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Something Everyone Could Agree On

Joe Galván
21 Snaps

We were from the same stock. We knew about pozole, mesquite, the sea breeze, the taste of salt water, sunburns, acedia, ennui. Our families had been farmworkers, machine shop workers, pickers and packers of fruits and vegetables. We saw the same large spiders. We knew of snakes in the brushland; we knew about barbecues and sausage in tortillas, and Coca-Cola, and migas with eggs, about brains and eyeballs in barbacoa, about the tart and spicy taste of nopales with Pace picante sauce, about double pepperoni pizzas. Our grandfathers and great-grandfathers rode in mule-drawn carts and knew men with burlap sacks. We knew hailstorms, green skies, tornado warnings. We knew about lowrider cars, white roses, the smell of the sea as it crashed against the riprap of a jetty, the sting of a jellyfish, the boredom of the Mexico we’d never known. We knew the inviting lilt of the bajo sexto, the cool, suave chords of old boleros, the pulse of life and the taquachito. It is what our parents danced to before we were born; it was a continuance of some 350 years of dancing in the New World, and we could still hear those mestizo rhythms, as children, as adults, as adolescents dazzled by smoke machines and B-roll footage and colored lights and MTV. We heard cumbias. We heard huapangos. We wanted an escape from the compromise, made without our consent, to exist under a high sun, to sweat in the night, to smell cut grass and turbid water and know a South Texas that had and had not been ours all along. We knew Fito Olivares, “Juana la Cubana,” Grupo Mazz, Donna Summer, the Starland Vocal Band, Jimmy González, football, potato salad, horseflies, the San Antonio River Walk, Little Joe y La Família, “The Hustle,” Barbie, suffering, death, and Ann Richards. Though we never met for more than a few seconds, one hot summer day in the summer of 1993, she was a part of me, and I was a part of her.

When Selena Quintanilla-Pérez died, on March 31, 1995, I was a chubby ten-year-old boy in the fifth grade. I lived in Harlingen, Texas, about forty-five minutes from Brownsville, Texas, and about an hour from the US-Mexico border. It rained all day that day. A bewildered teacher’s assistant came around 2 p.m. and told us to switch on the radio. The singer who had dazzled thousands of people in Houston just a month before had bled out on the lobby floor of a Days Inn in Corpus Christi. Many thought it was a cruel April Fools’ joke. The rumors were wild: people wondered whether Selena had been killed by the wife of Emilio Navaira, “the Garth Brooks of Tejano.” Others hinted that Selena was part of a business deal in Mexico that had gone bad. There were mentions of a car accident, a tour bus accident, a train derailment. But by 5 p.m., the AP and The New York Times reported that Selena’s disgraced fan club manager, a short, stout woman named Yolanda Saldívar, had been responsible for the act that had simultaneously made and unmade all of Selena’s fame. In her murder, Tejanos saw themselves as both the perpetrators and beneficiaries of Selena’s demise; it was a deed brimming with all of the irony that is possible only in a place like South Texas. The facts of Selena’s death—the woman who killed her, her parents, her career, the music that she represented and ultimately transcended—were products of a Texas that does not exist anymore, a particular reality grounded in economic, social, and cultural circumstances that have since evolved or otherwise ceased to exist.

After her death, Selena’s myth grew, and the details that were incidental to it fell away. No one explored the utterly queer way that Yolanda Saldívar had idolized Selena, which bordered on the Sapphic. Saldívar wasn’t just obsessed with Selena’s mystique; she had been in love with Selena herself. Nor was anyone interested in how Selena’s family had capitalized on her death and subsequent fame, in ways that flouted the propriety of a traditional Chicano family. Tabloid exposés did, however, dig into Selena’s ruined future, the mysteries of her relationship with Chris Pérez, the grisly details of the murder, her pangs of existential agony, and her fractured family dynamics. Stories made her a kind of folk saint whom people prayed to, on par with the Virgin of Guadalupe and Eva Perón. One essay in particular, by an East Coast academic, seemed to cement the myth of Selena’s cult, in prose that mocked her fans and Tejano folkways. It suggested that people in South Texas were reciting novenas to Selena in 1996. I can tell you with equanimity that they were not. I can also say that Selena was not, as one journalist called her, a “Latin Madonna,” nor was she the embodiment of a walking, talking, singing Pedro Almodóvar movie, a comparison I have heard at least once from more than one white person. This myth eclipsed the woman who had been the victim of identity theft, fraud, and premeditated murder by her fan club president. To her persona was attached, by fans and critics alike, a host of unrealized aspirations, personal and otherwise, that reflected the culture and society that gave Selena her fame. In place of the real Selena, they laid out, in a glittered coffin adorned with white roses, the Chicano experience itself, which Selena had for the briefest time embodied in the most beautiful and sensual way. 

When people speak of Selena—the Selena of the white roses, the Selena of “Dreaming of You” and “Amor prohibido” and the bronze Mirador de la Flor in downtown Corpus Christi, the Selena who enchanted millions of people worldwide—they don’t mean the Selena Quintanilla who ate potted meat sandwiches on the side of the road in a trailer called Big Bertha, driven by her irascible and intransigent father. Nor do they bother to think of the Selena who spoke imperfect Spanish on El show de Cristina, an otherwise unpardonable sin in the Latin world. Rather, Selena’s image has been elevated to the sublime.

*

From the 1950s through the 1970s, a nascent middle class emerged from the vegetable fields of South Texas, emboldened by the economic and political gains of LULAC (the League of United Latin American Citizens) and the Chicano civil rights movement. With that middle class came a music that effortlessly fused the traditional accordion-driven conjunto of the working class with the jazz, pop, and doo-wop that were pervasive in the larger cities and towns of Texas (country music had always been part of conjunto music). The ancestral form was orquestra tejana (“Texan orchestra music”). But in the 1960s—and especially in late 1960s San Antonio—it evolved into the soundtrack of working-class Chicanos entering a newly desegregated workforce, one animated with feelings of optimism and political and social cooperation. Orquestra tejana became Tejano music. Alongside the shuffling polkas, chotíses, and redovas that had been the staple suite of country dances in South Texas since the late nineteenth century, the lilting waltzes of doo-wop and the energy of straight-ahead rock and pop were fused to create a new, Teflon-smooth music, mainly keyboard driven and backed up by blaring, AM radio–friendly brass. The songs were as big and as brash as Texas itself. They were about lost love, suffering, death, and, ultimately, the quixotic nature of Chicano existence.

Selena’s father, Abraham Quintanilla, was part of this first wave, in a group called Los Dinos, which had a hit in the mid-1960s with “Con esta copa.” (Selena would later cover this song on one of her first albums.) Selena grew up listening to Tejano music, American pop, and some Mexican music. It was a soundtrack that every kid growing up on the border has heard: the twangy vocals of the outlaw country superstars of the ’70s, with their heartbreak and whiskey-soaked disdain, the sway of Motown vocalists, the smooth and cool sounds of a bolero trio, and the rollicking polkas that drew everyone to the dance floors of weddings and quinceañeras alike. And on the beaches in Corpus Christi, or at backyard barbecues in the South Texas ranchlands, or on a stereo in her room, Selena heard Donna Summer and Blondie and Madonna. On the weekends, Selena sang in her father’s Mexican restaurant, charming the patrons with her renditions of “Somewhere over the Rainbow” and “Blue Moon.” There was already a magic about her, one distilled from the mysteries of growing up on the border, received through osmosis, transformed. If people were charmed, it was not just because she had a beautiful voice; it was also because she could take something like “Somewhere over the Rainbow” and give it alma, that particular kind of forlorn longing that you find in music from the border.

Sometime in the early 1980s, Selena y Los Dinos (the band included her brother and sister) played in my hometown of Harlingen and were not well received. This incident was reenacted in the 1997 film Selena, and let me tell you, hearing Edward James Olmos utter the name of my hometown repeatedly was surreal. I couldn’t believe that my city was the Nazareth that rejected its would-be prophet. Rebecca Lee Meza, who plays the young Selena in the film, happens to be from Harlingen. We went to different middle schools. She was cast when I was thirteen, selected out of thousands of young girls who tried out for the role. Meza played the role convincingly enough. She did not have to try hard to be Selena. It was easy for young girls to emulate Selena, for the entire community, young and old, had impressed upon Selena’s character and memory their own aspirations. Even before she was murdered, Selena was molded to the expectations of her culture, of Texan society, of capitalism, of the need to reify and actualize colonial hierarchies. Even if you had never seen or met Selena, she represented you in some tangible way. Her public image suggested that fame and happiness were possible if you worked hard enough, if you drank Coke and finished high school. She had “made it”; she was “successful.” She did multiple spots for Agree shampoo. She was on Dos mujeres, un camino, the wildly popular telenovela starring Erik Estrada. She was the face of a generation of Chicanos who spoke exclusively English, liked McDonald’s, and went to Walmart. But no one outside of her immediate circle knew Selena beyond her image—in fact, very few people see her now—an image cultivated and kept pristine by her family, especially her father.

Selena’s power lay in her mystique, her refusal to be anything absolute. This mystique made it easier to market Selena to people who would not otherwise be interested in her music. Her father-manager and the people at her record labels wanted her to be pretty, so she was pretty. People wanted sexy, so she gave that to them. She did these things because she wanted people to be happy. She told funny stories about her life in “El chico del apartamento 512” and “Bidi bidi bom bom.” People fell in love with her. People sang her songs, wore her merchandise, and danced to her music on concrete floors at night. My cousins visited her boutique in Corpus Christi and bought her trinkets. I danced the cumbia to her. For a few years, Selena was everywhere in South Texas. Everyone had seen her, or had met her, or had known her at one point or another. Mexicans loved her. Americans loved her. Even white people loved her.

We eagerly awaited her next appearance. She threw out the first pitch at a minor league baseball game. She wore a cap studded with rhinestones and was filmed in Dutch angles by a crew from a syndicated TV show called Puro Tejano. In the twilight haze of late spring, while a marvelous pink thunderhead cracked blue and white bolts of lightning over the eaves of my house, we wondered where she’d gotten that marvelous (but equally ridiculous) white ruffled shirt for the album cover of Amor prohibido. When she appeared on TV, it was a family affair. “Did you see her on The Johnny Canales Show?” my cousin Mandy asked at a barbecue. My other cousin: “Wasn’t she on Puro Tejano last week?” The conversation would inevitably turn over to whoever had seen Selena the most that week, and this person would explain where they had seen her and what company she had been sponsored by, and so on.

Her notoriety, in the days of my youth, fell somewhere between knowing Steve Urkel and knowing a cousin with whom one was not on familiar terms. One knew of Selena just as much as one knew of Steve Urkel: they were both on TV, and we knew what they looked like. But we knew Selena because she had been in our hometowns, had eaten in our restaurants, had picked doughnuts and molletes from our panaderías—had, in a more cosmic sense, experienced life in a way that was entirely similar to how we experienced it. Governor Ann Richards and Governor George W. Bush and Senator Lloyd Bentsen had been in her periphery just as they had been in all of ours. Her life had been nourished by economic crises and agitated by cultural change: the oil glut, Reaganomics, the devaluation of the Mexican peso, Hurricane Allen, the devastating winter freeze that ruined the South Texas grapefruit trees and made the plains frosty-white. She also shared in our growing prosperity. It was good to be a Tejano in the early ’90s. Henry Cisneros was the mayor of San Antonio, grooming himself for a political career in Austin and Washington, DC; the Dallas Cowboys were winning; and Walker, Texas Ranger, with its diverse cast and exciting premise, gave Texans a renewed sense of local pride. Selena’s ascendance to fame was a visible metaphor for the potential success and personal fulfillment now available to Tejanos. It spoke to the dream of finally aligning our culture with the rest of Texas and the country, without having to worry about being discriminated against or misunderstood or otherwise relegated to the back of the line. We were all there on that warm, humid plain, riding the periphery of the last great decade of the American century, hearing this girl singing up-tempo versions of Juan Gabriel’s pop songs from ten years before, watching her dance in the parking lots of strip malls.

But behind all that, there was Selena the victim, who had entrusted her fan club’s finances to a total stranger. That stranger was Yolanda Saldívar. Saldívar, who as a nurse had learned to indulge those in her care, reportedly doted on Selena, though this came at the expense of her business ventures, especially her boutique. Saldívar began meddling in Selena’s family affairs, enraging her father. Unfazed by Abraham Quintanilla’s critiques and threats, she resorted to embezzling funds from both the fan club and the boutique. When he confronted her on March 9, 1995, with Selena in tow, she denied defrauding Selena. But forged checks and bank statements later showed she had taken more than thirty thousand dollars from the family. Abraham threatened to go to the police. With her back to the wall, Saldívar concocted a story about being raped in Mexico, and bought a .38 caliber revolver and hollow-point bullets. Selena accompanied Saldívar to a hospital, concerned that the rape story might be true; in reality, the story had been a ruse to isolate Selena and kill her. The doctors and nurses at the hospital were skeptical of Saldívar’s claim that the rape had caused her to bleed heavily the night before, and suggested that she go to another hospital. Selena was fed up. At Saldívar’s hotel room—Room 158 at the Days Inn—Selena confronted Saldívar again about missing financial documents, stolen memorabilia, and her erratic and unpredictable behavior. Her only defense—one constantly reiterated by Saldívar in interviews after the murder—was that she loved Selena and wanted to protect her. But Selena refused to believe another of Saldívar’s lies. Saldívar produced the gun and pointed it at Selena.

*

And then it was all over. The hollow-point bullet that cut Selena out of this world also shattered the fragile image of self-control that Tejanos had constructed for themselves. The border had been, for so long, an opaque and hostile netherworld that consumed everything and everyone in it, and when Selena died, it was proof again that we could not escape this narrative of death and suffering, that the very same desperation that drove people to run bodies and drugs across the border could also kill the best thing that had ever happened to us.

The day before Selena’s funeral, Howard Stern mocked her and her music live on his radio show, an act that was met with universal condemnation. Stern said: “This music does absolutely nothing for me. Alvin and the Chipmunks have more soul. Spanish people have the worst taste in music. They have no depth.” A Cameron County judge issued a warrant for his arrest for disorderly conduct, which is still on the books. Just less than a month later, Timothy McVeigh drove a pickup truck full of explosives up to the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City and killed 168 people. Severe thunderstorms raked the South Texas countryside for several weeks in late April and May of 1995, bringing black skies and tornado warnings and nights full of lightning. For a long while, the phrase el diablo anda suelto (“the devil is loose”) seemed apt for describing the confusion and sense of anomie that existed in the wake of Selena’s murder. For many people, myself included, Selena’s death was the watershed moment prior to 9/11. You knew where you were and what you were doing on the day that she died.

As for me, I can only tell you what I felt that March afternoon as I walked home with my little brother in the pouring rain: immense emptiness and shock. Nothing like this had ever happened to me. Someone whom I had expected to remain in my life was gone forever. Little did I know, then, exactly how strange and contradictory life can be. I expected the artists I loved to remain in the orbit of my life forever, but now Selena was gone, and I was left with nothing. It was the most awful feeling in the world.

For a region that had been, since time immemorial, utterly overwhelmed by a sense of the tragic, Selena’s death was intense, mechanistic, and predictable. She was a victim of her own culture, as we all were in some way. Her life, mired in poverty, had the brief respite from suffering that only fame could bring. That respite ended the moment she agreed to the suggestion—at her father’s behest—that Yolanda Saldívar should run the Selena Fan Club. Managed by a uncompromising father, corralled by her brothers and cousins, and forced to conform to a code of unspoken social rules, Selena struggled to escape the hubris of patriarchy and the cycle of poverty and abuse that have always been the curse of South Texas.

But Selena’s legacy lives on in myriad ways. One major beneficiary of her success is Jennifer Lopez, who practically built her career on it. The resurgence of Latin musical influences in American pop music that began in 1998 is partly due to the interest in the genre that Selena’s death incited. The popularity of Tejano music, which reached its apex in the mid-’90s, faded considerably, and the genre became once more a regional market populated by old favorites. No one could reproduce in any tangible way the sort of excitement that Selena’s mere presence could provoke. There had been Freddy Fender, whose career blossomed in the ’70s and ’80s as part of genre-busting acts like the Texas Tornados and Los Super Seven. Several of Selena’s contemporaries—Emilio Navaira, Elida Reyna, and Jennifer Peña, for example—had also been big, but they didn’t have the same clout with English-speaking audiences. And then there were people like Tish Hinojosa and Alejandro Escovedo (popular exclusively with Austinites) and Chelo Silva and Lydia Mendoza and Flaco Jiménez (popular with ethnomusicologists), but for whatever reason, none of them ever appealed to as many people as Selena did. Selena’s fame, like most things on the border, arose amid a perfect storm of circumstance and contradiction, and then dissipated as quickly as it arose. In late 2004, Freddy Fender appeared on a local TV show in my hometown, a gaunt and overwrought spectacle of who he had been in the 1970s and 1980s, and said simply, “Tejano music isn’t the same anymore.”

*

The longing for Selena’s image and all it represents began almost immediately after her death: at first in bedrooms, on the dressers of the people who were her fans. It continued in the Selena lookalike contests, which attracted girls as young as three. There were hour-long specials on Univision and Telemundo. There was the first People en Español issue, dedicated entirely to her murder and her obsequy. And then there were the pretrial hearings for Yolanda Saldívar, her viewing, her cortège, the interview with Saldívar on 20/20. Shops across the southwest sold Chinese-manufactured copies of Selena’s purple-sequined suit, and her posthumous album, Dreaming of You, a half-finished record of dream pop and heartbreak, played nonstop throughout that summer and fall. It seemed as if, almost overnight, Selena’s face and image were everywhere—airbrushed on the hoods of lowriders, on votive candles at her gravesite in Corpus Christi, in slo-mo montages with glitter and white roses in her video for “I Could Fall in Love.” She was on walls, in bronze, in stone, inked on quivering human flesh. Those who had crowded stockyards in the fields of South Texas to see Selena perform now found themselves clinging to the chain-link fence abutting Seaside Memorial Park in Corpus Christi, bereft, forlorn, and inconsolable, unaware that millions of people all around the world were doing the same, from Madrid to Mexico City, from Manila to Manaus. I remember white people in Texas being sensitive enough to recognize the maw of grief that we experienced, at least in then governor Bush’s words, as “a terrible tragedy.” But for many of us, it was the end of the world.

Mexicans were also affected by Selena, in positive and negative ways. For several years during her career and after her death, many Mexican singers—like Graciela Beltrán and Alicia Villarreal—tried to emulate her but could not reproduce her popularity in their own country. The tides were turning from norteño to music from Durango and Sinaloa as immigrants and cartel traffic moved northward. Those living in the central and southern parts of Mexico (and particularly in the more affluent large cities) resented Selena’s popularity because she was considered pocha (“rotten”), a reference to the fact that she was an American speaking and performing almost exclusively in Spanish, a sellout.

But she was not a sellout. She was not Madonna, or Evita, or the Virgin of Guadalupe, as some writers have claimed. I can tell you only what she was to me. I can conjure her only as I saw her, through the dim haze of some twenty-two years of memories; I can reproduce only her image, blurry and suffused with the soft pink and green light of the world I used to know. Selena lives on in South Texas in the names of little girls and white roses and in sun-bleached commemorative billboards on the side of the highway on the way to Corpus, and on old posters on the walls of old shotgun houses. She lives on because people like me yearn for the idyllic and the unreal, for a world that we should have had but did not, for a world where security and love and sunlight were certainties, where the truth was relayed in Spanish proverbs and enacted in loving little ways during the five o’clock news, where we all could be perfect in the eyes of our elders and the whole country. Selena’s myth is alive because we continue to feed it: her Google Doodle, her makeup line, this essay—they are all attempts to cement her contributions to our individual lives, even if the result looks and sounds nothing like who the real Selena was.

She is a part of me, and I am a part of her. Linked to her is a whole constellation of memories hovering there in the starry twilight of my mind. Her memory inhabits a world of broken-concrete carport Sundays with my grandfather, listening to the wind chimes as the breeze passed through them, hearing the cicadas, smelling the petitgrain and the petrichor. Selena has come to signify much more than what she originally was. In writing this essay, I have to admit that I have, in some way, diffused and blurred even more her legacy. The longing for Selena is really a quintessential Hispanic longing for the past—a unique mind-set fomented by colonialism—and for many of us, including me, that longing found its place in Selena. As a people besieged by violence and war, Tejanos found that the facts of life in the twentieth century were laid out early on: don’t question authority; trust white people; be as American as possible, because things are terrible in Mexico. For generations, people on the border had followed these rules vigilantly, struggling to live by picking other people’s food and enduring beatings, all in the name of keeping the family together. But Selena changed this. Now a family like mine could wish for their daughter to be a singer, or an engineer, or a politician. Selena represented our transition from the periphery: she was the catalyst that could propel us, respected and admired, into the life of our country.

When I dream of Selena, I dream of a place and a time more familiar and more insular than the one I lived in, filled with the one thing this world seems to lack—hope. There was something about those warm, breezy nights spent under the carport of my house listening to my cousin’s old Selena tapes. There was something about those Casio keyboard chords that supported that smoky, sensual voice. They reminded me of the long blue twilights of summer, the crescent moon, starlight. Her music was so impressively catchy that you wondered who wrote her songs (it was almost always her brother). You heard Selena everywhere in Harlingen—at the Stars drive-thru, at the only church kermis I ever attended as a child, at my grandfather’s house. And even at the obligatory Cinco de Mayo pageants in school, while we mimicked the Ballet Folklórico in the traditional dances of a land we never knew, there was Selena afterward, on the radio, while we swung at a piñata version of Garfield. She was ubiquitous, sewn into the fabric of our lives, musical and otherwise. Her name was in our mouths, in satin, on denim, in diamonds and gold, dangling in the cleavage of a die-hard fan.

Selena’s image reminds us that happiness is possible—no matter how brief or fleeting it is. And when I returned to South Texas to find this very same happiness just a few weeks ago, I could not find it: the light is still there, and the wind, and the sun—but there were no white roses or gushing fountains, just the immensity of the sea and of the warm scrublands, and in between all that, me. And in the long, hazy afternoon I spent sucking the last syrup from a long-melted raspa, watching my mother nap as the afternoon breeze passed through the sheer curtains, I felt as forlorn and as luxuriant as a foreigner. Because Selena continues to live in my memory, half of my life will always be empty, while the other half will remain as vibrant, as colorful, and as innocent as that hot summer day when I first saw her.

She was a girl from Lake Jackson, Texas, who sang Tejano music for a living, who had doors slammed in her face just like her father did, who had to eke out an existence on tour in a rundown bus. The famous bustier in her publicity photos—arguably the most famous bustier of all time—was just a black sports bra onto which she had hot-glued a handful of rhinestones. Like all teenage girls, her weight fluctuated, she had flatulence, she had acne, she had periods, she struggled with her hair, she was taken apart and put back together by the male gaze, she had poor grades, she had straight As, she loved puppies and kittens, she had dreams, she wanted to live in a big house by the sea. That girl was the real Selena whom we lost. But she was, also, something much bigger and much more glamorous. Between these two poles, her legacy lies.

In late July 1996, for my twelfth birthday, my cousin Monica gave me Dreaming of You, her posthumous album, on a cassette tape. I put on the headphones my mother had bought me at the dollar store and listened to the entire thing on an ancient tape player my grandfather found in someone’s alley. The ceiling fan whirred in my room that round, blue evening, and I imagined she was there with me, having emerged from the moonlight with an armful of white roses, armed with all the sad beauty of the world, all that longing for something that I wouldn’t know until much later. My eyes filled with tears as soon as I heard the opening drumbeats of “I Could Fall in Love.” They fell onto the plastic case that bore the liner notes. I pulled them open and spread them out on the carpet in front of me and read, absolutely overcome with grief, the one phrase that had symbolized Selena’s brief and tragic passage through this life: “Con tu adios / te llevas mi corazón.”

“With your goodbye / you take my heart.”

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