Dubbed the "Mexican Madonna" and the "Queen Of Tejano Music," Selena Quintanilla was a budding superstar — until she was gunned down in March 1995.
In the early 1990s, Latina singer Selena Quintanilla was on top of the world. Widely adored for her Tejano music and stunning fashion, Selena was on her way to becoming a superstar in America. But it all came to a screeching halt with Selena’s murder at the hands of Yolanda Saldívar. When fans found out how Selena died and who killed her, they were devastated.
In 1995, Selena had a fateful meeting with Saldívar, a fan-turned-employee who was the manager of her boutiques and the president of her fan club. While they were once close, Saldívar was estranged from Selena’s family at that point due to financial issues at Selena’s boutiques — as well as complaints from fan club members.
When they met at a Days Inn in Corpus Christi, Texas, Saldívar was supposed to give the last remaining business documents to Selena. Instead, she fatally shot the star — who was just 23 years old at the time.
The murder of Selena Quintanilla shocked the world — especially since she was so young and at the cusp of superstardom. And 25 years later, the story of Selena’s death remains just as devastating today.
How Selena Quintanilla Became A Star
Before she was known as a music idol, she was born Selena Quintanilla on April 16, 1971, in Lake Jackson, Texas. The state’s proximity to Mexico gave way to a distinct Mexican-American musical style known as Tejano — which Selena would embrace from an early age.
Selena’s father Abraham, a former musician, taught Selena and her two siblings, Abraham and Suzette, everything he knew. They formed the band Selena y Los Dinos — and music quickly became the family business.
Before long, the band became a popular local act at parties and events around Corpus Christi, where the family had settled.
When she was just 15, Selena Quintanilla won female vocalist of the year at the Tejano Music Awards. A few years later, the young star produced her first self-titled album Selena in 1989. As time went on, she became an international sensation, breaking into the Latin American music industry with hits like “Como La Flor” and “Amor Prohibido.”
Selena’s success was all the more impressive given the singer’s initial lack of proficiency in Spanish. According to Chris Perez, the band’s guitarist whom Selena later married, she was the first in the band to become fluent in the language. It was clearly important for her to not only show pride in her Latina roots but also to be able to connect with her Spanish-speaking fans.
“As a third-generation Texan who had to learn Spanish phonetically, with her father coaching her on her accent, she knew that there was a chance that the Mexican fans might dismiss her,” Perez wrote in his 2012 memoir To Selena, With Love. “Instead, they adored everything about her, from her dark hair and brown eyes to her curvy figure.”
In 1994, Selena achieved the unimaginable: Her concert album Selena Live! won a Grammy for best Mexican-American album at the 36th Grammy Awards. By age 23, Selena was living the dream. But unfortunately, this dream would soon turn into a nightmare.
Selena’s Rocky Relationship With Yolanda Saldívar
Yolanda Saldívar first became acquainted with Selena as the president of her fan club. When she wasn’t busy with fan club matters, Saldívar also worked as a nurse at the beginning. But she ultimately quit her other job to officially manage the club full-time.
Before long, the two grew close. Selena and her family eventually trusted Saldívar enough to promote her to be the manager of the singer’s boutiques called Selena Etc. Saldívar even claimed that Selena, who was 11 years her junior, called her “Mom.”
But there was a dark underbelly to their seemingly tight relationship. Those who knew Saldívar say that her interest in Selena was borderline obsessive. One woman who shared an apartment with her claimed that Saldívar had a shrine of sorts dedicated to her.
Saldívar’s coworkers also alleged that Selena’s “number one fan” showed signs of disturbing behavior over the course of their relationship.
“She was very vindictive. She was very possessive of Selena,” said Martin Gomez, a fashion designer for Selena’s boutiques, who shared an office with Yolanda Saldívar. “She’d get, like, very angry if you crossed her. She would play so many mind games, say people had said things they hadn’t said.”
He even claimed that he found finished pieces of clothing he had worked on for the boutiques with the hems mysteriously ripped out. Ultimately, Saldívar’s “unhinged” behavior led to Gomez’s resignation from the company.
And it wouldn’t be long before Selena herself began to grow wary of Saldívar.
How Their Partnership Went South
Things started to go downhill when Selena’s family suspected that Yolanda Saldívar was stealing money from them. Then, Selena’s father began to receive several complaints from fans who said they never received merchandise that they purchased from the fan club.
On March 9, 1995, the family confronted Saldívar about their issues. That’s when the once-close relationship really began to sour.
According to the book Selena’s Secret: The Revealing Story Behind Her Tragic Death, Saldívar denied the accusations, but Abraham still threatened to throw her in jail for being a thief.
On March 13, Yolanda Saldívar enlisted the help of a lawyer to draft up her resignation letter, even though she basically had already been fired. She also purchased a .38-caliber revolver, which she later said was to protect herself from Abraham.
Strangely, records showed that Saldívar returned the revolver to the store just days later, only to repurchase the gun on March 26.
Based on Saldívar’s account, Selena didn’t completely cut ties with her after the fallout. But an employee at Selena’s boutique said the star intended to officially fire Saldívar after she got all of her last remaining financial documents back from her.
On March 30, Yolanda Saldívar called Selena and told her to come to her room at the Days Inn alone to pick up the documents. Selena came with Perez, who waited outside while the two talked.
It was an uneventful meeting — but nobody knew it would be the last day before Selena’s murder.
How Did Selena Quintanilla Die?
On March 31, Selena went alone to visit Saldívar again at the Days Inn to retrieve the rest of the documents that she didn’t get the first time. At some point during the two meetings, Saldívar dropped a bombshell: She had been raped on a recent trip to Mexico.
So that morning, Selena took Saldívar to the hospital. But the hospital would not perform a full exam on Saldívar since she was not a resident of Corpus Christi — and her alleged assault happened outside of the city’s jurisdiction.
The nurse who received the two later said that Selena appeared frustrated when Saldívar gave inconsistent information about her alleged assault.
The two eventually left the hospital and went back to the motel. When they got back to Saldívar’s room — room 158 — the women began to argue.
A maintenance worker at the Days Inn said he heard a loud boom that sounded “like a flat tire” before he saw a young woman in a jogging suit running and screaming.
“I saw another woman chasing her. She had a gun,” recalled Trinidad Espinoza. Espinoza said the other woman stopped before she reached the lobby and then went back to her room. Meanwhile, Selena ran inside the lobby to seek help from staff members.
She slowly collapsed on the floor in a pool of blood from the bullet wound in her back. Then, Selena used her last words to identify the name of her killer: “Yolanda Saldívar in Room 158.”
“She looked up at me,” said Ruben Deleon, the motel’s sales director. “She told me and her eyes rolled back.”
Doctors later said that she was already brain dead by the time she reached the hospital. Selena Quintanilla died a few weeks shy of her 24th birthday.
After Selena’s murder, Yolanda Saldívar threatened to kill herself, which led to a nine-hour stand-off with police. According to Assistant Police Chief Ken A. Bung, Saldívar was “expressing remorse” for her actions and calling her family multiple times.
Ultimately, Yolanda Saldívar was arrested and later sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Selena with no possibility of parole until 2025. To this day, she maintains that Selena’s death was an accident.
An Outpouring Of Love After Selena’s Death
The response to Selena’s murder was immediate — especially in the press. The stand-off between Yolanda Saldívar and the police dominated the news cycle for several hours straight. Meanwhile, crowds of mourning fans gathered in front of the motel to cope with the tremendous loss.
The outpouring of love from Selena fans in Texas, Mexico, and beyond was even more visible during the singer’s funeral. The somber event, originally planned as a closed-coffin viewing at a local funeral home, was turned into an open-casket prayer service at the Bayfront Plaza Convention Center.
Thousands of Selena supporters showed up to pay their respects to the artist. Many of them were visibly shaken and emotional after learning how Selena died. One fan donated 5,000 roses to the funeral venue.
“Basically they are just in awe,” said Maria Aguirre, a receptionist at the popular Tejano radio station KQQK who fielded countless phone calls from fans following the abrupt news of Selena’s death. “They cannot believe that it happened. They’re calling to reconfirm.”
She added: “It’s almost like the feeling when John Lennon died. She was the queen of Tejano.”
The Legacy Of Selena Quintanilla
Selena’s murder in 1995 is still regarded a major loss for the music industry. As the “Queen of Tejano,” Selena is regarded as one of the earliest Spanish-speaking singers to successfully break into the mainstream market, paving the way for other Latin singers who followed.
So even though the story of how Selena died is an awful one, her legacy lives on. Her music is still cherished by fans worldwide and continues to resonate with the public long after her death. Her final album, Dreaming of You, was released posthumously just a few months after her murder and debuted at the top of the Billboard 200.
“She was going to be an icon,” producer Keith Thomas, who worked with Selena weeks before her death, told USA Today. “I think, and I know a lot of people feel this way, that if she’d lived, she would have been a complete superstar.”
Selena’s influence can still be seen in pop culture today. Her rise as a Latina talent paved the way for others, like Jennifer Lopez, who portrayed the late star in the 1997 movie Selena.
“Getting to play the part of Selena was life-changing for me,” Lopez said of her breakout role. “I got to immerse myself in her life, got to know her family, her home, her culture… Playing her not only opened doors for me in the film world, but it inspired me to start my own music career.”
Selena’s distinct sound continues to inspire a new generation of artists today. And in 2017 — 22 years after Selena Quintanilla’s death — she was posthumously honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Most recently, Netflix is releasing a new series in 2020 that chronicles the singer’s life up until Selena’s death. The teaser trailer for the series features actress Christian Serratos donning Selena’s iconic purple jumpsuit, which she wore during her last televised performance.
While her fans will certainly always remember Selena’s incomparable shows onstage, her loved ones remember her presence in their hearts.
“Sometimes I come across some fan pics and it feels like this all happened a whole other lifetime ago,” her husband Perez recently said. “No matter what though, I’m always grateful that I got to share moments like this with her, the band, and especially her fans.”
Now that you’ve learned about how Selena died, check out iconic James Dean pictures that show the man behind the “Rebel.” Then, take in the full story of Judy Garland’s death — and her tragic final days.