The Quintanilla family reflects on Selena's lasting legacy ahead of the 25th anniversary of her death.
Suzette Quintanilla sits in her office inside her family’s compound in Corpus Christi, Texas, and looks around the room searching for an answer. Every inch of the space — her desk, her walls, her side tables, her chair — is filled with Selena memorabilia: posters, pictures, drawings, a pair of purple sneakers painted with Selena’s likeness. Even her makeup case — the same one that the Tejano superstar took on the road with her family’s group, Selena y Los Dinos — sits next to Suzette’s desk. Some days it seems like the Mexican American singer was here yesterday, Suzette finally says. Other times it feels like a lifetime ago when she was in the building recording music, drawing sketches for her clothing line, cleaning her lipstick-smeared microphone with a toothbrush. “I cherish the memories I have of her; I always carry her with me, on the daily,” Suzette, 52, says of her baby sister, who was killed by the president of her fan club 25 years ago, in March 1995. “I’ve learned to accept this pain we carry. We can have good days and horrible days when we miss her and it feels like she just passed.”
But she adds, smiling: “There are other days I see stuff on the internet, or I hear her music, and it makes me feel very proud and very happy that she is being remembered. You can see here in my office I have so many great things made by so many different people, stuff from children, from everyone, and that just shows me that she’s loved. They love her, they’re carrying a piece of her with them.”
To honor that love — and the fact that her fans have never forgotten her after her life was tragically cut short at the age of 23 — the Quintanilla family plans to honor Selena’s life and legacy all year long. First up: a concert with Pitbull, Becky G, Los Tucanes de Tijuana, and other English- and Spanish-language superstars singing her music in the 64,000-capacity Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas on May 9. Also this spring, MAC Cosmetics will launch a new limited-edition Selena collection, following in the footsteps of their 2016 collaboration that sold out in minutes.
Later on this year, Netflix will debut a multipart series based on the Queen of Tex-Mex and her family’s struggle and rise to the top to become music royalty. “This is a story about this beautiful, wonderful person and family that came from nothing, that struggled,” says actor Ricardo Chavira, who plays Selena’s father, Abraham Quintanilla. “It’s the definition of that American dream. [In] any interview that you see, you see her so graceful, so innocent, so alive, so vibrant, and then to see that absolutely ripped away for no reason from the world, it’s such a tragedy. You want to honor it. You want to celebrate [her legacy].”
Selena’s father and brother, A.B., are both busy working on a new CD of Spanish-language songs that the Mexican American singer recorded at Q Productions — now home to the Selena Museum — when she was just a teenager. “When Selena passed away, I told my family that I was going to try to keep Selena’s memory alive through her music, and 25 years later I think we as a family accomplished that,” says Abraham, who at 81 still has a commanding presence and booming voice. “I find it amazing that at the museum here, [her fans] come from different parts — Europe, the Caribbean, Australia — and they bring little girls dressed like Selena. And their parents say, ‘She watches the movie every day, two, three times.’ So all these new generations that were not born when Selena passed away are now becoming fans.”
The movie, of course, is the 1997 feature film that launched Jennifer Lopez’s career as an actress — and took Selena’s story from South Texas to the world. “Even to this day, you can still see the movie being played on television,” adds Suzette, who was the drummer in the band and today, as the CEO and president of her family’s company, helps her father manage everything related to her sister's legacy. “It’s not just a Latino thing, it’s a bicultural thing. I think that along with her fans and everything we try to do, that’s why we’re here talking about her 25 years later.”
Her music — an infectious mix of Tejano, Latin pop, cumbia, R&B, synthpop, and even disco — also holds up in popularity and sales. Today, Selena stands as one of the best-selling female artists in Latin music history, with more than 65 million units sold worldwide, according to her record label. The walls of her museum — which had some 22,000 visitors in 2019 alone and houses her red Porsche, her iconic outfits, her Fabergé-style egg collection, and pictures with stars like Gloria and Emilio Estefan and Luis Miguel — are filled with gold, platinum, and diamond records for Dreaming of You, Ones, Selena Live, Amor prohibido, and Entre a mi mundo, among others. Glass cases house her Tejano Music Awards, Billboard Latin Music Awards, Premio Lo Nuestro statues, and her 1994 Grammy for Best Mexican American Album for Live — the first time a female Tejano artist won in that category. “Suzette always says it best: it’s our music, it was our family’s music,” says A.B., 56, who played bass guitar in the group and wrote or co-wrote and produced hits like “Amor prohibido” and “Como la flor” in his bedroom in the working-class Corpus Christi neighborhood of Molina, using a couple of $400 keyboards. “There are a lot of families [who] think, ‘My kids are talented, they sing, they’re awesome,’ but [my dad], as a musician, saw something that we didn’t, and it wasn’t easy. Each one of us had a role and that was a beautiful thing.”
His father also encouraged them in times of doubt, especially when gigs were hard to come by and money was scarce. “I told my dad I should just go get a job at a grocery [store],” laughs A.B. “And he said: ‘It’s not that easy, son, it’s going to take a little bit, but have patience. You will do things. You will play Disney World; you will play the Astrodome. You will play.’” Adds a smiling Abraham, who performed with his own group, Los Dinos, in the late ’50s and ’60s: “They started as little kids and grew and became better musicians. And as they became adults, they became my friends.”
Besides finding her voice and working on her stage presence with her father’s help, Selena as a kid was funny, kindhearted, beloved by her siblings, and the family peacemaker, says her mother, Marcella, 75. “She wasn’t fake, she was just like you and me; the only difference was she had a glittery outfit on and she sang,” she says. “She had a big heart.”
“She was funny,” adds Suzette. “In a quirky way, just silly. She would say a joke and it would be wrong and she would laugh at the fact that she said it wrong and then it just became even funnier. Everybody would be laughing. She would make more fun of herself because it was said wrong. She would always make us feel good. Always just trying to [be like], ‘Hey, how are you doing,’ and when she said, ‘Hey, how are you doing,’ or whenever she came up to a fan and she’d be like, ‘Oh, I love your necklace,’ she was saying it because she truly meant it. And that’s another reason people loved her.”
Adds Abraham: “If a person [would] tell Selena, ‘Those are beautiful earrings you got there,’ she would take them off and give it to them.” Marcella remembers how once she was left in her stockinged feet after meeting a fan. “This girl admired the boots that she was wearing, and she took them off and gave them to her. That’s how kindhearted she was,” says Marcella, whose quiet demeanor doesn’t do justice to her fierce love of family and the hard sacrifices she endured to help them succeed. “And if you said something negative about somebody, she would say something positive. She didn’t like negativity.”
On the road, she loved performing — but offstage she would lovingly fight her brother and sister for her mother’s lap, often beating them to the punch for a snuggle. “Oh, man, me and Selena used to fight for her lap, like ‘Shotgun, Mom!’” recalls Suzette. “She used to scratch our cocos [heads]; it was that whole vibe Mom would bring when we’d get off [the stage].” In those early days, Selena also would find comfort in looking over her right shoulder to find Suzette on the drums and over her left shoulder to get a glimpse of A.B. on the bass. “To watch her on stage ... I would literally turn around and cry because it felt so good to see her succeed,” says A.B., who marvels still at how she worked the crowd and never got winded as she sang, danced, and did her signature spins. “I’d get a knot in my throat because it was so amazing, electrifying to be there. There was electricity in the air.”
A.B., who went on to create his own successful bands, Los Kumbia Kings and A.B. Quintanilla y Los Kumbia All Starz, after Selena’s passing and now tours as a solo act, admits he’s never been able to make music like he did with her. “I was connected to her somehow, musically,” says A.B., who moved away from Corpus Christi when she passed and returned only after getting help to deal with the trauma of her death. “We were a team.”
In November 2019, in the days leading up to the Latin Grammys ceremony in Las Vegas, he found himself smiling as he and his wife, Angela, walked past a tiki bar on the Strip and heard one of their monster hits, “Como la flor.” “I see this kid, can’t be more than 23, 24 years of age, all tatted up, rocker type [DJ] and he’s got a Selena shirt on. I go up to him and I [tell] him, ‘Hey man, I love your shirt’ and he goes, ‘I love Selena so much. People are digging the music here in the bar.’ I said, ‘I’m glad that you love my sister.’ He was like, ‘You’re A.B.? The guy from the movie?’ I said, ‘Yeah, that’s me, thank you for showing love for her and playing her music.’”
Selena wouldn’t believe how much her songs — and her life story — have impacted people, adds Suzette. “I truly believe that if Selena were here, she would be totally freaked out about everything that is going on. I truly believe that.”
As practicing Jehovah’s Witnesses, the family doesn’t celebrate birthdays or mark anniversaries, but on March 31 — the 25th anniversary of Selena’s death — they will do what they do every year: check in with one another. "[We pick up the phone and say], ‘Hey, what are you doing?’ There is no ‘How are you doing’ — we don’t talk about it. But there’s that call that says, ‘I know.’ We all know what’s going on,” admits Suzette. “I don’t really like to go to her grave. I did early on. It just makes me feel weird. I’d rather remember her alive. I can just go to YouTube and see her.”
So can her fans who have watched her live performances online millions of times, and for whom the family feels nothing but gratitude for remembering and loving their daughter and sister. “There are so many people in this world who come and go, and a lot of them [are] forgotten," says Suzette. “We share Selena on a big scale, we share her and we’re very grateful for that. We’re grateful that people continue to love her.”
For more on Selena, pick up the new issue of People en Español, available on newsstands this Friday.