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The Chicano Wave

Chapter 7: Selena, the Queen of Tejano

As Linda Ronstadt's new album was setting sales records, a 15-year-old singer from Corpus Christi, Selena Quintanilla was creating a sensation of her own at the Tejano Music Awards.

Tejano — the Spanish-language/pop hybrid pioneered by Little Joe in the 1970's — had become hugely popular across the Southwest.

And Selena would sweep the Awards year after year.

She was at the top of the Tejano world, but that world was limited, and Selena longed for success in the mainstream English-language Pop arena.

Ironically, English-language Pop was where she began.

[YOUNG SELENA SING "FEELINGS"] [Feelings, nothing more than feelings...]

Selena grew up in a musical family, trained and encouraged by her father, Abraham.

ABRAHAM QUINTANILLA (VO) I found out she could sing probably around six years old. (OC) She was just gifted with that; you know she was born with a gift. And that's when I decided I'm gonna try to do, make a group with 'em. Quintanilla groomed Selena's older brother, A.B., to play bass. His other daughter, Suzette, became the reluctant drummer.

SUZETTE QUINTANILLA There was a brand new drum set there and I was the only one that wasn't doing anything so its like, "hey, guess what, come here I've got something for you!"

Selena wanted to sing American Pop music, but her father had learned some hard lessons about playing music in Texas with a band he'd had years before called The Dinos.

JOE NICK PATOSKI (VO) Once some promoters discovered that they were Chicano (OC) and not Anglo, they had gigs canceled on them, uh they were really forced to re-embrace their roots. And they found that their, their, their best audience were the people that wanted them to sing in Spanish.

Abraham applied these lessons to the band he was building with Selena. He wanted them to sing in Spanish.

SUZETTE QUINTANILLA (VO) And at first we were like, (OC) "Are you kidding me, Dad? What's this?' It was foreign to us, we didn't like it. (VO) And we didn't know Spanish. So Selena really had to know her pronunciation. She didn't know what she was singing.


ABRAHAM QUINTANILLA (VO) I had to sit with her and-- and tell her what-- what the song-- what it's talkin' about, you know, (OC) what is-- the word means and where to put emphasis, where to put the emotion.


In 1989, when Selena was 17, a young record company executive attending the Tejano Music Awards, sensed he was witnessing the birth of a superstar.

JOSE BEHAR, EMI Latin (VO) I remember coming back to the tower over in Hollywood, the Capitol Records tower, and saying to my boss, (OC) I said, "You know, I think we found our Gloria Estefan." And he looked at me like, "You've been here three weeks. Give me a break." (VO) Even though women had not achieved commercial success (OC) in the Tejano music business, the truth be told, I didn't sign her to sell Tejano records. It was the crossover aspect that really knocked me out.


Behar threw the resources of Capitol-EMI into promoting Selena ... gambling that once she had a solid, Spanish-language fan base, he could repackage her for the American mainstream.

And as Selena's star rose, the Tejano music scene exploded.


JOE NICK PATOSKI (VO) The interest of the major labels in Tejano music changed everything. (OC) All of a sudden Coca Cola is interested in sponsorships. Beer companies are rushing and competing uh to get the lo-, the bigger acts that are growing, and every band has a new bus, (VO) every band has new outfits, smoke pots and light shows, it's just this transition overnight from a little kind of rinky-dink marginalized sound into something that is (OC) the next big thing. ......... And at the helm is, is, Selena.


JOSE BEHAR (VO) We had by now achieved tremendous success with her music in Spanish. She came over to see me one day and (OC) in the middle of lunch she starts to cry. I'm thinking it's a joke, because this was Selena's sense of humor, where she would start acting or do something crazy. And she goes, "Jose, I've told the whole world, you know how many interviews I've done that my English record is coming out, and we haven't even recorded the first song."

SELENA QUINTANILLA And the English album is coming out. I know we have been talking about it forever and ever and ever...Cuantos años? Tres años?....

ABRAHAM QUINTANILLA (VO) I kept asking José, "José, what's up," with the mainstream American market. (OC) And he kept telling me, "It's not the right time. You gotta build up a fan base." And finally, the latter part of '94, José-- José said, "Okay, we're ready for that now.


By the time Selena played to a sell-out crowd at the Houston Astrodome in February 1995, work on her English album had begun.

[SELENA PERFORMS IN HOUSTON] ["How ya doing Houston, Texas"?

First I was afraid....."]

JOE NICK PATOSKI (VO) This woman you cross her over and put her in the, the Pop arena she's gonna be the next Madonna.

["But then I spend so many nights...."]

JOE NICK PATOSKI She was gonna be huge!

["I've got all my life to live I've got all my life to live I will survive I will survive"]

Then, a month after this concert and two weeks before her 24th birthday, she failed to arrive for a recording session at her father's studio.

ABRAHAM QUINTANILLA (VO) We didn't worry about it because she was running late all the time. (OC) It was around 12 noon. And the phone rang as I walked in and the receptionist answered it. And she let out a scream. And I asked her what's happening. She said, "Selena had an accident. She's at the emergency room at Memorial Hospital." So immediately I thought it was a car wreck. And I ran over there and it was something worse.

Selena had been murdered; shot by a distraught and desperate woman who'd once been the head of her Fan Club.

JOE NICK PATOSKI (VO) The bullet hit an artery and uh, (OC) they rush her to the hospital but by the time anything could be done, before anything can be done, she's bled to death.

Four months later, Dreaming of You, the album Selena had been recording when she died, was released. It sold over 200,000 copies the first day. It would eventually top 6 million.

With its brightest star extinguished, Tejano music soon faded in popularity.

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