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The Heartbreaking True Story of Selena Quintanilla’s Death
Twenty-five years after she was murdered at just 23 years old, the life and death of Tejano superstar Selena Quintanilla-Pérez continues to loom large in the cultural imagination. It’s not just Selena’s unforgettable music that lives on beyond her, through tribute albums and concerts—it’s her sensational sense of style, commemorated in limited edition merchandise, with her ubiquitous image reproduced everywhere from t-shirts to cosmetics to the faces of Barbie dolls. So too does Selena live on as an icon of multiculturalism, inspiring fans through her duality as a woman who straddled both Mexican and American cultures. With Netflix releasing Selena: The Series, a biopic series produced by members of Selena’s family, interest in how the late singer lived and died has spiked once more. The true story behind her death is an unmitigated tragedy, with a talented young star cut down in her prime.
In the months before her death, Selena was at the height of her career, laying the groundwork for her long-awaited crossover into the mainstream English market. With four studio albums and a Grammy for Best Mexican-American Album under her belt, she was in the process of recording her first English-language album, Dreaming of You, which would go on after her death to set records for release day album sales. She was also looking to expand Selena Etc., her growing chain of Texas-based boutiques with in-house salons, where her signature line of clothing and jewelry were sold. The two existing Selena Etc. locations, based in Corpus Christi and San Antonio, were managed by 32-year-old Yolanda Saldívar, the president of the Selena fan club and a trusted confidante to Selena.
Selena: Como La Flor (Berkley Boulevard)
It was with Saldívar’s appointment as manager of the boutiques that it all began to unravel. According to Joe Nick Patoski, the biographer who wrote Selena: Como La Flor, Saldívar used the corporate American Express given to her by Selena to rent Lincoln town cars, entertain business associates at upscale restaurants, and purchase two cell phones for personal use. Staff members at the boutiques felt that Saldívar was “nice” when Selena dropped in, but cruel when she was away. Martin Gomez, a designer hired to produce Selena’s fashion line, said, “I told Selena I was scared of Yolanda. She wouldn’t let me talk to Selena anymore. She was very possessive.” As discontent escalated, employees reported to Selena that Saldívar was “two-faced and unstable,” but Selena took no action. They then complained to her father and business manager, Abraham Quintanilla Jr., who warned his daughter that Saldívar could be dangerous.
In early March 1995, Selena and her family were informed by boutique employees that Saldívar was embezzling funds from the business, and that she had successfully stolen over $60,000. In a heated confrontation with Selena, her father, and her sister, Suzette Quintanilla, Saldívar denied any wrongdoing, arguing that she was in possession of documents that would exonerate her, though she failed to produce them. Quintanilla Jr. forbade Saldívar from speaking to Selena, though Selena insisted on keeping Saldívar close, as she was the keeper of the singer’s sensitive financial records. On March 25th, 1995, Selena told her sister that she was planning to fire Saldívar “soon.”
On March 30, 1995, Saldívar phoned Selena to inform her that she was staying at a Days Inn Motel near Corpus Christi International Airport; she encouraged Selena to visit her to collect the promised documents, and to come alone. Selena arrived instead with her husband, Chris Pérez, and Saldívar failed to produce the documents. The following morning, Selena returned to the Days Inn Motel alone, where she pressured Saldívar for the documents in a heated argument overheard by guests in neighboring rooms. At 11:48 AM, Saldívar produced a .38 caliber handgun, firing it into Selena’s right shoulder when the singer turned to flee. Critically wounded, a bleeding and crying Selena ran to the hotel lobby, screaming, “Somebody help me!” Saldívar followed in hot pursuit, screaming, “Bitch!”
Selena collapsed in the lobby, where, before she lost consciousness, she managed to name her assailant. When police arrived at the scene, they found Saldívar locked in her pick-up truck with the handgun pointed at her temple, crying, “I can’t believe I killed my best friend.” She kept police at bay for nearly ten hours in a rainy stand-off before she was arrested. Meanwhile, Selena was rushed to Memorial Medical Center, where doctors found her clinically brain-dead upon arrival, owing to the severing of her subclavian artery. After nearly an hour of failed attempts to revive her, Selena was pronounced dead.
Saldívar pleaded not guilty to the crime, claiming the shooting was accidental, but a jury convicted her of first degree murder. She received the maximum sentence of life in prison, with no potential for parole until March 2025. At the Mountain View Unit in Gatesville, Texas, she spends 23 hours a day isolated in her nine feet by six feet cell, where she is held in order to protect her from death threats levied by incarcerated Selena fans.
Selena’s murder sent shockwaves through the Tejano community, devastating her legions of fans in the United States and Mexico alike. All major U.S. television networks interrupted their programming to broadcast the breaking news, while Texas newspapers sold out in record numbers. Maria Aguirre, a television anchor who was then a receptionist at KQQK, a popular Tejano radio station in Houston, described how the switchboard was flooded with calls in the wake of Selena’s death, with fans in disbelief that the news was true.
“It’s almost like the feeling when John Lennon died,” Aguirre said. “She was the queen of Tejano.”
At a public viewing of Selena’s casket, as many as 50,000 mourners converged on Corpus Christi’s Bayfront Plaza Convention Center, traveling from as far as California and Mexico to drape the casket with thousands of white roses. On April 12, 1995, George W. Bush, then the governor of Texas, declared Selena’s birthday, April 16, as Selena Day in the state of Texas. Selena Day remains an informal holiday celebrated by fans, though a bill has been introduced into the Texas legislature to codify it into a formal state holiday.
To Selena, with Love: Commemorative Edition (Commemorative)
Twenty-five years later, the Quintanilla family continues to keep Selena’s legacy alive. Suzette Quintanilla manages Q Productions, the entertainment company and studio where Selena once recorded music. In 2012, Pérez, who has since remarried and joined other bands, released a memoir about his love story with his late wife, titled To Selena, With Love. Abraham Quintanilla Jr. and Selena’s mother, Marcela Quintanilla, founded The Selena Foundation, which aids children in need and partners with local nonprofits to host events honoring Selena, like Fiesta de la Flor. Suzette Quintanilla and Abraham Quintanilla Jr. are listed as executive producers on Selena: The Series, with Netflix stating that the family is “fully involved” in the series.
“When Selena passed away, I told my family that I was going to try to keep her memory alive through her music,” said Quintanilla Jr. in March 2020. “Twenty-five years later, I think we, as a family, accomplished that.”
Adrienne Westenfeld is a writer and editor at Esquire, where she covers books and culture.
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