dinos began recording with producer Freddie Martinez, who had recorded a 1970s smash hit himself (“Te Traigo Estas Flores) which had sold over 100,000 units. Rick Longoria, a studio engineer at the time, later told the Houston Chronicle that Selena was very professional when it came to recording her first album in 1983. “She’d be sitting there while the session was going on, doing little girl things. It was kind of hard to believe that she was the vocalist. But when she started to sing, it was no problem. I’ve done sessions with people twice her age where we’d be there doing things over and over because they couldn’t get it right.” The family continued to tour in a beat-up van all over Texas, many times scraping franks and beans out of a cold can for dinner, because there simply was no money.
Around 1985, Selena was turning 14, and with her captivating stage presence, it was natural that the group began calling themselves Selena y Los Dinos. Abraham’s incessant demands on them to rehearse and perform resulted in Selena having to leave the 8th grade and study the rest of her school years through correspondence courses. She earned her GED at age 17.
They managed to hook up with Manny Guerra and his record label to produce their next set of songs. Guerra was a Tejano heavyweight who had one of the best recording studios in Texas. With the hot-flame ranchera sound of “Dame un Beso” (Give Me a Kiss) and the country-sounding “One In a Million,” Selena was awarded the Female Entertainer of the Year honor in 1987 at the Tejano Music Awards. (She would subsequently win this honor for seven consecutive years up until the time of her death). By the late 1980s, Tejano music was starting to move out of the dance halls and oftentimes now packing arenas. Big groups like Mazz and La Mafia commanded huge ticket sales with their flashy, light-dazzling acts, and Selena y Los Dinos would sporadically get a chance to open for them.
When Selena turned 18 in 1989, the group signed with Capitol Records. Based on her captivating good looks and squeaky-clean image with her fans, Selena and her family also landed a lucrative sponsorship of their performances by the Coca-Cola Company. The first single of their new Capitol label album was “Contigo Quiero Estar” (I Want To Be With You), and it racked up more sales than they had ever experienced with their records they had released on tiny Texas labels. The follow-up album, “Ven Conmigo” (Come With Me), shot up to the top of the Billboard Mexican regional chart. The band was now going simply under the moniker of its biggest star, “Selena.”
Selena was becoming a grown woman. She had been sheltered by her father, Abraham, her whole life. Since the family grew up with Jehovah Witness beliefs, Selena had not been able to attend any school-sanctioned parties in her early adolescence. She couldn’t be alone with any boys, and if she were asked to dance, the boy would always need to obtain Abraham’s permission. On the road, well into her late teens, Selena slept in her Dad’s motel rooms, while her brother and sister were allowed to have rooms of their own. She once turned down a role in a Mexican soap opera because one scene called for a steamy kiss. Needless to say, Selena was feeling stifled. Sensing the changing moods of the country and her own female identity, she began dressing in tighter fitting clothes. When she posed for the cover shots of her next album for Capitol, “Entre A Mi Mundo” (Come into my world),” she wore a black leather jacket, black stretch pants and a mesh top. Abraham got so choked up, finally realizing she wasn’t a little girl anymore, he had to leave the studio.
Guitarist Chris Perez had known Selena and her family since 1988, and when they needed to replace a member in 1990, Chris joined the fold. Selena developed a crush on him while the band toured. After a year and a half, Chris began to respond. When they were caught innocently smooching on the bus by Abraham, Chris was fired. On April 2, 1992, Selena told her folks that she was going out shopping. She instead went to a local courthouse with Chris and got married. Abraham allowed Chris back into the band, but the newlyweds were not to mention their marriage to the press.
Around Christmas of 1993, Selena sat for an interview with Joseph Harmes of Mas Magazine. Amongst the topics of conversation, she mentioned her fan club and the person who ran it for her. “The president is doing exceptionally well. And it’s so funny how we met her, because there’s this girl that kept on telling her, ‘You’ve got to go see this group, you’ve got to go see this group. They’re great.’ And she said, ‘No, no, no.’ Anyway, she ended up going and she liked the group to the point where she was overwhelmed. She was moved. And she said, ‘Hey, you know, I want to do something for these guys.’ She approached my father and said that she wanted to open a fan club. And we have had a lot of people approach. Fan clubs can ruin you if you don’t have people who take care of it….you know, people can get upset and they’ll get turned off. So to this day, they have collected, just in the San Antonio area, over 1500 members, which is good. They are the largest fan club in San Antonio. And this is not including members from Washington and California. So she’s doing good.”
“She” was Yolanda Saldivar. In late 1991, this 31-year old former nurse from San Antonio, who had avidly followed the Tejano scene, approached Suzette first, who then introduced her to Abraham. Yolanda was hired and began mailing out T-shirts and newsletters, collected dues from members, and notified radio stations of upcoming Selena appearances. Selena and Yolanda became close buddies. Selena did not have many friends because she was constantly constrained by business matters, and Yolanda didn’t seem to have many friends, period. They felt a bond in their isolation.
By the end of 1993, Selena was a huge draw amongst the Tejano scene. Capitol was positioning her to “crossover” to the English language market, and signed a deal with their ancillary company SBK Records for Selena to find time in the next year to try to record a strictly English-singing album. Her stage act was extremely professional, her handling of the Spanish language was increasingly polished, and the level of songwriting, mostly by A.B., resulted in the release of more and more hits. As Selena began 1994, the international markets seemed to truly open its arms to her, and by the end of that year, the band grossed more than 5 million dollars in sales and concert appearances.
Her old keyboardist friend, Rena Dearman, said that, although Selena became a very big star, “She never got haughty with us. She never changed. She was as fun-loving back then as she would be later.” In March 1994, Selena won a Grammy for Best Mexican-American Album (for her next Capitol release “Selena Live”). She also swept the Tejano Music Awards in every major category. For her follow-up album, “Amor Prohibido” (Forbidden Love), she broadened her sound, incorporating Caribbean beats, bolero, rock, and a smattering of dance into the Tejano backbeat. The album jumped between the number one and two spots on the Billboard Latin top 50 album chart for almost a year. The album also spawned four number one hit singles on the Latin chart that year.
Selena, in the meantime, wanted to branch out. She had been in the musical spotlight most of her life. Throughout all those years on the tour bus, she dabbled in designing fashions, for herself and for the band. She told journalist Mary Budge in 1994, “I probably would have been a designer if I hadn’t gone into entertaining. I’ve always loved fashion.” Her dream came true after she met San Antonio designer Martin Gomez. With his design savvy, she opened her own boutique and salon in Corpus Christi on January 27, 1994 called Selena, Etc. She turned to the one person who adored her the most, outside of her family, Yolanda Saldivar, to manage the operation. The fan club had run fairly smoothly over the last three years under her watch, therefore, Abraham had no real qualms in Yolanda being brought on as heading up operations for Selena’s new venture. Others saw evidence of behavior in Yolanda that drew warning signals.
Albert Davila of KEDA-FM in San Antonio told author Joe Nick Patoski, “One of our employees went to (Yolanda’s) house to pick up some materials and freaked out because one room had an altar, candles, everything. It was a Selena shrine.” Yolanda was perceived by family friends and employees at the boutique as being extremely obsessive about Selena. She wanted to accompany her on the road, but Abraham saw no need for Yolanda to tag along, and most times, forbade her presence. When Selena flew to California in mid-1994 to film a scene for the movie “Don Juan de Marco” and record three songs, Yolanda made herself welcome to tag along to the production set to see the film’s stars Marlon Brando and Faye Dunaway.
Yolanda insinuated herself into a business venture that Selena was trying to initiate outside the auspices of her controlling father. Even though Selena opened a second boutique in San Antonio in September 1994, she felt that Mexico would be a great market to expand her line, and a country in which to open many stores. With Yolanda’s connections in the industrial town of Monterrey, Mexico, she felt that her line could be produced cheaply, yet professionally. Selena also met with Leonard Wong, a perfume “designer,” whom she contracted to come up with a scent specifically for a line of product she would start under her own name. Yolanda was a part of those dealings as well.
Meanwhile, the boutiques in Texas weren’t doing great business. The medical insurance for the stylists and clerks were suddenly cancelled in the fall of 1994. Yolanda, when confronted by the employees, brushed it off, saying she’d take care of it. Designer Gomez felt the bills weren’t being paid and that Yolanda was both skimming money off the books and destroying some of his fashion creations to cover up “sales.” She certainly seemed to have a very nice lifestyle. When notified of these discrepancies and her blunt nature, Selena chose not to approach or deal with Yolanda. She dismissively told one friend who was concerned about Yolanda, “She’s weird…don’t pay any attention to her.” Yolanda made a point to collect money from her store’s employees, pooling it together to buy a ring made out of miniature Faberge eggs which she presented to Selena as a “friendship” token.
Meanwhile, Selena continued to excel in her musical endeavors. In late 1994, she performed for over 60,000 adoring fans at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. In February 1995, her latest album, “Amor Prohibido,” took the Album of the Year honor at the Tejano Music Awards. And on March 7th, she entered the studios to begin recording her English “crossover” album, beginning with the song “Dreaming of You.”
Two days later, Abraham, Suzette and Martin Gomez sat down with Yolanda, confronting her as to why monies from the stores were missing. Abraham related, “She just looked (at me), she didn’t have an answer to any of the questions.” Suzette called her a liar and thief outright. Chris Perez told author Patoski, “There were a lot of things out that weren’t accounted for, and we couldn’t get an explanation we were satisfied with.” Along with the mismanagement of the stores, the family had found four checks, including one for $3,000 that Yolanda had written to herself on the fan club account. It was discovered that she had previously been accused by a San Antonio doctor of stealing more than $9,000 in 1984 when she was the doctor’s bookkeeper. The Aetna Insurance Company paid off the doctor, then, settled out of court with Yolanda. Selena finally told Chris that she couldn’t trust Yolanda anymore.
Yolanda was effectively severed from managing the stores. On March 11, 1995, she went to a gun shop called A Place To Shoot, Inc. and purchased a Taurus 45 snub-nosed .38 caliber gun. On March 13th, she picked up the gun from the store, but 2 days later she returned it, claiming her father had given her a pistol and she wouldn’t be needing the new weapon. Strangely, eleven days later, Yolanda again returned to the gun shop and repurchased the .38.
Yolanda drove with her sister to Monterrey, Mexico, carrying with her several bank statements reporting transactions on Selena’s business accounts over the year. Yolanda had absconded with the perfume tester sample Leonard Wong had concocted for Selena’s proposed line of scents. While in Monterrey, Yolanda began withdrawing on business bank accounts on which she still had signatory privileges. A bank teller notified Selena back in the States.
Selena called Yolanda on her cell phone — a phone, incidentally, Selena paid for — and told Yolanda she needed to bring back the bank statements and the perfume immediately. On March 30, 1995, Yolanda dropped her sister back off in San Antonio and drove to Corpus Christi. She checked into a Days Inn motel off Interstate 37 on the north side of town, near Selena’s recording studio. She beeped Selena on her pager. At 11:00 that night, Selena phoned Yolanda, saying she would retrieve the missing items from Yolanda straightaway. She and Chris drove to the motel, and Yolanda handed over a folder containing documents. When they got home, Selena and Chris realized that many of the crucial bank statements she sought were not contained in the manila folder. She told Chris she would go back to the motel in the morning.
On Friday, March 31, 1995, Selena awoke around 7:30 in the morning. She drove her Chevy truck to the Days Inn, phoning Yolanda on the way. When she arrived, Yolanda went into great detail about an ordeal she supposedly suffered while away in Mexico. She claimed that men had surrounded her car, dragged her from the vehicle and raped her. She persuaded Selena to take her to see a doctor. At the Doctors Regional Medical Center, nurses examined Yolanda and indicated to Selena there was no conclusive evidence of any trauma from a rape episode. Selena drove Yolanda back to the motel, and while enroute, Selena received a call from her dad questioning her as to her whereabouts. Selena had been scheduled in the recording studio at 10:00am that morning to continue laying down tracks for her English language album. She told Abraham that she would be in as soon as she dropped off Yolanda.
Back at the Days Inn, in Room 158, Selena supposedly confronted Yolanda about the missing bank statements. She began taking off the Faberge egg ring Yolanda had given her. The Houston Chronicle reported what happened next. “A maid cleaning a hotel room upstairs told police she heard them yelling. Then she heard the gunshot. She looked out the window and saw two women running by the pool. One was screaming for help and clutching her chest. The other woman had a gun in her right hand. The maid says she saw her aim and fire.”
Selena was bleeding profusely from a wound in the area of her right shoulder. The bullet had severed an artery. She stumbled into the motel’s lobby, yelling, “Help me, help me, I’ve been shot.” As she collapsed, the motel clerk locked the door. A witness standing by, kneeled down to staunch the flow of blood, asking Selena, “Who shot you?” Selena said, “Yolanda.” In her hand, she clutched the “friendship” ring.
Barbara Schultz, the Days Inn manager, phoned 911.
Schultz: “We have a woman, ran in the lobby, said she’s been shot. She’s laying on the floor. There’s blood.”
911: “Okay, how old is she?”
Schultz: “She looks about 20.”
911: “She’s in the lobby right now?”
Schultz: “Yes, ma’am. She just passed out.”
Ambulances arrived within 3 minutes and whisked Selena away. Meanwhile, Yolanda had gone back into her room, wrapped the gun in a cloth and carried it out to her parked pick-up truck. With tires squealing, she sped around the motel parking lot to the north side of the property and pulled into a space. A police squad car maneuvered in behind her, blocking her path should she try to put the truck in reverse. As the officers approached her vehicle, Yolanda put the gun to her right temple, telling them that she was going to kill herself. The police stepped back, easing the tension ever so slightly.
Abraham had gone to lunch with his son A.B. and was just returning to the studio when they got a call from Abraham’s sister-in-law, telling him to go to the hospital. Selena had had an accident, she urgently said to him. Doctors, meanwhile, were giving Selena blood transfusions and managed to get her heart started again for a brief period. But when Abraham arrived just after 1:00, rushing up to the doctor in charge, he was informed that his shining light, the daughter he had carefully watched over and groomed her entire life to be a star, had passed away.
Tactical unit officers kept watch on Yolanda in the truck throughout that Friday afternoon. She sat in the front seat, talking with police on her cell phone and occasionally raising the gun to her temple. At dusk, a maid who had been in a room just 20 feet from where Yolanda had parked, and who had immediately barricaded herself safely inside, was led out by a police officer carrying a bulletproof shield. Light rain began to fall as SWAT team members set up portable generator-powered lights to shine on the truck. Yolanda repeatedly admitted shooting Selena, but she blamed it all on Abraham and his meddling ways with their friendship. Finally, at 9:30, some 9 hours after the incident, Yolanda surrendered to police and was quickly hustled off in a squad car.
Radio stations had been playing Selena’s songs all day in memory of the fallen angel. Fans drove around Corpus Christi with signs proclaiming, “We Love You, Selena.” Hundreds of thousands of flowers were placed outside the family’s working class neighborhood home. Sensing the overwhelming support and sympathy from fans flying in from all around the globe, Abraham and Marcella decided to hold a memorial service for Selena at the Corpus Christi Convention Center on Sunday, April 2nd. More than 20,000 fans walked by her casket to pay their respects.
In May 1995, the family asked fans to make a stand against gun violence in Selena’s memory by casting an opposing vote on a proposal in the legislature that would allow Texans to carry concealed handguns. The bill unfortunately passed. Capitol released an album that summer featuring five tracks in English that Selena had recorded just before her death. As early as June, just three months after the tragedy, Abraham and the family were talking with producers from California about making Selena’s life into a motion picture feature. The following year of 1996 saw the release of “Selena” starring a new Latin actress, Jennifer Lopez, who would go on to attain much the same heights of popularity, perhaps even greater, as the woman she was portraying.
Yolanda Saldivar’s murder trial got underway on October 9, 1995 in Houston. There was very little the defense could do. Yolanda had bleated her “confession” to the police many times over during her phone conversation with them from her pick-up truck. The jury only took two hours to decide her guilt.
Abraham told the press, “I think people are tired of the wickedness of this system. She (Selena) was a good person, a clean person with morals. They could see that. And there’s not too much of that left in this world.”
Selena, herself, ultimately touched on the one thing that made her seem open with her fans over the years, yet also left her tragically vulnerable to the situation which befell her, when she chatted with Joseph Harmes back in 1993. “I trust too easily,” she said. “That’s my problem. And I end up getting hurt in the long run. This happened to me a lot. I’m so stupid. But you try to help somebody out and you think you are doing okay and in the long run you’re the one who’s going to be losing out. Not that I’m saying that you shouldn’t help people out…I’m sincere and very honest. And I feel that nowadays a lot of people have lost that, but I think that starts in the home. My parents have taught me that. Being fair with people.”
© 2000 Ned Truslow