Selena Quintanilla would have turned 46 this year.
When she died in 1995, the Grammy winner was on the precipice of a Latin music explosion and about to enter a new phase of her career: a crossover. Commanding the stage with breathless sets of cumbia songs, often wearing a bustier she herself designed, Selena seemed to illuminate every room, no matter the size. And while she had already attained breakout status for her signature style of Tejano music, she dreamed of more.
Just as her star ascended, Selena’s story turned tragic. On March 31, 1995, her former employee, Yolanda Saldivar, shot the singer in the back, fatally wounding the 23-year-old after a heated business meeting. The murder made news across the world and in the months and years that followed, a different Selena emerged: that of an icon.
For Latinos, Selena became a symbol of empowerment, particularly among women. “Seeing fans breathe beauty into her legacy” still astonishes Chris Perez, 48, Selena’s widower. “She’s got the coolest fans and they constantly surprise me,” he tells Variety. “Selena was a force to be reckoned with and I’m happy her memory is being kept alive.”
Indeed, in the 22 years since her death, Selena’s worldwide imprint has only grown as her music continues to connect – not just for those who began following her in the ‘80s, but for new generations of diverse fans. Projects are continually at play, from new music compilations to television programs to the swift-selling limited edition Selena MAC cosmetics line, which was brought to life in 2016 in large part due to fan demand. Recently, a Google Doodle themed around her hit “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom” was introduced in more than a dozen countries including the U.S. and Mexico on Oct. 17 to commemorate her first studio album with Capitol EMI. She would eventually sell some 65 million albums worldwide, according to the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce.
“Her music is the soundtrack to many people’s lives,” says Mireya Loza, a curator at Washington D.C.’s National Museum of American History, which is hosting a yearlong Selena exhibit. “Today, Selena’s music is still requested at parities, from quinceañeras to birthdays. Selena connected to the urban Latino experience, and her music continues to be passed on.”
Born in 1971 in Lake Jackson, Texas, Selena Quintanilla was the youngest of three siblings. Together with brother and bassist A.B. Quintanilla and sister and drummer Suzette Quintanilla, and under the managerial guidance of their father, Abraham Quintanilla, the trio formed the family band Selena Y Los Dinos in 1980 and quickly saw success regionally. By 1986, the group’s popularity would lead to the first of nine consecutive Tejano Music Awards wins for Selena as best female vocalist. Record companies took notice, and, in 1989, she signed with EMI Latin, going on to release five albums and a string of hit singles, including “Dreaming of You,” “Como la Flor” and “No Me Queda Mas.”
“Selena was honest, transparent and that still resonates today,” says Flavio Morales, EVP at EndemolShine Latino U.S. Initiatives. “She looked like many Latinas. She embraced her curves when it wasn’t the ‘it’ thing to do. She carried our culture, yet was as American as apple pie.”
It’s no wonder, then, that in 1997, Warner Bros. Pictures brought her story to the big screen, releasing the Gregory Nava-directed movie “Selena” featuring the then unknown Jennifer Lopez. Veteran actor Edward James Olmos portrayed Selena’s father.
“It’s the hardest film I’ve ever made,” says Olmos. “Every time we did any scenes, her father was there. Gregory would yell, ‘Cut,’ and I would turn to see Abraham. It became very difficult.”
Those who knew Selena when she was alive, like Al Rendon, a San Antonio-based photographer who worked with her on a major ad campaign for Coca-Cola (the campaign never appeared as Selena died before it was due to launch, but can be seen in the Museum of American History display), describe someone pure of heart with clear goals in sight. “There was nothing fake about Selena,” he says, adding that, “People didn’t realize that Selena was a serious artist.”
Selena’s death has impacted her family members in different ways. For Perez, himself a Grammy winner, writing his 2012 book, “To Selena with Love” (Penguin), proved to be therapeutic. But a television series in partnership with production company EndemolShine drew legal action from Abraham Quintanilla, Jr. in 2017. Perez declines to address the lawsuit, but says he remains hopeful to someday re-establish ties with the Quintanilla family,and that he plans to attend the Hollywood Walk of Fame dedication ceremony on Nov. 3.
There, outside the Capitol Records building, are scheduled appearances by Suzette Quintanilla, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti and actress Eva Longoria, demonstrating that Selena’s legacy is not just as a music powerhouse but one of the all-time great entertainers.
Watch a live stream of the ceremony, which kicks off at 6:30 p.m. PST, below: