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25 years after her death, singer Selena inspires fans across USA to pursue their dreams

12 min read
https://www.usatoday.com/in-depth/news/nation/2020/03/30/25-years-after-her-death-selenas-legacy-lives-on/2907722001/

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The USA TODAY Network is running a series on the Latino community in the USA called Hecho en USA, or made in America. Roughly 80% of all Latinos living in the USA are American citizens, but media coverage of Hispanics tends to focus on immigration and crime, instead of how Latino families live, work and learn in their hometowns. Hecho en USA tells the stories of the nation’s 59.9 million Latinos – a growing economic and cultural force, many of whom are born in the USA.

Selena in a leopard-print bustier before a landscape of snow-capped pine trees. Selena in a white top, denim vest and long floral red skirt, alongside a kangaroo. Selena in her  purple jumpsuit, in front of a giant mural bearing her likeness and her name.

These are photos on an Instagram page, Traveling Selena, created by friends Leroy Peña and Eva McDaniel. The pair make clothes by hand for a vintage Selena doll and take photos of the doll in front of landmarks and landscapes around the world. 

Peña and McDaniel, both 34, frequently travel together, and they drew inspiration for the Instagram page from a visit to San Francisco in 2018. They saw a man taking a photo of a doll in front of a landmark and thought it was “the coolest idea ever,” Peña said. 

Peña had had a Selena doll in storage since 1996. He decided to put that doll to good use.

Twenty-five years after her death, Selena Quintanilla lives on in the hearts and minds of many Americans, who say the Texas singer continues to inspire their professional and personal lives. The USA TODAY Network asked fans across the country to share stories of how they’ve been influenced by Selena’s legacy. They pointed to her clothing, her voice, her lyrics and her confidence as a Mexican American woman who did not speak fluent Spanish but still embraced her culture. 

“It’s amazing to see how much her legacy has grown and how she’s reaching out to new generations and even young kids, to see them dressing up as her and listening to her music. There’s a lot of stars that get forgotten over the years, and I’m happy to see that she’s become this huge Latin legend,” Peña said.

There’s an insatiable hunger for Selena’s voice and her songs, said Leila Cobo, vice president/Latin industry lead at Billboard, and her legacy is visible in today’s U.S.-born Latin artists, such as Becky G and Selena Gomez. The fascination has little to do with how she died but rather with the way she lived, Cobo said.

“In a world (still) of imported Latin pop stars, Selena was an anomaly; born and raised here, bilingual and bicultural, she not only looked like her fans, she was like them,” Cobo said in an email. “That relatability was transformative for Latin pop culture.”

Selena’s music career began when, around age 9, she became the lead singer of her family’s band, Selena y los Dinos. She went on to become a Grammy winner, a top-selling artist, a fashion designer and even more: the Queen of Tejano music, one of the most beloved Mexican American singers.

Selena has had six albums of posthumously released material reach No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Latin Albums chart, and her album “Dreaming of You” was the first posthumous album and the first album by a Latin artist to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200.

A biographical film was released in 1997 (launching the career of another famous Latina, Jennifer Lopez). Forever 21 and M.A.C. Cosmetics each released Selena-inspired collections. She was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2017. A Netflix series is in the works.

Her influence has endured in other ways.

Peña and McDaniel of Huntington Beach, California, met in 2004 when they both worked at a Target store. They bonded over similar interests, including a lifelong love for the Tejano singer – Peña’s family saw the “Selena” movie together on opening night in 1997, and Peña went on to see it five times in theaters.

McDaniel makes most of the clothing for their Selena doll. Before they embark on trips, she and Peña look at real outfits Selena wore for inspiration and choose the clothes to coordinate with their destinations. 

The friends have posted photos at least once a week since August 2018, and the page has almost 12,000 followers.

“It seems to have a great reaction from everybody, so that makes us happy,” Peña said.

Thousands of young girls wait in line at the Selena movie auditions on March 17, 1996, in Los Angeles.

Thousands of young girls wait in line at the Selena movie auditions on March 17, 1996, in Los Angeles.
John Hopper/Associated Press

Entering the world of Selena 

For Manuel Pérez of Texas, Selena helped him with the difficult transition of moving to the USA from Mexico as a young boy. 

In 1991, 8-year-old Pérez sat in front of a grainy TV screen. Pérez had rigged up a wire hanger to use as an antenna, and “The Johnny Canales Show” crackled on the screen. A group called Selena y Los Dinos took the stage.

The lead singer was dressed in a cropped jacket with black-and-white cow print sleeves. To the young Pérez, her voice was angelic, her dance moves mesmerizing.

Pérez is from the small city of Jamay in the Mexican state of Jalisco. When he was 10, his family moved to the USA to, as his parents said, live “the American dream.” In the north Texas city of Vernon, he enrolled at a school where he was the only Spanish speaker. He was bullied for not speaking English and for his hand-me-down clothes.

Love for Selena still runs strong with fans 25 years after her death

Fans of Selena Quintanilla-Pérez express their love for the late singer through art and creating handmade clothes for a vintage Selena doll.

Robert Hanashiro and Sandy Hooper, USA TODAY

It was around that time that he found a cassette tape of Selena’s album “Entre a Mi Mundo” at a garage sale. He played the tape on the bus to and from school every day and began collecting anything with Selena’s name or picture on it. He particularly connected with the mariachi song “Qué Creías,” he said, “because it let me know that mariachi was accepted in another country – just like I would be accepted for being another race.”

“To this day, I think finding the ‘Entre a Mi Mundo’ cassette was a sign that everything was going to be OK,” Pérez, 36, said. “I was entering a different world.” 

In 1994, his family drove down to San Antonio to visit the famous Fiesta Texas theme park. As they approached a restaurant, a familiar-looking young woman walked out. It was Selena.

She was wearing a black blouse, black jeans and a black cap with her name on it, Pérez recalled. His family walked up to her, and Pérez told her his name and said he loved her music. She smiled and hugged him. She took off her cap and put it on Pérez’s head.

Manuel Pérez, Texas resident and longtime fan of Selena
Selena will forever be a positive role model for the Mexican American community, and her legacy will never die.

“Meeting Selena, to me, was the American dream,” Pérez said. “She made such a huge impact on my life that I decided to be like her, but in a different way. In a time when being Mexican was frowned upon, I encouraged myself to keep going and ignore the negativity – just like she did.”

Pérez became the first person in his family to graduate from high school. He teaches technology to fourth- and fifth-graders in Vernon.

“Selena will forever be a positive role model for the Mexican American community,” Pérez said, “and her legacy will never die.”

Crowd of fans pay tribute to Tejano singer Selena in April 1995 outside the family home in Corpus Christi, Texas. Selena was shot to death by her former fan club president, Yolanda Saldivar.

Crowd of fans pay tribute to Tejano singer Selena in April 1995 outside the family home in Corpus Christi, Texas. Selena was shot to death by her former fan club president, Yolanda Saldivar.
Photo by Barbara Laing/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Selena fans inspired by singer’s perseverance 

Ben Romo was 6 years old when he learned about Selena. His mother, hoping to give him something to do while she did housework, gave him a VHS copy of the movie “Selena,” borrowed from a neighbor at their apartment building in the Texas town of Marion.

Romo watched it in his room and was transfixed. Seeing Selena’s death depicted in the movie, he was distraught. “Was this real?” he asked his mother. It was, she told him. 

The years passed. When Romo reached fifth grade, the bullying started; it intensified in seventh grade. Romo, who is gay, said his classmates singled him out for “being different from the rest.”

Leroy Peña, one of the creators of the Traveling Selena Instagram account
It’s amazing to see how much her legacy has grown and how she’s reaching out to new generations and even young kids, to see them dressing up as her and listening to her music. There’s a lot of stars that get forgotten over the years, and I’m happy to see that she’s become this huge Latin legend.

“I would always go home sad, angry at the world because of how they were treating me,” said Romo, 26. He found solace in Selena’s music, particularly the album “Live! The Last Concert.” He’d pop it into his CD player, and the songs “would tell me a story,” he said.

“I would see her stage presence and how much fun she had on that stage and how much hard work she had put on,” he said. “Her music influenced me into not wanting to be in that depressed mood and not wanting to kill myself.”

Romo pays tribute to the singer through Instagram videos. He wears costumes that evoke her style and lip-syncs to some of her famous songs.

“It’s like I’m paying her back for getting me through,” Romo said. “Being Mexican American, she went through hardships. If she got through it, anybody else can.”

Actress Jennifer Lopez portrayed Selena Quintanilla in the movie "Selena," about the beloved singer.

Actress Jennifer Lopez portrayed Selena Quintanilla in the movie “Selena,” about the beloved singer.
RICCO TORRES/AFP via Getty Images

Selena inspired some to learn Spanish, pursue professional dreams

For Marie Beland, Selena inspired her career.

As a teenager in the ’90s, Beland lived in Northern California and worked at a Carl’s Jr. Surrounded by Spanish speakers, she picked up foreign words here and there.

She tuned into the Univision show “Control” one day in 1994 and saw Selena’s music video for “Amor Prohibido.” Beland liked the song, but this was before the internet boomed; Beland couldn’t just Google the young singer.

In 1995, Beland arrived home from school to find her grandmother watching the news. Selena had been killed. The TV station showed a clip of the “Amor Prohibido” video, and Beland connected the dots.

In the following months, Beland cried whenever she heard Selena’s songs on the radio. She saw the 1997 movie starring Jennifer López, and Selena’s story inspired her.

Beland began collecting magazines featuring the singer. She got her first computer in 2000; after she discovered eBay, her magazine collection grew. She scanned the photos of Selena and uploaded them to an MSN.com group for posterity. That group became so popular among MSN users that Beland created her own website. She used photo editing software to make Selena-themed desktop wallpapers.

Eventually, she realized she wanted to be a graphic designer. 

Chris Perez, bottom left, who was Selena's husband, puts flowers on the late singer's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, where he was joined by, from left, Selena's brother A.B. Quintanilla III, her sister Suzette and her parents, Marcella Ofelia Samora and Abraham Quintanilla Jr., on Nov. 3, 2017, in Los Angeles.

Chris Perez, bottom left, who was Selena’s husband, puts flowers on the late singer’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, where he was joined…
Chris Perez, bottom left, who was Selena’s husband, puts flowers on the late singer’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, where he was joined by, from left, Selena’s brother A.B. Quintanilla III, her sister Suzette and her parents, Marcella Ofelia Samora and Abraham Quintanilla Jr., on Nov. 3, 2017, in Los Angeles.
Chris Pizzello, Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

“I used my love for Selena to practice my design skills, and anytime I could incorporate her into my school projects, I did,” said Beland, 41, who lives in Atlanta. 

Selena was one reason Beland decided to teach herself Spanish. Beland speaks the language fluently and can sing along to Selena’s songs.

There was a lot to love about Selena, Beland said: her unique voice, her unforced sexuality, her ability to appeal to different generations and cultures.

“In another 20, 30 years, we’re still going to love her just as much as we do now,” Beland said. “She really touched people when she was around, and her fans have been passing that on to their kids. I don’t have kids yet, but hopefully, I will soon, and they’re going to know who she is.”                             

David Cordova, 25, of Colorado, is an artist who calls Selena his inspiration.

David Cordova, 25, of Colorado, is an artist who calls Selena his inspiration.
Provided by David Cordova

Proud of heritage because of Selena 

David Cordova said Selena inspired him to pursue his professional ambitions, as well.

Since Cordova was 5 years old, he’s put a pencil to paper to re-create Selena in his art.

Cordova, 25, of Colorado Springs, Colorado, works 9 to 5 at a crafts store, but he hopes to make artwork his full-time job, perhaps in graphic design or taking commissions.

Selena has always been his go-to person to draw, he said, and he’s lost count of the number of times he’s drawn her likeness with graphite and colored pencils. 

“Something I notice in drawing is her energy,” Cordova said. “In photos, she had a lot of life in her. She had a big beautiful smile, a smile that makes you want to smile back. It’s things like that that I want to replicate through my artwork.”

Selena was more than a singer to Cordova. She’s someone who makes him feel proud to be Latino, he said, and makes him want to connect with his roots. She was a businesswoman and a trailblazer in the male-dominated Tejano scene.

“I’m applying everything she has taught me to become a better artist and individual,” Cordova said. “After 25 years without Selena, she continues to inspire people like me. I can’t wait to see in 25 years how many more people she’ll continue to inspire.”

Selena’s music endures for fans who can’t get enough

Diana López, a Texas resident, can’t remember the first time she heard about Selena. It was like the young star was always around, making a name for herself with performances at South Texas festivals, weddings and quinceañeras.

López, 53, grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas, where Selena spent much of her life. In the ’90s, López taught at a Latino-majority middle school in San Antonio where kids often sang Selena’s songs in class.

David Cordova, artist who used Selena as an inspiration
Something I notice in drawing is her energy. In photos, she had a lot of life in her. She had a big beautiful smile, a smile that makes you want to smile back. It’s things like that that I want to replicate through my artwork.

López, who teaches creative writing at the University of Houston-Victoria, moved back to Corpus Christi in 2018. She’s been writing fiction, mostly centered on young Latinos, for about 20 years. López wrote the 2018 novelization of the Disney movie “Coco.” 

Selena’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame was unveiled in 2017. There was talk in the publishing world, López said, that someone should write a picture book about Selena to introduce her to young readers.

I should write it, López told herself. After all, she lives in Corpus Christi, where restaurants still play Selena’s songs, and the singer’s face can frequently be seen on kids’ T-shirts.

The book “¡Canta Conmigo! The Story of Selena Quintanilla” will be published in 2021 to coincide with what would have been Selena’s 50th birthday.

“I just fantasize that when the book comes out, I’ll be able to go to schools and talk to kids about her and celebrate her in her hometown,” López said. “We walked the same streets, we visited the same places and saw the same things, heard the same things. I get to share that.”

It’s important to remember, López said, that Selena’s death did not make her famous. She was smashing records and inspiring fans long before that. 

Fans came to Madame Tussauds Hollywood for the unveiling of Selena Quintanilla immortalized in wax Aug. 30, 2016.

Fans came to Madame Tussauds Hollywood for the unveiling of Selena Quintanilla immortalized in wax Aug. 30, 2016.
Rachel Murray/Getty Images

López said Selena has endured beyond her death for a few reasons: 

She symbolizes unrealized potential; there’s no knowing what peaks she could have reached. 

She wasn’t an unreachable celebrity. “She always felt like you could sit down at a restaurant and have tacos with her,” López said with a laugh. “She was like us.”

And simply, her music was good, so good that there’s no doubt her legacy will continue for future generations.

When one of her songs comes on, “you can’t help it – you start tapping your feet,” López said. “I can just imagine these young people at a restaurant and their parents are singing along, and they’re like, ‘Who’s that?’ ”

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