CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – Cumbia rhythms blaring from loudspeakers, a young singer taking to the stage belting out familiar lyrics and the crowd dancing the “washing machine” in the middle of a large Texas park. This is how fans remember the Queen of Tejano, Selena Quintanilla Perez. But even with all the music, singing and cheers, the silence is still deafening. Eighteen years ago, Selena’s life was unexpectedly cut short and her voice silenced forever at the tender age of 23.
“We do this every year for Selena to keep her alive [in] our memory with her songs, her beautiful songs,” said Maria Reyes Matson, one of the organizers of this year’s memorial concert in Selena’s hometown of Corpus Christi.
“She was a beautiful young lady,” Matson added while choking up, visibly shaken and holding back tears.
Members of the Corpus Christi community, along with fans from across the United States as far away as New Jersey, gathered Sunday like they have done every March 31 for the past 18 years to celebrate Selena’s life.
Fans at Salinas Park watched as two Selena impersonators danced and lip synced to Selena’s biggest hits. Photo by Bryan Weakland.
The crowd of about one hundred was sprinkled with men and women, young and old. It was more like a big family reunion with people sharing their favorite memories of Selena and describing the impact she had on their lives.
“She has very good music and it just grows on you,” said Melanie Hudson from the neighboring city of Robstown.
For these fans, Selena’s memory is as alive today as it was nearly two decades ago before her sudden death and continues to live in the hearts of so many in this Texas city of 305,000 and fans across the world.
“My daughter is six and I really wanted her to get the whole feeling of this,” said Yvette Galvan of Robstown.
The day began with a moment of silence at Selena’s memorial statue called the Mirador de la Flor on the boardwalk of Corpus Christi’s beach. After the moment was observed, a round of applause broke out from the crowd.
“We love you Selena!” one woman shouted.
Fans then made there way to nearby SalinasPark where two Selena impersonators danced and lip synced to Selena’s biggest hits.
“We’re celebrating Selena’s life,” said Carolina Habibi, one of the Selena impersonators, who traveled from Elizabeth, New Jersey to participate in this year’s concert. “Today is a day of a tragedy but we celebrate her life. All the fans come together from everywhere and we come here to sing and dance to her songs.”
Aspiring Tejano singer Marisa Cortez, 12, also performed by singing a medley of Selena tunes.
“I loved her personality,” said Cortez, whose grandparents introduced her to Selena’s music as a little girl. “She was such a good person and had a good heart.”
A full mariachi ensemble from Jalisco, Mexico also entertained the crowd.
Why has Selena’s legacy endured with such intensity so many years after her death? Maybe it’s because of how she related to her fans, always taking time to sign autographs and take pictures with them. Maybe it’s because so many of her fans find it easy to identify with her and see themselves in her: a down-to-earth American girl with dreams and aspirations who loved life and lived it to the fullest.
“What struck me about Selena more than anything else…was her compassion,” Selena’s widower, Chris Perez, wrote in his recent memoir of their lives together. “Her compassion encompassed her friends, her family, her fans–especially those who were struggling in their lives with illness or poverty—women in crisis, children, and even animals.”
A proud Texas native, Selena spent most of her youth on the road with her family, touring the state singing Tejano music. Although she ascended to fame singing in Spanish, she grew up speaking English and didn’t learn to speak Spanish fluently until just a few years before her death.
After conquering the male-dominated world of the Tejano genre, Selena’s goal was to break into the English language market. And she was well on her way. She was working on her first English language album when she was killed by her fan club president on March 31, 1995.
Selena’s death made evident the growing impact of the Latino community in music and pop culture in the United States. She is credited for helping open the door for other Latino artists, allowing them to break into the American mainstream. Not long after Selena’s death, the so-called “Latin Invasion” swept the nation, ushering in a new era of talent including Ricky Martin, Shakira and Enrique Iglesias.
For her fans, Selena’s legacy and memory will continue to endure.
“I love Selena,” said Reyes Matson. “I want her memory to live on.”