Rising Star

From the beginning, audiences loved her. “People would come and say, ‘We want to hear the little girl sing,’ ” remembers her father, Abraham Quintanilla Jr., who used to display his 9-year-old daughter’s talents in Papagallos, the Mexican restaurant the family owned in Lake Jackson, Texas, about 55 miles south of Houston.

Selena, though, didn’t always love audiences. Gawky and unsure of herself as a child, she frequently burst into tears or ran and hid when her father called her to the microphone. And when he insisted, she sang only as long as she had to. “Selena was shy,” says her sister Suzette, 27. “She would sing, and as soon as she finished the last word of the song she would say, ‘Thank you!’ and leave.”

But ultimately she came to bloom in the spotlight. By the time of her death on March 31, at age 23, Selena was a consummate showwoman—a confident, kinetic talent, wrapped in rhinestones, who came alive onstage. “She carried herself like a thoroughbred racer,” said veteran record producer Huey Meaux. “She had charisma, she could sing, and she had presence.”

Indeed, with her smooth soprano and her striking good looks, Selena seemed on the verge of break-out success. As the undisputed queen of the pumping, passionate Southwest music called Tejano, she had won a Grammy for Best Mexican-American Album with her 1993 release Selena Live! and sold more than 500,000 copies of her next record, Amor Prohibido. Earlier this year, she began recording songs for an English-language album—her first—that she hoped would bring her the kind of crossover popularity enjoyed by artists like Gloria Estefan and Jon Secada.

Abraham, now 55, who once had to coax Selena to do anything more than stand stiffly behind the microphone, viewed his youngest child’s metamorphosis with pride and amazement. “She grew up,” he marvels, “to have the grace of a swan.”

If the style was a long time in coming, the talent was there from the start. Selena’s parents recall her, at age 6, peeking into the room where Abraham, who had been a vocalist with the popular South Texas band Los Dinos (slang for “The Guys”) in the ’50s and ’60s, was trying to teach her brother Abraham III (A.B. for short) to play the guitar. All of a sudden, says her mother, Marcela, Selena grabbed a music book and burst out singing. “She was this little girl with such a powerful voice,” remembers Marcela, 50. Abraham was stunned. “She had perfect pitch, perfect timing,” he says. “Some people go to school to learn music, and they never learn it. These kids, within a month’s time they were playing four songs. They were gifted.”

Before long, Suzette was drafted to play drums, and Abraham was showing off the family band, now called Selena y Los Dinos, at the restaurant and at weddings. Their musical style ranged from country to conjunto, a mix of traditional Mexican music and accordion-driven polkas. Initially, the band was a family hobby. Then, in 1981, as the Texas oil patch started to go bust, the Quintanillas lost their restaurant and their home. Selena y Los Dinos became a way to survive. “We were literally doing it to put food on the table,” Selena once said. From a home base in Corpus Christi, where they moved that year, the family traveled the back country of South Texas, performing at weddings, quinceaneras (coming-out parties for 15-year-old Latinas) and the occasional nightclub. “Selena would fall asleep behind the speakers during our intermissions,” says Suzette. Their tour bus was a banged-up van with a foldout bed in the back, and often they earned just enough money to pay for motels and gas. To cut expenses, the Quintanillas made stage lights out of empty peach cans and homemade speaker cabinets out of wood. When the kids became discouraged and talked about quitting, Abraham loaded them all in the family car and drove out to look at the fancy homes along Corpus’s swank Ocean Drive. “I told them, ‘One day you’re going to have it all,’ ” Abraham says. ” ‘You’ve come this far, you just can’t give it all up now’ ”

Little by little, the band’s popularity grew. Nightclubs gave way to dance halls, and Los Dinos began recording for a regional record label. Touring demands forced Selena to miss school, especially on Mondays and Fridays. Although she remained a good student, her teachers began to complain. “They even threatened me with child labor,” Abraham said. “I said, ‘Child labor! That’s not what this is about! My kids have talent!’ ”

Eventually, Selena decided to earn her high school diploma through a correspondence course (the same course, coincidentally, that many of the touring Osmond kids had used), and the band went on the road full-time. Their big break came in 1987, when 15-year-old Selena won the Tejano Music Award for Female Entertainer of the Year. The win brought a major label contract with Capitol Records, which led to six increasingly successful albums. By 1992 she had launched her own clothing line, and two years later she opened her first boutique in Corpus Christi, followed by one in San Antonio. “That was something she had done on her own,” says A.B., now 31. “That’s why she was so proud of it.”

Despite her success, Selena remained true to her roots. With her husband, Chris Pérez, Los Dinos guitarist, she settled into a modest, three-bedroom brick house in Corpus Christi’s working-class Molina district, next door to her parents. She bought shoes at Payless Shoe Source and dresses at Wal-Mart. Her favorite restaurant was the moderately priced Olive Garden, and for dinner she loved Pizza Hut’s pies with extra pepperoni. When she wasn’t performing, she hung out in the neighborhood, inviting local kids over to help her with her yardwork and fixing them lunch afterward. “Selena was down-to-earth,” says Abraham. “She wasn’t a put-on, and people could see that.”

Even after Hispanic Business magazine named her one of the world’s top Hispanic entertainers—and placed her band’s earnings at $5 million—Selena never seemed to realize she was a star. Before every show, says Suzette, she would still peek through the curtains to see if there were people out there. She never refused a request for an autograph, and after each performance she would turn to her father and ask, “How’d I do?” A recent brush with Hollywood, when she filmed a small part as a mariachi singer in Don Juan De-Marco, had her bubbling with excitement. “She came home and said, ‘I can’t believe it, I met Marlon Brando!’ ” says Suzette. “She said he was a very flirtatious man, but in a very gentlemanly manner.”

Hollywood was equally impressed. “She had so much magnetism and charisma,” says Don Juan director Jeremy Leven. “There are some people who are loved by the camera, who just stand out on the screen. It was clear that Selena was one of those people.”

Although English was Selena’s first language—when she was a child, her father had to teach her Spanish lyrics phonetically—she worked hard to learn Abraham’s native tongue. “I received a letter from a little girl, a Tejana [Spanish for Texan], who said she never liked her culture, she hated being Mexican and she didn’t want to speak Spanish,” says Marcela. “But she said that after she heard Selena, she wanted to learn Spanish and that all of a sudden she was proud of being Hispanic.”

Selena also tried to instill in her fans a respect for education. She had spent the past two years working to complete a college degree in business administration by correspondence; and wherever she traveled on tour, she visited kids in the barrio and urged them to stay in school. Because she was one of them, they seemed to listen. “We have so much evil in the world,” says Abraham. “I think people were looking to Selena for something good.”

She usually delivered—even when it was least expected. During a recent dinner at the Olive Garden, Selena noticed an elderly woman dining alone and decided to pay the woman’s check anonymously. Another time, while driving her beloved red Porsche to her sister’s home, she accidentally hit a rabbit. Selena rushed the injured bunny to a local veterinarian and paid $300 to save it. “That’s Selena,” says Suzette.

If Selena had a fault, it was that she was chronically late. Because of that, Abraham, Suzette and A.B. weren’t worried as they sat around the family’s recording studio on March 31, waiting for Selena to arrive to work on background vocals for a demo tape her brother was producing. When calls started coming in from radio stations asking about rumors that Selena had been shot, A.B. thought they were crazy. Then Marcela phoned to say police had summoned them to the hospital.

Less than three weeks later, the news still hasn’t sunk in completely. As the Quintanillas sit with Chris in the studio, the sound of Selena’s voice wafts from the speakers, and her face smiles in videos playing on a large-screen TV “For the first three or four days after all this happened, I had an image of Selena in my mind,” says Abraham, his voice cracking. “She was a little girl. I couldn’t think of her as she was now. All I saw was Selena when she was 12, when she was my little girl.”

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