10 years later, Tejano still feels loss of Selena

Associated Press

Some say that when Selena died, the Tejano genre of music she popularized lost its way.

Selena and her band had taken the Texas border sound beyond folksy roots as a Mexicanized polka and planted it firmly in the mix of Caribbean and Latin American pop. With her trademark versatility and her songwriter brother, a campesino sound went urban.

And while Tejano had been very male and macho, Selena became its glittering, wholesome diva.


Now, a decade since her murder on March 31, 1995, aficionados say Tejano’s influence could revive in a younger generation.

“She was sort of everyone’s daughter in terms of the Tejano family,” said Roy Flores, a longtime Tejano industry leader. “I guess in terms of a legacy, she certainly put Tejano on the national map.”

Flores was setting up the 25th annual awards ceremony last weekend at a 5,000-seat venue in the Kickapoo Lucky Eagle Casino Complex. In Selena’s day, the Tejano Music Awards occurred at San Antonio’s 65,000-seat Alamodome.

To appreciate the Selena legend is to understand the cultures along the Texas-Mexico border.

European farmers brought the accordion in the early 20th century, when railroads opened south Texas and cheap land beckoned. While few stayed past a few blistering summers or the first hurricane, their polkas remained.

Coupled with a bajo sexto, or twelve-string guitar, the conjunto sound developed -- similar to the norteno on the Mexican side of the border (where accordions were brought by Europeans working in Monterrey breweries). In the 1960s, the keyboard was added and Tejano was born.

It was regional music, part of a familial, isolated culture. Deep South Texas was more than 80% poor and Spanish-speaking, so there was a language and culture barrier with the whites who ran the schools and governments.

Also, the Spanish was so peppered with slang that Mexicans across the Rio Grande didn’t understand some of Tejano music either.

“The dialect was different. A lot of the Mexican people that would listen to it could not accept the language because it wasn’t right,” promoter Al Gonzalez said. “And then we were learning so much English that we kind of lost who we were.”

Selena “hit a market at the right time,” when Mexican American girls were hungry for an identity, Gonzalez said.

“It was the young crowd, the 8- to 10-year-olds that were idolizing her, and that’s what really grabbed her in,” he said. He likened it to what he called “the McDonald’s effect.”

“The children will always pull you into the market,” Gonzalez said.

And with her broken Spanish and big smile, Selena melted the Mexican market. She was 23 when she was shot to death by the president of her fan club.

Selena’s brother, A.B. Quintanilla, now of the Grammy-winning Kumbia Kings, created diverse material for Selena: salsa, rock, rhythm and blues.

The mix set the direction for a modern Tejano heavy on hip-hop, said Abraham Quintanilla, Selena’s father, who’s busy preparing for a 10th anniversary commemorative benefit concert April 7 at Reliant Stadium in Houston. Entertainers include Gloria Estefan and Thalia.

“Tejano music is a product of Mexican-American kids that are born and raised here in Texas that are exposed to all different genres -- they fuse all these different ideas in their heads, all these different genres,” he said.

In magazine interviews, Selena likened herself to a parrot who could mimic different styles, and her hits often reflected that. “Techno Cumbia,” one of her first, had her rapping. “El chico del apartamento 512" used a Colombian-style cumbia sound. “Fotos y recuerdos” was a remake of the Pretenders’ song “Back on the Chain Gang.”

“Her loss didn’t go in vain,” said Jimmy Gonzalez, winner of this year’s Tejano album of the year. “It did open the doors for a lot of people, a lot of corporate people, and she was loved by the whole world. The tragic way that she left us was what captured the hearts of everybody.”

At the Tejano awards, there was agreement that Tejano had grown static, remaining popular with Mexican Americans who had grown up with it but not much beyond that.

“Since the death of Selena, that was like the beginning of the decline of Tejano,” drummer Adam Arevalos said. “Everything’s so different now. Everything seems to come from Mexico.”

But there is hope younger artists will bring a turnaround.

“Music goes up and down,” Flores said. “I think it’s certainly not at the same point it was when Selena and other artists were making a national statement, but that’s part of the rise and fall in cycles of music.

“I don’t think there’ll ever be another Selena,” he said. “Will there be another artist that comes up and has a national presence? I think so.”