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Selena Quintanilla: The Queen of Tejano Music

Selena Quintanilla loved to sing, but was shy on stage. When people doubted a girl could entertain a crowd though, she set out to prove them wrong. With her sparkling outfits and sparklier personality, she became the Queen of Tejano Music!

This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. This story was produced by Haley Dapkus with sound design and mixing by Mumble Media. It was written by Nicole Haroutunian and edited by Abby Sher. Fact-checking by Joe Rhatigan. Narration by Lena Garcia. Joy Smith was our executive producer. Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!

Transcript

So far, the quinceañera was a blast. Everything was done to perfection, but the guests agreed—the band was the best part. They’d gone on break, but were due back any minute. Except…the singer was missing! Her bandmates, big sister, Suzette, and big brother, A.B., raced around the party hall looking for her. Selena? they called. Selena?

Suzette found nine-year-old Selena Quintanilla curled up asleep behind the speakers. Shaking her awake, Suzette cried, “We’re on!” Selena rubbed her eyes. Being a kid and the lead singer of her family’s band was tough! It was past her bedtime, but the show had to go on. 

So Selena got up, straightened her white knee socks, and marched herself back out to the microphone. The crowd grew quieter as Suzette started in on the drums. Then A.B. strummed the bass. And last but not least, Selena opened her mouth and filled the room with her dazzling soprano voice. The party came alive again with dancing and singing. Selena was only nine years old that night, but she was already well on her way to becoming  La reina de la música Tejanathe Queen of Tejano Music!

I’m Lena Garcia. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.

A fairy tale podcast about the rebel women who inspire us. 

On this episode, Selena Quintanilla Pérez, a magnetic Mexican-American popstar who won over audiences with her joyful voice, iconic style, and vibrant spirit.

It all started when she was six. Home in South Texas, Selena heard faint music drifting down the hall. She followed her ears, and, through a crack in the door, spied her father teaching her brother to play the bass guitar. 

Selena frowned, jealous that she wasn’t getting these music lessons. When she couldn’t stand it anymore, she threw open the door and started singing for her father right on cue. Her father’s jaw dropped. “Selena, you have perfect pitch!” he gasped. 

And from then on, music became a family affair.

When Selena was eight, she and her siblings began to perform at clubs, parties, and the dining room of her father’s restaurant. They called themselves Selena y Los Dinos. All eyes were on Selena, as she stood front and center performance after performance. But with her brother and sister behind her, she had all the confidence she needed. 

When her dad’s restaurant closed, the family depended on the money the band earned, even if it was only five or ten dollars at a time. Everyone pitched in — their dad managed all their shows, their mom made stage lights out of empty peach cans, and the kids were busy performing! 

It was challenging though. They traveled between gigs in a beat-up bus they called “Big Bertha.” When the kids wanted to quit, their dad swore that, if they stuck with it, they’d play at the Houston Astrodome one day. 

So they persevered, night after night. At school, Selena fought to stay awake, but her eyelids just got so…so…heavy. Her teachers complained that being out late wasn’t good for her! Selena kept up her grades, but eventually her dad pulled her out of school. She was relieved to focus on the band, but missed being with other kids. 

When Selena y Los Dinos played a high school dance, she longed to join the teenagers laughing with their friends. As she sang, she peered over her shoulder at Suzette, who gazed at the dance floor wistfully, too. “He’s cute!” her sister whispered about a boy in the front row. Selena was so glad they had each other. Suzette understood what it was like to be at a school dance, but not really there at the same time.

Selena’s life was filled with that in-between-ness. When Selena y Los Dinos had the chance to make a record, her father was adamant that it be Tejano, or Tex-Mex music, reflecting their cultural heritage. Thirteen-year-old Selena wasn’t sure. Tejano was a cool mix of Mexican singing styles and European polka rhythms. But, although the Quintanillas were Mexican-American, they spoke English at home. How could she sing Spanish lyrics? Her father said he’d teach her phonetically—she just had to repeat after him, even if she didn’t know what she was saying.

She also felt skeptical because Tejano was a male-dominated musical genre. Club managers expressed doubts – could a girl really lead a Tejano band? Their sexist words lit a spark in Selena. 

Ha! she thought. Just watch what I can do!

Over the next few years, Selena learned to not only lead a Tejano band, but to redefine the music itself. Sometimes she was still backstage, stitching the last rhinestones onto her glittering hand-sewn costume as the audience filed in. As soon as the lights came up, though, she was a full-on performer, captivating everyone lucky enough to be in the crowd.

Some people considered her belly-baring bustiers and skintight pants a little too revealing, but as she grooved across the stage, everyone could tell she felt great in her body. Her voice was so passionate, climbing up and down the octaves, breaking and then healing hearts a hundred times. She switched effortlessly from traditional Tejano to cumbia to a cover of some favorite pop song. 

And her dancing! It was fluid and fabulous and nonstop. She was never out of breath either, no matter how fast her feet moved. At the end of her shows, as she pulled her microphone away, drawing out her long last note, there was often a bright red ring left behind. Her signature lipstick!

Selena was taking the radio waves by storm. At fifteen, she won her first Female Vocalist of the Year award. Then at sixteen, she won Female Entertainer of the Year at the Tejano Music Awards for the first of NINE consecutive times. Her early wins caught the attention of a powerful music executive who decided to sign her to Capitol Records EMI Latin division. She was on her way!

As an increasingly popular Tejano singer on the US/Mexico border, Selena decided to learn Spanish for real. She said, “I feel very proud to be Mexican…It’s never too late to get in touch with your roots.” 

She started practicing all the time, and her skills were often put to the test. Like when she released her breakthrough record “Entre a Mi Mundo,” and was asked to give a big Spanish-language interview on TV. She talked confidently in Spanish throughout the show until the very end, when she wanted to say the number “fourteen.” Instead of the word “Catorce,” she said it the way many other Spanish numbers are said, “diez y cuatro.” Ten and four. The interviewer corrected her gently, and Selena laughed and stuck her tongue out, realizing her error. “Ese es Tex-Mex! Tex Mex! Diez y cuatro!” the interviewer teased. They both laughed and hugged as the audience cheered.

Like the interviewer, many Spanish-speakers appreciated her efforts. It was rare for a Mexican-American singer to become beloved in Mexico, but Selena was. Once she won over her Mexican fans, she truly became La reina de la música Tejana!

“The impossible is always possible,” Selena loved to say. And people listened! She was becoming a huge role model for young Latinas who didn’t often see pop stars who looked like them. Over the course of eleven albums, many topping Latin music charts, breaking sales records, and garnering multiple Billboard and Grammy awards, Selena added her own spin to Tejano music. Influenced by R&B, country, disco, and more, she made the genre her own. 

Her personal life evolved, too. She fell in love and got married to a fellow Tejano musician. She continued to expand her network of fans and friends, finding hope and possibility in each day. She left bright spots on the world wherever she went. If someone said something negative, she quickly responded with something positive. 

One day, Selena stopped by to see her parents. Her mother took one look at her and cried, “Selena, where are your shoes!?”

Selena looked at her dusty socks. “Oh, I met a fan on the way over!” she explained. “And she really liked my boots.”

“You just…gave them to her?” her mother asked.

Selena laughed, surprised her mom was surprised! Selena was always generous, but especially when people admired her clothes. She’d just opened a line of boutiques so her fans could proudly wear her designs. She wanted to share her trendsetting styles just like she wanted to share her musical gifts with the world.

 When Selena was 22, just like her dad had promised, she played the Houston Astrodome for the first time. Dressed in a spectacular bedazzled bra-top and matching cap, Selena crooned the first few notes of her signature song “Como la Flor,” eyes closed, voice wavering with emotion. Just as the beat was about to kick in, she opened her eyes, the audience went wild, and she broke into the hugest smile. Selena loved her fans as much as they loved her. The music swelled, and she twirled across the stage, that dazzling smile lighting up the arena. 

“Never in my dreams would I have thought I would become this big,” she said. “I’m still freaking out.”

Tragically, Selena was just 23 when she died. All of her fans were heartbroken. There was so much more music for her to create and so many more ways for her to bring people together in song. Including her next and final album, which was released after her death, called “Dreaming of You.” 

Selena is still adored around the world. She’s remembered by those who loved her and is constantly being discovered by new listeners. When people told her Tejano music was for male performers, she danced onstage and proved them wrong; connecting to her Mexican-American roots to make songs that were fun and memorable for everyone. 

So go ahead, Rebels: turn up your speakers and play “Dreaming of You,” “Como la Flor,” or any of Selena’s many hits. Feel the rhythms fill you up and inspire you to be braverbrighter and bolder. And be sure to dance however feels right to you, smiling big and bright, just like Selena.