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20 Years Later, Selena’s Story Still Resonates With North Texans

Twenty years ago today, Selena Quintanilla-Perez was gunned down at a Days Inn in Corpus Christi. The Tejano music star was only 23, and she was just about to release her first album in English. She had an All-American story that still resonates two decades later.

On the average spring weekend, plenty of people stop by Country Burger in Oak Cliff. But it’s rarely like this: people are packed in a corner of this unassuming burger joint cheering for a Selena look-alike contest. The winners were a mom-and-daughter team, who both dressed like the Tejano icon.

Her images cover every inch of wall space in this burger joint. People are clutching old photos, wearing concert t-shirts and others are even in bedazzled bustieres, complete with dark hair and ruby red lips.

Tejano music expands

20 years ago, if you were Latino living in Texas, chances are you listened to Selena.

She was the hottest voice in a musical style that dated back to the early 20th century. It blends Mexican, Spanish, German and American influences.

Make no mistake; Tejano was made in Texas by Mexican-Americans.

By the 90’s, the music was at its peak. Singers were signing with major labels, landing endorsement deals, and selling millions of records.

“There were really three big acts really that were fueling this incredible growth,” author Joe Nick Patoski said. “It was Emilio Navaira, La Mafia, and then there was Selena y los Dinos.”

Credit Courtesy Photo / Jesus Hernandez
Jesus Hernandez
Jesus 'Crazy Chuy' Hernandez, with Selena before she was adopted her signature dark hair and red lips.

“She had an incredible voice, and stage presence that I can only compare to someone like Gloria Estefan or Madonna at that time,” he said.

Selena was a 9-year-old in Corpus Christi when she started singing in a band with her siblings, Suzette and A.B. She was still a teenager when the band got its first major record deal.

Credit Krystina Martinez / KERA News
Jesus 'Crazy Chuy' Hernandez hosts Chicano Express Radio from his home studio in Waxahachie. He hosted the program on various North Texas radio stations before taking Chicano Express exclusively online in 1999 - before the days of Spotify and Pandora.

  Jesus ‘Crazy Chuy’ Hernandez, a Tejano radio personality who lives in Waxahachie, remembered being impressed by one of her early performances.

“When I saw her perform, she already knew how to command a stage,” the host of Chicano Express Radio said. “I knew her dad, [Abraham Quintanilla Jr.] from back in the 60s when he used to play bass for The Dinos. Abraham asked me, ‘what do you think?’ And I said, ‘that girl’s gonna make it.’”

That’s pretty high praise for a man who’s been in the Tejano industry for more than 50 years.

Growing up with Selena

Selena’s music was part of the coming-of-age soundtrack for most people at last weekend’s party, even for Liliana Casiano, who was two years-old when Selena died.

“When I was a kid, I used to dance to her videos,” Casiano said. “My parents have a lot of videos of me dancing to her music.”

Everyone here talks about Selena like she was a sister or a family friend. In a way, her journey was their journey. Selena was a third generation Mexican-American girl who – initially at least -- couldn’t speak Spanish. She learned to navigate two cultures. And many of her fans were doing the same thing.

A community in mourning

Then came March 31st, 1995.

Selena was shot and killed by Yolanda Saldivar, the president of her fan club. The news shocked Texas, Mexico, and beyond.

Patoski was writing for Texas Monthly at the time. He immediately rushed to San Antonio, where 6,000 people showed up to a candlelight vigil. At the Sunken Garden Theater, the place was covered in candles, posters, flowers and messages.

“People were trying to express themselves how much Selena had meant to them and how they were affected by her death,” Patoski said. The outpouring of grief reminded him of another death three decades earlier.

“The only time I remember a reaction like this was living in Fort Worth when JFK was shot in Dallas,” he said. “This was a similar thing with Selena, except it was with the Texas Mexican culture.”

Selena's impact and legacy

Even today, people recall exactly where they were when Selena died.  Rafael Tamayo, the manager of the Oak Cliff Cultural Center, remembers being at home when he heard the news.

“I remember my neighbor coming over and crying with my mom,” he recalled.

Tamayo helped plan the Oak Cliff tribute to Selena. He said he and his friends wanted to focus on the singer’s life and legacy – rather than her death and what could have been.

“Close to 20 years later, we’re still seeing the impact of Selena and the trickle-down effects of what she did for the culture,” he said.

After she died, there were tribute concerts, books, and a movie starring a then-unknown Jennifer Lopez.

The entertainment industry suddenly realized the potential of the Latino audience. As for Selena, her story has expanded beyond the Latino community who initially embraced her.

And even two decades later, Jesus Hernandez still feels the pain of the singer’s death.

“Selena was like family to us,” he said. “When she died, it was like losing a daughter.”

He still plays her songs on March 31st on his online radio show, but he says it's hard to listen to her voice.

Rest assured though, her music will continue to live on.

Do you have a favorite Selena song? Tweet @ThisIsKrystina

Former KERA staffer Krystina Martinez was an assistant producer. She produced local content for Morning Edition and She also produced The Friday Conversation, a weekly series of conversations with North Texas newsmakers. Krystina was also the backup newscaster for the Texas Standard.