Few people have shaped Texas – and the world – so indelibly as musician Selena Quintanilla. Cynthia E. Orozco, professor of history at Eastern New Mexico University, knows this well. Orozco has written about Selena for the Texas State Historical Association’s Handbook of Texas and is co-editor of Mexican Americans In Texas History, which included an essay on Selena. In early December, more than 25 years after her Corpus Christi murder at the age of 23, Netflix released the first half of a biographical series on the singer’s life, causing mixed reviews and a call to reckon with the singer’s legacy. Orozco spoke to the Observer about Selena, her influence on her hometown of Corpus Christi, and Orozco’s own relationship with music.
Can you tell me about your research on Selena?
First, let me say that I am a native Texan, a Tejana, and grew up listening to Tejano music. The day after Selena’s death, I called the Texas State Historical Association. I had worked there from about 1989 to about ’92, writing 80 articles for the Texas Manual. The story of Tejano was my specialty and so was the story of women.
When she died, and even shortly before, she became a big star. It was a slow process. Of course the family had a long history with music, especially with Abraham Quintanilla, the father, with Los Dinos, his band from the late 50s to the 60s. And then of course the family ties later. So they had a long, long history.
Her legacy grew from the small rural communities where she would play to the tiny dance halls that had been around for decades and the urban Tejano nightclubs. From there it grew into city festivals. And it grew to a point where it wasn’t just about dancing – because it was originally more about dancing – and it was more about spectacle. So along with this change, she rose in tejano music and tejano dance. It was unusual because there were very few women who starred in Tejano’s music. It’s less so now, but it was a very male-dominated genre and it was difficult for women to penetrate. There were several other predecessors. The most important was probably Laura Canales.
I would say that Selena’s expansion into Mexico also gave her more international appeal, and then of course her music appealed to anyone who understood typically Spanish. And then there were songs like Bidi Bidi Bom Bom that really appealed to kids and other people who may not have understood Spanish.
Her rise to fame has been slow and difficult, but I really think her death sealed her superstar more than anything. That happens sometimes: People don’t really see the importance of a person or how big or how important they are until they die.
How is your relationship with Selena and her music? Why did you choose to study it?
I grew up listening to tejano music on the radio stations. I come from Cuero. I grew up listening to the music from San Antonio. We’d also drive 30 miles to Victoria, Texas to dance to Tejano music at the Club Westerner. I feel Selena’s music. I like this music. But Selena was kind of a crossover star. Of course, right after she died, she started singing some in English, and of course she was fully bilingual. Non-Tejanos, non-Spanish speaking people, many of them didn’t know what Tejano music was or who Selena was. But after her death, Tejano’s music became a little better known outside of the Tejano community. If she hadn’t been killed, the general population would have known or heard of her more by that point.
What influence and legacy did she and her family have on Corpus Christi?
Corpus Christi, probably because of its location on the water, has always been an appealing place. I think when they got there she would have been in middle school so she grew up there as a girl from her hometown. Of course, she was brought up first in Lake Jackson, where there would not have been a significant Hispanic community and where Spanish would not have been so prevalent. But Corpus has a long, long history of Hispanic music. I think what is of course interesting is the fact that she was killed there too. That cemented their bond with Corpus.
She could have lived anywhere when she got famous and rich, but she continued to stay in Corpus. She felt very comfortable with the environment there. She obviously didn’t need a Hollywood-like lifestyle.
I think I visited the museum in 2010. It was interesting that my husband and I were really the only people there. Since that time it has become a major tourist destination. And then of course I would say that after the Mirador de la Flor statue was erected, the corpus was further consolidated as a place for tourists. Suzanne, Selena’s sister, attended this ceremony. It’s a beautiful piece of art.
Another way our community got to know them early on was the Spanish language television shows, especially Johnny Canales, and he’s from Corpus. The Johnny Canales Show also popularized them. This program also helped make them better known in the immediate communities. This show helped her become a star.
Corpus is really going to be a site for Selena fans to visit forever. The corpus is now a major tourist attraction in Selena.
Why do you think this Netflix series is coming out now, 25 years after her death?
Because she never left us. Her music is still out there and still loved and cherished, and again, because there is a tragic story in her life. Tragic stories are always of interest. And again because of its visual appeal. She was attractive, she was a good dancer, she was a good singer, she was a good performer. And so we will always have an interest in such people, regardless of whether it is a Marilyn Monroe or an Elvis Presley. And Selena was also a very nice and nice person, very humble. I think that’s appreciated too.
Has interest in Selena revived?
Part of the reason there is such appeal is because she was quite talented. Number two, the music is still there; Number three because she was beautiful and sexy; and number four is that we have so few other Latina and Latino superstars on TV or in movies. There will always be excitement because it was unusual and she was a superstar.
I think it was important for Corpus to claim them too. It really belongs to Corpus Christi. But it also belongs to everyone. She is a global icon.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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