Myth, martyr, musician

With each passing day, the ghost of Selena looms larger over the mainstream

Elaborate shrines mourning slain Tejano singer Selena dot neighborhoods throughout Texas, candles and Christmas lights brightening dark streets at night. Selena's name is scrawled across thousands of car windows with white shoe polish, her photo taped in so many rear windows. Record stores are sold out of her CDs and cassettes, with supplies unlikely to be refilled for at least another week.

On April 30, when Selena was scheduled to perform at the Cinco de Mayo Festival in Fort Worth, the other bands (including Emilio and Little Joe y La Familia) will pay homage to the dead singer.

As always happens, in death a superstar becomes an immortal. It happened to Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, John Lennon, Janis Joplin, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Kurt Cobain, and Elvis Presley.

And now it happens to another young pop star, one whose murder at gunpoint at the hand of a trusted friend has accomplished what she attempted to do in life--bring Mexican-American music to a mainstream American audience.

The week after her March 31 death, People magazine issued a special Southwest edition that featured Selena on the cover (the cast of NBC's hit sitcom "Friends" ran throughout the rest of the country). Its quick sell-out at newsstands has forced the magazine to prepare a commemorative issue due April 24 that will be available nationwide--and, perhaps, even throughout Mexico in a special Spanish-only edition.

The same day, Texas Monthly--which, ironically enough, was preparing to go to press with an issue about gun control and the concealed handgun law debate--will also feature the singer on its cover to accompany a last-minute piece written by senior editor-music critic Joe Nick Patoski.

In a matter of weeks, a 23-year-old woman whose music even now has gone unheard by most has been elevated to myth, martyr--and perhaps even saint. Selena, whose life was untouched by scandal, who was married and faithful and proudly flaunted her ethnicity, who was virtuous and sexy all at once, has become a symbol of pride for Mexican-Americans and Texans. And where she was once adored by millions of fans, now she is literally worshiped.

"I don't want to seem sacrilegious, but it does seem like she's being made into a saint because, in a sense, she was," says "Smokin'" Steve Chavez, a disc jockey at KNON-FM and the Tejano Rodeo. "I knew her fairly well. We weren't close friends, but I did know her and have for years, and she was off stage what she was on stage. She was always smiling, always good. There was something pure about her."

Selena was the great hope of Tejano music, the one person who had the star power, the charisma, the talent, and the fan base to elevate the music to another level--to make it popular, her fans believed, among a mainstream American audience that had long been loath to embrace anyone who did not sing in English.

EMI Records is preparing to release Selena's all-English album in June, even though Selena had completed only four tracks before her death. The label--with the assistance of her father, Abraham Quintanilla Jr.--likely will add music to four other vocal tracks she had recorded and then add a few more English-language songs from her previous albums.

She also has three songs on the upcoming Don Juan DeMarco sound track (she appears briefly in the film as a mariachi singer), one of which ("God's Child") she recorded with Latinophile David Byrne--who wrote the song and, appropriately enough, has long been a pop artist trying to reach the Latin audience. But Selena already had been slowly inching toward a more mainstream audience by recording the Pretenders' "Back on the Chain Gang" in Spanish (retitling it "Photos and Memories").

Though the Tejano music world is dotted with its few stars--such men as Emilio Navaira and Rick Trevino (who began as a country singer), and women like Elsa Garcia and Shelly Lares--there was never any doubt Selena would be the performer who would rival Madonna, Gloria Estefan, and Whitney Houston as a sheer pop star. Born and raised in South Texas, she was an amazing success story who began performing with her family when she was nine years old; 14 years later, she would win a Grammy for her 1994 album Amor Prohibido and own her own shops in San Antonio and Corpus Christi peddling her line of clothing and jewelry.

"She grew up in front of our eyes, from a little girl to a married woman on the verge of mainstream superstardom," Chavez explains. "[Her fame] was exclusive to her. Not only that, but the female entertainers in Tejano music--and no offense to them--didn't really come close to her in any way. With Selena there was no comparison. Every female artist that comes out is automatically compared to her."

Selena was the perfect embodiment of Tejano music--a woman who never shied away from her Mexican heritage but was also a progressive woman, both a traditionalist and a modernist. Though reaction to her death is firmly rooted in a Catholic culture that reveres its female icons (the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe is as prevalent, if not more so, than that of Jesus in Mexico), she was not Catholic. In fact, her father was a Jehovah's Witness, and Selena was studying the religion herself, though she was turned off by tenets requiring women to wear drab clothing.

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