Now, a decade since her murder, aficionados say Tejano’s and Selena’s influence could re-surge in a younger generation.
“She was sort of everyone’s daughter in terms of the Tejano family,” said Roy Flores, a longtime Tejano industry leader. “I guess in terms of a legacy, she certainly put Tejano on the national map.”
Flores co-produced the 25th annual awards ceremony on March 19th at a 5,000-seat venue in the Kickapoo Lucky Eagle Casino Complex in Eagle Pass TX , which was not filled to capacity.
In Selena’s day, the Tejano Music Awards occurred at San Antonio ’s 65,000-seat Alamodome.
To appreciate the Selena legend is to understand the cultures along the Texas-Mexico border.
German farmers brought the accordion in the early 20th century, when railroads opened South Texas and cheap land beckoned. While few stayed past a few blistering summers or the first hurricane, their polkas remained.
Coupled with a bajo sexton (twelve-string guitar), the conjunto sound developed—similar to the norteño on the Mexican side of the border (where accordions were brought with Germans working in Monterrey breweries). In the 1960s, the keyboard was added, and Tejano was born.
It was regional music, part of a familial, though isolated culture. South Texas—El Valle—was more than 80 percent poor and Spanish-speaking, so there was a language and culture barrier with the Anglos, who ran the schools and governments.
The Spanish was so peppered with slang that Mexicans across the Rio Grande didn’t understand some of Tejano music either.
“The dialect was different. A lot of the Mexican people that would listen to it could not accept the language because it wasn’t right,” promoter Al González said. “And then we were learning so much English that we kind of lost who we were.”
Selena “hit a market at the right time,” when Mexican-American chamacas were hungry for an identity, González said.
“It was the young crowd, the 8- to 10-year-olds that were idolizing her, and that’s what really grabbed her in,” he said. He likened it to what he called “the McDonald’s effect.”
“The children will always pull you into the market,” González said.
And with her broken Spanish and big smile, Selena melted the Mexican market.
She was 23 when she was shot to death on March 31—the birth day of César E. Chávez—by the president of her fan club, Yolanda Saldivar.
Selena’s brother A.B. Quintanilla III , now of the Grammy-winning Kumbia Kings, created diverse material for Selena: salsa, rock, rhythm, and blues.
The mix set the direction for modern Tejano, which is heavy on hip hop, said Abraham Quintanilla, Jr., Selena’s father, who’s busy preparing for a tenth anniversary commemorative benefit concert April 7 at Reliant Stadium in Houston. Entertainers include Gloria Estefan and Thalía.
“Tejano music is a product of Mexican-American kids that are born and raised here in Texas that are exposed to all different genres—they fuse all these different ideas in their heads, all these different genres,” he said.
In magazine interviews, Selena likened herself to a parrot, which could mimic different styles, and her hits often reflected that. Techno Cumbia, one of her first, had her rapping. El chico del apartamento 512 used a Colombian-style cumbia sound. Fotos y recuerdos was a remake of the Pretenders’ song Back on the Chain Gang.
Jimmy González, of Grupo Mazz, winner of this year’s Tejano album of the year, remembered when Selena paid for his band’s hotel rooms to help them save money. He said he knew she would make it, but “never did figure she would become a megastar.”
“Her loss didn’t go in vain,” he said. “It did open the doors for a lot of people, a lot of corporate people, and she was loved by the whole world. The tragic way that she left us was what captured the hearts of everybody.''
At the Tejano awards, there was agreement that Tejano had grown static, remaining popular with Mexican-Americans, who had grown up with it, but not much beyond.
“Since the death of Selena that was like the beginning of the decline of Tejano,” drummer Adam Arevalos said. “Everything’s so different now. Everything seems to come from México.”
But there is hope younger artists will bring a turnaround.
“Music goes up and down,” Flores said. “I think it’s certainly not at the same point it was when Selena and other artists were making a national statement, but that’s part of the rise and fall in cycles of music.
“I don't think they’ll ever be another Selena. Will there be another artist that comes up and has a national presence? I think so,” he said.