Keeping Her Dreams Alive

Joe Leydon is a freelance writer based in Houston

"This is the concert," says filmmaker Gregory Nava, "that Selena never lived to give."

The performance, intended as a poignant fantasy of a promise unfulfilled, is being presented on the stage of the beautifully restored Majestic Theater in downtown San Antonio. Hundreds of volunteer extras--many of them fans of the tejano music superstar--are filling the auditorium. In front of the stage, several technicians and production assistants are readying the camera, adjusting sound equipment and tending to other preparations. It is slow work, but the extras never indicate they are growing restless.

Finally, Nava is ready to cue the music and begin the action. The familiar sound of Selena's final hit, a mid-tempo English-language ballad titled "Dreaming of You," sweeps across the auditorium like a caress. Actress Jennifer Lopez, costumed and coiffured to be a startlingly persuasive Selena look-alike, glides across the stage. Behind her, a massive spider web of small, bright lights is set against a midnight-blue backdrop. Lopez holds the microphone close to her face and begins to lip-sync.

When she is finished, the audience does not need to be cued to applaud.

Standing off to the side near a video monitor, Nava looks pleased. And yet, when asked about his progress, he reveals profoundly mixed feelings:

"To be perfectly honest, this is a movie that I wish I wasn't making."

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"Selena," the $20-million Warner Bros. production that recently completed filming in Texas (and is due out in May), has been described by almost everyone involved as a celebration of the popular singer's life. But it was her tragic death last year at age 23 that made the making of such a film almost inevitable.

Selena Quintanilla Perez lived the kind of all-American success story that few Hollywood screenwriters would dare to invent. The native of Lake Jackson, Texas, 55 miles south of Houston, made her performing debut at age 6 onstage at a restaurant owned by her father, Abraham Quintanilla, a man who had cut short his own career in tejano music to better provide for his family. After the restaurant failed during the Texas oil bust of the early 1980s, Selena began to tour in a band managed by her father. (Her brother, A.B., played bass, while her sister, Suzette, played drums.)

Even though she grew up speaking English and had to learn many of her early Spanish songs phonetically, Selena survived and thrived in the tejano music market. By 15, she was an established regional act recording for a small Texas label. In 1989, she signed with EMI Latin Records. Indeed, she was one of the first women to achieve great success in the male-dominated field.

Selena broke through another barrier by becoming the first Mexican American recording artist to attract a large and enthusiastic following in Mexico.

"We're not necessarily well thought of over there," says Nava, a Mexican American native of San Diego. "And a Mexican American performer had never been accepted in Mexico like that. But she became No. 1 there. She had a concert in Monterrey where 120,000 people went to see her."

Back in the United States, Selena continued to expand her audience base. Latinos of all ages flocked to her sold-out concerts in Houston, San Antonio and other cities. Young Latinas were particularly devoted to her and would often arrive at her concerts in clothing and makeup modeled after Selena's. (The singer eventually opened fashion boutiques in San Antonio and Corpus Christi, Texas.) In 1993, her breakthrough album "Selena Live" won the Grammy Award for best Mexican American performance. By that time, Abraham Quintanilla and record company executives were already discussing Selena's potential as a crossover pop performer.

"That was my was goal from Day 1," Quintanilla said during a telephone interview from his Corpus Christi office. "I was in the tejano market, and I know its limitations. I knew that it would be an easier market to penetrate than the mainstream. But I felt Selena was an artist who had all the factors in place to make it in any kind of music. I was 200% certain she was going to make it."

But before Selena could complete her first English-language album, her voice was forever stilled. On March 31, 1995, less than three weeks before her 24th birthday, Selena was shot to death at a Corpus Christi motel by Yolanda Saldivar, the former president of the singer's fan club.

Seven months later, during a murder trial in Houston, Saldivar's defense attorneys claimed the shooting was an accident. Prosecutors insisted that Saldivar deliberately killed Selena after an argument between the two women over charges by Selena's family that Saldivar had embezzled more than $30,000 from the singer's clothing boutiques.

It took the jury only slightly more than two hours to deliver a guilty verdict. Saldivar is currently serving a life sentence, though her lawyers have filed an appeal. (It was disclosed last week that the singer's father has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Saldivar, seeking unspecified damages.)

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Long before the trial began, Abraham Quintanilla was flooded with inquiries from producers interested in making a Selena biopic. Since his slain daughter was a public figure, anyone could have made a quickie TV movie dealing with her life and death (and E! Entertainment Network has done just that, with a movie that was set to air Saturday). But because Selena's estate owns (along with Capitol EMI) the rights to her recordings, no one could use her music in a film without buying the rights to it. And no one could gain access to the Quintanilla family's memories and home movies without the family's cooperation.

Quintanilla decided to go with Moctesuma Esparza and Robert Katz of the Los Angeles-based Esparza/Katz Productions ("Gettysburg," "Avenging Angel"), primarily because, unlike other interested parties, Esparza wanted to make the family active participants in the making of the film.

Says Esparza: "What usually happens in a case like this is someone will approach the family to buy the rights to the person's story. And then, after they have the rights, they will ask the family to please go away.

"I proposed something different. I told Abraham I was willing for him to have approval over the screenplay. And for him to be in charge, in essence, over the creation of this project."

Quintanilla is listed as executive producer of "Selena," and the title is much more than symbolic. He insisted on having complete script approval, viewing the film as his chance to set the record straight, to answer criticisms and accusations aimed at him in the wake of Selena's murder. Specifically, he wants to respond to reports of his being a control freak who drove his daughter and dominated her life.

"Me and my daughter had a wonderful relationship," Quintanilla says. "I loved my daughter, my daughter loved me. We're a united family. And for them to print things about how my daughter was trying to alienate herself from me--that really, really hurt me."

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Nava, the writer-director of "El Norte" and "Mi Familia," said he came to the project with no preconceptions about Quintanilla or Selena herself. But he did have a few concerns about making a movie that is, by and large, an authorized biography.

"I think you always have some hesitation in this kind of situation," Nava says. "Up until now, everything I've done has been fiction. It's been, like, my vision--my story, my characters. So coming in and doing a real-life thing based on real-life people has been a very different experience for me. I did have a lot of thoughts about doing it. And in doing justice to it. At some point, if I had a disagreement with the family about something I thought should be portrayed, would this be a problem?"

Ultimately, Nava decided that this project was worth that risk. Much to his relief, he found that his worst fears were unjustified.

"When I wrote the script that I wanted to write, I read it to them," Nava says. "And they said, 'This is beautiful. Do it.' That really put my mind at ease."

Quintanilla, too, was relieved, though he did request minor revisions.

"Some of the things were not presented in chronological order, so I wanted that changed," Quintanilla says. "And there were some other things that--well, you know, when you describe things about yourself to another person, they may get a different idea of what you're talking about.

"I'll give you an example: I told them that when we had to close down the restaurant in Lake Jackson, we had some hardships. Well, they might take the word 'hardships' and they'll over-dramatize it. So I'm here to say, 'Hey, tone that down.'

"You know," he adds, laughing softly, "Hollywood will be Hollywood."

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Edward James Olmos plays Abraham Quintanilla in "Selena." And very much like an attentive father, he has tended to hang around the set even on days when he is not on camera, just to see what his "daughter" is up to. Like other members of the cast, Olmos was able to spend considerable time with the real person he is portraying. He also viewed hours of home videos shot by Suzette Quintanilla (played in the movie by Jackie Guerra), to gain additional insights into the family dynamic.

"I met Selena a few times, at awards ceremonies," Olmos says. "And I can tell you, her congeniality was infectious. She was truly a superstar, and she knew it. But she made you feel that she was very accessible, very open."

Other notables in the "Selena" cast include John Seda ("I Like It Like That") as Chris Perez, the guitarist who became Selena's husband; Constance Marie as Marcela, Selena's mother; and Jacob Vargas as A.B., Selena's brother, who wrote and produced many of her songs. Although a much-publicized talent search was conducted to cast the title role, and many unknowns were given screen tests, Nava finally chose 25-year-old Jennifer Lopez ("Mi Familia," "Money Train") to play Selena from ages 17 to 23. (Newcomer Becky Lee Meza, a native of Harlingen, Texas, plays Selena from 6 to 10.)

So far, the fans who have worked as extras in the movie's concert sequences have voiced approval of the lead casting. During the re-creation of a Houston Astrodome performance at San Antonio's Alamodome, more than 32,000 unpaid volunteers showed up to fill the seats.

"At the beginning," says producer Robert Katz, "everybody was going, 'Jennifer! Jennifer! Jennifer!' But halfway through the day, you could see the transformation in their eyes. Suddenly, they were saying, 'Selena! Selena! Selena!' "

"I'm not going to lie--I do feel a lot of pressure on me," Lopez says during a break at the Majestic Theater. "But that's not what I focus on. I kind of had to let that go from the very beginning. Because that can really deplete you. You know, you have a job to do. So I have to approach it like I'd approach any other acting role. I have to build a character, and make her human, so everybody can identify with her."

During her brief but eventful life, Selena found that many of her young Latina fans were particularly eager to identify with her. And that, says Nava, is because, to a very large and meaningful degree, she was one of them.

"If you're raised in this country, since childhood, you're given this image of beauty. And if you're pocha--Mexican American--it's not you. So you're made to feel bad about the way you look or the way your body is, having big hips or whatever, from when you're a kid," he says.

"So Selena comes along, and she puts on the bra and those tight pants. And she had a good set of hips. But she just said, 'I'm beautiful. The way I am, I'm beautiful. My body is beautiful.' And the minute she did that, she was beautiful. I mean, she was gorgeous. And millions of Latinas from all over suddenly felt good about themselves."

Lopez giggles and nods in enthusiastic agreement when Nava's appraisal is repeated to her.

"I always joke around with Gregory," she says, "and tell him that this is the first movie where I've gotten to show my figure. All the other movies I've done, it's always seemed like they're trying to hide it or they think I look fat. Or I'm not in the American tradition of beauty.

"One of the beautiful things about Selena, and probably why she was so popular, was that she embraced that. She showed her body, which was very Latina. She was brown, and she didn't try to hide that in any way or try to deny her roots. And I'm sure [Latinas] who saw her said, 'Hey! I can do that!' That's why she was such a role model."

Selena lived long enough to complete only four English-language songs for her final album, "Dreaming of You," which entered the Billboard pop charts at No. 1 in July 1995, less than four months after she was shot. It is, of course, impossible to say for certain just how successful she would have been in the pop mainstream. But there is little doubt among the folks at the Majestic Theater about how far Selena could have gone.

"If she would have lived to give this concert," Olmos says, gesturing toward the stage, "she would have been a superstar. . . . It would have been the next step in a tremendous dream coming true."

Then, shaking his head, Olmos adds: "But it was cut short. Because of one bullet. Such a tragedy."

Nearby, producer Katz is looking at the stage with a smile not unlike a grimace.

"When this movie is released," he says softly, "I think the Anglo audience is going to discover Selena. And her music is going to be around a long time.

"The tragedy is, they're going to discover her after her death."

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