Before Ricky Martin drank from the Cup of Life while shaking his bon-bon, and before Shakira was even a glimmer in the eye of the American pop culture landscape, there was Selena: a young, beautiful Texan of Mexican descent who was the first of that generation of Spanish-language performers to begin to cross over into English-language success.
Fifteen years after her tragic murder, her music—in both languages—lives on. Even the most sheltered English-speaking music fan might not know Selena’s name, but if you mention her hit singles, “Dreaming of You,” or “I Could Fall In Love,” they’ll likely respond with I remember that song! or I love that one! Today, Suzette Quintanilla Arriaga, Selena’s sister and long-time drummer, is doing her part to ensure that this remains the case: that Selena’s memory lives on through her music.
Suzette is friendly and laid-back on the phone, and when the anniversary of her sister’s passing comes up, she remains resolute in not focusing on the negative. “[The Quintanilla Family has] never marked that day. For us, it’s the day we lost her, so ... we actually don’t even get together as a family. We try to keep it as normal and real as possible. I mean, we’ll call to check in and see how everyone’s doing, but we don’t do anything to get together. It’s the marking of her passing, so its something that we don’t celebrate whatsoever.” Instead, she and her family prefer to “focus on the good stuff.”
And there was a lot of good stuff. Selena’s music career was a large, boisterous family affair. Her father was also her manager, and he and his wife traveled with Los Dinos, Selena’s band that featured Suzette on drums, her brother A.B. Quintanilla on bass, and Chris Perez, the man who would eventually become her husband, on lead and rhythm guitars. When asked what it was like for her and Selena to be the only young women touring with a primarily male entourage, Suzette brightens.
“We were the queens!” she exclaims. “Everybody treated us with the utmost respect. They were like our brothers, you know? They were very protective of us. You have to understand, we were traveling with our mom and dad. It was a family thing. So, there was nobody being disrespectful. The guys really watched over us. I loved our crew and our band. They were like an extension of our own family.”
Suzette continues to be proud of her sister’s musical accomplishments. She is particularly proud, because not only was crossing over into English a challenge, but it was also a challenge for Selena to be accepted by the Spanish-language audience. Growing up in Lake Jackson, TX, which is “mostly Anglo,” Selena, like many Latinas, grew up primarily speaking English.
“We were worried that we weren’t going to be accepted into Mexico,” Suzette says. “And it’s not like [our not speaking much Spanish] meant that we weren’t proud of our culture. It’s just not how we grew up.” I mention that I am Puerto Rican and have loved Selena’s music since I was a young Latina in high school who also spoke mostly English, and Suzette latches onto our shared experience. “That’s what’s so cool about Selena’s music! She tore down barriers. See? You’re Puerto Rican and you listen to her. She appeals to so many walks of Latinos.” Selena’s music, she says, “transcends over everything.”
The efforts to keep Selena’s memory alive include the Selena Museum in Corpus Christi as well as the recently-released commemorative boxed set of her recordings and live versions of her songs. Sadly, the family decided to close the boutique that bore her name last year due to the declining economy. The decision was a difficult one. Says Suzette, “This was her baby. It was not an easy decision. We mulled it over for three months. But then Chris reminded us that she would’ve known that it was time. When you gotta fold, you gotta fold, you know?”
I asked if Selena was involved in the boutique, and Suzette answered strongly in the affirmative, painting a picture of Selena as a determined, aspiring businesswoman. “She was actually going to a college out of California while we were touring, through correspondence classes, for a business degree.” She described being amused by Selena, usually so bubbly and funny, very seriously reading from her thesis. “That’s what was so great about Selena,” Suzette said. “She had all this success with the music and everything, but she was always looking to better herself.”
The Selena Museum keeps drawing visitors as young people continue to be introduced to Selena’s music. Suzette has a pre-teen son, and when I asked if he listens to his aunt’s music, she said that while he definitely knows it’s there—how could he not?—“He’s listened to it ... but I don’t even think he has it in his iPod.” Having an aunt who has also become a prominent figure in music history is a strange experience. Suzette tells of a time when Selena came up in her son’s social studies class. When his friends tried to tell the teacher that discussing Selena might be difficult for him because she was his aunt, the teacher proceeded with the lesson anyway. When he got home, Suzette asked him how the experience made him feel, “And he said, ‘It made me feel really cool ... but it made me sad.’”
Selena’s music inspires those mixed emotions in her fans as well. They will always think her music is cool, and they’ll always be sad about the potential that was squandered with her death. EMI and the Quintanilla family joined forces to release a wonderful 4-CD boxed set (also comes as a 2-CD set and a single-disc hits collection), La Leyenda (The Legend), that not only captures the music’s cool, but also the mixed emotions it inspires in the form of a commemorative booklet that features messages from fans about the impact of Selena’s career. It’s a perfect keepsake for those already familiar with Selena, as well as a wonderful, complete introduction to her work. It accomplishes everything Suzette and her family hope to do with regard to Selena’s memory and music. Yet, as proud as Selena’s legacy makes her family, and as much as they strive to do more celebrating than mourning, fifteen years later those mixed emotions still creep in. Suzette describes showing the boxed set to her mother for the first time. “She was so excited to see it! But then she started reading the fan messages in the booklet, and she looked different. I asked her, ‘Mami, what’s wrong?’ She gave it back to me and said ‘I don’t think I’m ready for the boxed set!’”
Selena’s fans, however, are more than ready.