The young Tejano music star had been breaking concert attendance records in Texas and had released a string of bestselling Latin RIAA-certified albums, but to the general American audience, she remained a virtual unknown.
That all changed on March 31, 1995.
Throughout the day, Latino families -- mine included -- were transfixed to their televisions as Spanish-language media broadcast a hostage situation at a Days Inn in Corpus Christi, Texas.
With a SWAT team encircling, Yolanda Saldivar, a former nurse turned low-level music executive, had cordoned herself off in her red truck, gun pointed at her temple, and, in between cell phone calls with a FBI Crisis Negotiation unit, was threatening to pull the trigger.
It was the same gun she had used to murder Selena Quintanilla Perez just hours before.
Selena’s murder rocked the Latino world, the Tejano music industry, and American pop culture. Fans had seen her career skyrocket from playing local parties, to a record-breaking concert before 69,000 fans at the Houston Astrodome just a month before her death. She’d won her first Grammy Award in 1994, and in that same year released Amor Prohibido, selling 500,000 units in the United States -- almost unheard of for a Spanish-language album in the U.S. music industry.
The record’s success had set the stage for the singer’s next move, and the realization of her own life-long dream: To release a crossover English-language album. In fact, on the very day of her death, she was set to go to the studio. But in a matter of a few hours, her dream -- along with those who in her saw their own struggles and aspirations -- was gone.
To Latinos, especially young girls, Selena represented more than a singer who mesmerized audiences in her now-famous bustiers. In an English-language-dominated American culture, when few -- if any -- brown faces made it onto MTV or the Billboard Hot 100 chart, she was their lone voice and hope that maybe one day there could be space for them, too.
To these young girls, Selena was more than a superstar -- she represented their dreams.
U.S.-Latinos struggling to find an understanding between their own American and Mexican identities connected to her as well. When U.S. media termed Selena the “Mexican Madonna” in an effort to familiarize her with white audiences, some Latinos felt frustration. Selena was a third-generation Mexican-American, born in the U.S. like her father and his father before him, no less American than Madonna. But still, she was cast as a stranger in her own home.
And like other Mexican-Americans, Selena also struggled to find a way to connect to her ancestry. During a promotional visit to Mexico (a moment later popularized in the biographical film about her life) she feared her rough conversational Spanish would leave her at the mercy of press and Mexican audiences (a popular Spanish saying, ‘ni de aquí ni de allá,’ ‘from neither here nor there,’ comes to mind).
Rather than facing a potentially embarrassing moment in front of the cameras, Selena greeted the three dozen Mexican reporters one-by-one in her choppy Spanish, and substituting English when she didn't know the word. By the end of the press tour, one paper had dubbed her "una artista del pueblo" -- "an artist of the people."
"(Selena) represents a young, Hispanic girl — equal parts Mexican and American — who was successful and unabashedly living her dream, but never abandoning her identity," Betty Cortina, editorial director of Latina magazine, later wrote. "There was a great amount of pride when she was on stage because she was representing who we are. She was the quintessential American success story, and to have that cut off is tragic."
In death, Selena achieved near-sainthood status in Latino households, and the reaction to her killing marked the start of a cultural shift in American pop culture. When her English-language album -- 1995’s Dreaming Of You -- was posthumously released, it sold a staggering 331,000 copies in its first week (a then-record for a female artist). It eventually sold almost four million units, setting yet another record for a Latino artist that still stands today.
By the end of the 1990’s, Selena had been declared the best-selling Latin artist of the decade.
Later, when People released a commemorative issue about the singer, few at the magazine thought it would sell. Publishers were shocked when the issue sold one million copies, and then its entire run within a matter of weeks. Editor Betty Cortina called it “unheard of,” and it was credited with sparking the start of Spanish-language magazines like People en Español and Latina. The singer also arguably paved the way for future Latino artists, including Jennifer Lopez, who, in the film about Selena’s life, became the first Latina to earn $1 million for a film role.
20 years later after death, Selena still resonates with Latinos as much as she did when she famously twirled on the stage of the Houston Astrodome in 1995. To Latinos, especially the generation who grew up with her, Selena remains a source of pride, iconic and unmatchable, but still representative of who they are and who they can become. Perhaps Jennifer Lopez, in an interview to Billboard, sums it up best:
“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.”