By JUAN CASTILLO
Among the wealth of remembrances on the 20th anniversary of the passing of Selena Quintanilla-Perez is an excellent deep dive by the Washington Post on the reasons why we still talk about her mark on American culture.
It seeks to find some understanding of what made Selena so meaningful after her death at the age of 23. Yet for myriad reasons it was in life that Selena was profoundly more meaningful.
As the piece notes, author and writer Ana Castillo wrote in 1995:
Selena’s life, not death, offered joy to so many who admired her — from field workers to the urban unemployed, poor brown and countless others who elsewise may have given over to despair. Because of her example and because of the ground she broke, although exoticized, relegated to subculture status, perceived as foreign in the country of her birth yet sticking stubbornly to the language of her heart, I am certain that the void she has left will be filled with a new Selena.
The piece also reflects on how Selena could be such a superstar to so many, yet simultaneously unknown to much of America.
On that point, I’m reminded of the night of her death. I was an assistant editor on the metro desk at the Austin American-Statesman when the first news reports broke that she had been shot and suffered life-threatening wounds.
Almost immediately, the newspaper’s Life and Entertainment editor approached the Metro Desk and asked if we could take the reins on covering the story because, he said, there was no one on his staff qualified to write about Tejano music and Selena. In other words, the entertainment staff rarely if ever wrote about Tejano music. How could that be, I wondered. How in the so-called live music capital of the world could you not have a music writer conversant enough in Tejano to write about its biggest star with the understanding and attention it deserved? Why was Tejano relegated to subculture status?
It was one of those instances where as a journalist of color, you quickly realize that what can be so profoundly meaningful to one as a Mexican American can be viewed as not worthy – “foreign in her own country” — by the mainstream.
The entertainment staff went home. And because I did understand Selena’s importance, I was appointed the lead editor on the story. And because she too understood, Suzanne Gamboa, one of the newspaper’s state reporters, was dispatched to Corpus Christi to cover the story. I still marvel at how Suzanne was able to get there so quickly.
The moment she arrived at the hospital where Selena had been taken and where a large, sorrowful crowd had gathered, Suzanne and I kept in touch almost constantly by phone. I could hear the distraught crowd’s restlessness. Suzanne breathlessly dictated notes from the scene and quotes from interviews with Selena’s fans. I typed them and weaved them into the story I was culling together, using copy from the Associated Press and our own reporting. Two journalists trying to beat a fast-approaching deadline, attempting at least for the moment to put the emotion of the tragic events aside.
That night we learned that Selena had died and that the president of her fan club had been arrested. A searing memory lingers: On the phone with Suzanne I could hear the crowd’s loud reaction to the news that an arrest had been made. It was an odd mix of anger and jubilation, a righteous sense that at least justice was forthcoming.
Suzanne’s story ran on the front page the next morning. It was a fitting tribute to a star whose flame burned out much too soon. Ana Castillo wrote that a new Selena would fill the void. But I think many of us knew that night – there could only be one Selena.
Juan Castillo is an award-winning writer and journalist based in Austin, Texas. His work has been featured in newspapers, publications and media sites, including the Austin American-Statesman, The (McAllen) Monitor, Giving City Magazine and EJ-USA. Castillo is a former John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University. He blogs at jcastillo.me where this column first appeared. It is republished here with permission from the author.