Memories of Selena

UPDATED 04/01/1996 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 04/01/1996 at 01:00 AM EST

IN PURSUIT OF HER DREAM, DORRIE Gaitan—accompanied by her mother, sister, two nieces and a nephew—drove 230 miles from the small East Texas town of Fairfield to San Antonio. There, on March 16, she joined thousands of other aspiring singers and actresses who hope, through the magic of the movies, to be transformed into their idol, the Tejano star Selena. "She was like family to all of us," says Gaitan, 22, decked out in a Selena-style white bustier, black-spandex pants and heels.

At open casting calls over the past week in San Antonio, Miami, Los Angeles and Chicago, Gaitan and countless other Selena wannabes each had barely a minute to answer a few questions ("Have you ever taken drama classes?" "Have you ever performed?") and to convince the producers of a film about the slain singer that she would be perfect to play her. "The response that we have had to the casting shows just what Selena means to our community," says director Gregory Nava, who presided over the San Antonio session. "She touched a very deep chord, and she brought our culture to everybody."

A year after the 23-year-old singer was gunned down outside a Corpus Christi, Texas, motel by the former head of her fan club, Selena is an international star, her fame enhanced by the tragedy of dying young. Thousands made pilgrimages to Corpus Christi in the days after her March 31, 1995, murder to leave flowers at her home and graveside. The publicity boosted sales of her album Dreaming of You, which has sold some 3 million copies since its July release, and thrust her into the pantheon of stars whose legends are burnished by the promise of what might have been. "Twenty years from now, young girls will say they want to be like Selena," says Ramiro Burr, an entertainment writer for the San Antonio Express-News, "just as with Jim Morrison or Kurt Cobain."

But as the myth of Selena grows, so do questions about the woman behind it. Many of her friends and business associates say that at the time of her death, she was at a personal and professional crossroads, trying to forge an identity apart from her family and especially from her father, Abraham Quintanilla, 56, a tough-talking former musician who was her manager and who had pulled her out of eighth grade to travel with the family band, Los Dinos. "It is pretty clear there was a distancing under way," says Joe Nick Patoski, who wrote Selena: Como la Flor, an unauthorized biography published this week. "I do think she was determined to better herself."

Selena had already taken two major steps toward independence—in 1992, when she married Chris Pérez, 26, a member of her band, and in 1994, when she opened two Selena Etc. boutiques, in Corpus Christi and San Antonio. Her father thought that, at 20, she was too young for marriage, and friends say he was concerned that fashion would distract her from music. But Selena loved Pérez, and she loved flashy clothes. "She could do more with a bra and rhinestones than anyone I ever knew," says Rosabel Lopez, a longtime friend. "I used to tell her, 'Girl, my daddy would kill me if he saw me in something like that.' "

Selena had not yet moved far from her family—literally. She and Pérez lived next door to her parents. Her sister Suzette, 28, and brother A.B., 32, were both in Selena's band.

But at the time of her death, she appeared to be gaining confidence in her ability to run her own life. "More and more decisions were being made by Selena," says Rudy Trevino, executive director of the Texas Talent Musicians Association, which produces the Tejano Music Awards. "There was a growing independence with commercial endorsements. She and Chris were talking about having a family."

At the top of Selena's priority list was opening a clothing factory in Monterrey, Mexico, where she spent time with a local cosmetic surgeon, Dr. Ricardo Martínez, 43, a married father of four. Robert Trevino (no relation to Rudy), a Quintanilla family friend, had introduced Martínez to her at one of her concerts in Monterrey in 1994.

After that first meeting, Selena became a patient, then a friend, of Martínez's. Her father denies published reports that the doctor performed liposuction on Selena. In an interview in Spanish in his office last week, Martínez wouldn't comment on his medical relationship with Selena, citing patient confidentiality. He rejected speculation that they were more than friends, saying, "She was an honest and respectable woman." On her day trips to Monterrey, Martínez says Selena visited him and complained about not getting support from her father and husband in setting up the factory.

Abraham Quintanilla says he knew his daughter wanted more help from him and Pérez. But, he says, "I did not want to get directly involved in the business because I didn't know anything about it. Chris is the same. His world is music, not fashion." Instead, Quintanilla says, he urged Selena to hire Yolanda Saldívar, 36, who had been running her fan club.

Starting in 1994, Saldívar accompanied Selena on many of her visits to Mexico and helped in the boutiques. Nearly everyone who dealt with her thought she was out of her depth. Designer Martin Gomez had been working for Selena barely a year when he asked the singer to buy out his contract in early 1995. Saldívar, he says, "was making me crazy. She'd yell at my girls, yell at my seamstresses."

Just before Selena was murdered, she and Saldívar argued over business records. Saldívar later claimed she had intended to kill herself when her gun accidentally went off. Convicted of murder in October, she is serving a life sentence in a state prison. She isn't giving interviews now, and members of her family won't talk without being paid. In an interview last year, Saldívar said she was fighting with Selena over a "secret" she will not reveal. Her family says that secret is Selena's "diary"; earlier this month they showed a page from the alleged diary, written in Spanish, to San Antonio TV reporters. But friends of Selena say they never saw a diary, and since English—not Spanish—was her native tongue, she wouldn't have written in a language she was still learning.

Since Selena's death, her father has become obsessed with preserving her image—at times alienating major music-industry insiders and journalists. At first he spent much of his energy fending off vendors of bootleg Selena T-shirts and cassettes. He started, then broke off talks with several screenwriters and producers before settling on director Nava and producer Moctesuma Esparza. "I think everybody grieves in different ways," says Rick Garcia, a Corpus Christi record producer. "I personally see Abraham as burying himself in his work, being so busy that he doesn't have time to think about his loss." Quintanilla makes no apologies for being difficult. "I was protecting Selena's image when she was alive, and I will continue to do it," he says. "All my life I protected my kids. Look at the wolf that came in the minute I wasn't looking—Yolanda."

BARBARA KANTROWITZ
ANNE MAIER, BOB STEWART and DICK REAVIS in Texas, JOSEPH HARMES in Monterrey and BETTY CORTINA in Los Angeles

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