12/25/1995 at 01:00 AM EST
Across Mexico and the southwestern United States, her provocative outfits, salsa-soaked recordings and smoldering stage presence made Selena Quintanilla Pérez the Latina Madonna
. But in the violent progression that is all too painfully common in American pop culture, the 23-year-old star didn't make her mark on a wider audience until after she was gunned down in a Corpus Christi, Texas, motel last March 31.
For the Hispanic community, her death at the hands of Yolanda Saldívar, the former president of her fan club, was a stunning blow. (Selena had confronted her for allegedly absconding with business funds; in October, Saldívar was sentenced to life for the murder.) "Years from now, we'll all remember where we were and what we were doing when Selena died," said one Texas disc jockey as fans wept through candlelit vigils across the Southwest.
Despite the exotic sound of her Tejano music—an infectious blend of Tex-Mex, pop and German polka—Selena, who started singing with the family band Los Dinos (slang for The Guys) at age 9 in her native Texas, lived quietly and modestly with her husband, Chris Pérez, in a working-class Corpus Christi neighborhood. She didn't learn to speak Spanish until a few years before her death. But it hardly mattered. "She still ate tortillas and frijoles," an observer noted. "She was from the barrio."
In the wake of her martyrdom, her mystique has grown. A Hollywood bio-film is in development, an authorized biography (three other Selena books are on the market) is due next year, and five Selena albums have landed on Billboard's Top 200 chart. The July release of Dreaming of You, a collection of her hits and English recordings, made her one of the fastest-selling artists in music history. "The mainstream market was her dream," Selena's father, Abraham Quintanilla Jr., said. "This is what she would have wanted." Perhaps, but her widowed husband speaks for hundreds of thousands of her fans when he says, "Right now, I'm just trying to deal with Selena not being here."