Selena

What really happened.
March 27 1997 3:30 AM

Selena

Selena

(Note: "Life and Art" is an occasional column that compares fiction, in various media, with the real-life facts it is ostensibly based on.)

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Selena is the life story of the Mexican-American singer who was murdered in 1995 at age 23. Abraham Quintanilla, Selena's father and manager, was the executive producer of the film and had complete script approval. Before filming began, Quintanilla said: "Nobody knows more about my daughter and our life than I do. ... If they get out of line as far as the story goes, I'll put them back on course." Either they never got out of line or Quintanilla put them back on course, because Selena does not stray far from the facts, at least as they are recounted in the secondary sources.

When Abraham discovered that his daughter could sing, he turned his children into a band called Selena y Los Dinos. They debuted in 1979, when Selena was 8, and starting in 1980, performed frequently at the family restaurant in Lake Jackson, Texas. Selena's father pushed her to sing in Spanish, which she didn't know how to speak. The group did gigs across South Texas, performing mostly Tejano music (described by Billboard as "Mexican polkas and cumbias, mixed with elements of rock, pop, country, and even rap"). Selena eventually broke into the Mexican market on an unprecedented scale for a Tejano artist with spotty Spanish, giving concerts before crowds of 120,000 people. Interested in fashion since childhood, she opened a boutique called Selena Etc. in January 1994. The actual designer of the Selena line, Martin Gómez, gets a brief mention in the film. In March 1994, she won a Grammy for best Mexican-American album. In July 1994, the biggest hit of her career, "Amor Prohibido," reached No. 1 on the Billboard Latin chart. Though the film doesn't go into all the details, it is correct in indicating that Selena was poised for mainstream success when she was killed.

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T he film also reflects Selena's down-to-earth style, at least as described in media accounts and in such books as the unauthorized biography Selena: Como la Flor (1996), by Joe Nick Patoski, a senior editor at Texas Monthly. Selena the movie ticks off the points made in numerous profiles. Though the singer drove a red Porsche convertible, she dined at Pizza Hut, shopped in malls, mowed her own lawn, and lived in a middle-class neighborhood in Corpus Christi at the time of her death (next door to her parents and brother, a detail left out of Selena). The film faithfully records her status as a role model. On-screen, Selena studies on the tour bus and asks children seeking autographs how they're doing in school. In life, she got her high-school degree via correspondence from Chicago's American School (the Osmonds' alma mater), and was one of the only Tejano stars not to endorse a beer brand.

One fact missing from the film is that both she and her family were Jehovah's Witnesses. Though Selena was not an official member of the sect, she was a believer and went to Bible study with other believers. The Houston Chronicle reported that when Abraham showed up at the hospital after Selena's shooting, he said she wouldn't want a blood transfusion because of her faith (by that point, though, she'd already been given blood, to no avail).

On-screen, Abraham comes across as a demanding but good-hearted stage father. He forces his children to form a band and yells at Selena for wearing a bustier during a performance. He angrily forbids his daughter to marry Chris Perez, a guitarist in the band. (In both film and life, the couple elope and the Quintanilla family eventually accepts the union.) In real life, Quintanilla's stage-father parenting did occasion some criticism: Selena: Como la Flor recalls battles between Abraham and Selena's junior-high teachers over the girl's increasing absences.

As for Yolanda Saldivar--the founder of Selena's fan club, an employee at her boutique, and her killer--Quintanilla wanted to leave her out of the movie entirely, until the producers convinced him not to. The film implies that Selena and Yolanda were friendly but not actually friends. In truth, they were quite close, and Yolanda often traveled with Selena. Currently serving a life sentence for the crime, Yolanda told 20/20 that Selena called her "Mom." Selena addresses neither Yolanda's obsession with Selena (her apartment was a shrine to the singer) nor the tabloid rumor, denied by all and not backed by any evidence, that they were lovers.

As the script indicates, the family thought that Yolanda was embezzling money, and confronted her. The film does not re-enact the murder, choosing instead to "cover" the crime in an 11 o'clock news style, but the details are accurate. An announcer states that Selena had gone to the motel to pick up papers from Yolanda when she was shot, as family members later testified. Next we see Yolanda holed up in her truck with a gun to her head, saying, "I'm so ashamed," and, "Look what I've done to my best friend." She did say those things during a 9-½ hour standoff with police, though she also accused Abraham of having raped her--a charge never substantiated.

The final moments of the film resemble a music-video tribute--we see an empty stadium and a candlelight vigil. Selena's death did inspire an outpouring of grief and attract the attention of the mainstream media (inspired by the success of their Selena-memorial issue, People launched a Spanish version of the magazine). As the movie implies with a scene in which a crowd forms around Selena in a Los Angeles store and a white employee asks, "Who's Selena?" many whites learned about the singer only because of the way she died. Madonna was reportedly the sole Anglo star to send her condolences.

Jared Hohlt is an editor at New York magazine.

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