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MOVIES | On Location

Keeping Her Dreams Alive

In something of an authorized biography, Gregory Nava directs the family-approved story of young tejano star Selena and her tragic death.

December 08, 1996|Joe Leydon | Joe Leydon is a freelance writer based in Houston

SAN ANTONIO — "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."

*

"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.

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