March 30th, 2012
01:31 PM ET

Selena: The Latin superstar more American than Mexican

Editor's Note: Saturday marks the 17th anniversary of the murder of the Latino superstar remembered the world over by one name: Selena. When she was shot and killed by her fan club president, the headlines spoke of a 23-year-old Mexican singer who was about to "cross-over" to American pop super stardom.  The truth was, however, the woman considered the "Queen of  Tejano Music,"  and her husband, Chris Perez, were American kids raised in Texas, speaking English - not Spanish.

"To Selena, with Love," by Chris Perez, Selena's husband, is a new book, published by Celebra. Below is an excerpt that describes how the young couple struggled with mastering Spanish.

“Mexico was the logical place to begin our international publicity blitz. We already had a fan base there, and we could easily drive to the shows from Texas. Of course, none of us fully realized just how nerve- racking it would be to go from playing relatively small venues in the U.S. to playing large amphitheaters and doing interviews in Spanish in Mexico. We were scheduled to play in Monterrey during our first trip, and there was mad press all day. We went from one interview to the next: radio, television, magazine journalists, you name it. Before the trip, Rick had helped me practice saying my name and what instru­ment I played.

I kept repeating this phrase to myself like a mantra: “Mi nombre es Chris Perez y toco la guitarra. Mi nombre es Chris Perez y toco la guitarra.” I knew how absurd the Mexican journalists would think it was if we sang in Spanish but couldn’t even manage to speak in basic textbook phrases. I was determined not to embarrass the band— or myself.

Despite my good intentions and all of that practicing, I still managed to humiliate myself. During our first interview with the radio DJs in Monterrey, we all had to go down the line and intro­duce ourselves, just as we’d practiced. I froze up completely. When it was my turn, I said “toca” instead of “toco,” essentially saying, “My name is Chris Perez and he plays the guitar.” Naturally, everyone laughed at my expense.

“Dude, I told you how to say it,” Ricky scolded me afterward.

“I know, I know,” I said miserably.

My only source of comfort was that some of the other band members stumbled around in Spanish, too. Selena, though, rose to the challenge, as she always did. She was the one who really felt the media pressure, because by now everyone in Mexico knew her not only from her music, but from the Coca- Cola commercials. She was already hugely popular in that country and crowds sur­rounded us everywhere we went, to the point where Selena couldn’t even get off the bus unless it was to duck into a hotel or go onstage.

Read an interview with Selena's husband, Chris Perez

With the journalists, Selena was as personable as ever, giving each media personality a warm hug and a big smile, winning them over before she ever had to say a word. As a third- generation Texan who had to learn Spanish phonetically, with her father coaching her on her accent, she knew that there was a chance that the Mexican fans might dismiss her. Instead, they adored everything about her, from her dark hair and brown eyes to her curvy figure.

The fans saw Selena’s sincerity and generosity, and felt her love for them. Selena appealed to everyone from excitable preteen girls who wanted to dress and dance like her, to abuelas who loved those heart- wrenching ballads like “Como La Flor.”

To Mexicans, and to most Mexican- Americans, Selena was that perfect symbol: a sexy star who had come up from the streets, bring­ing her family with her, and still remaining virtuous and hard- working along the way. It wasn’t an act, either. What they saw was true and the fans knew that. In Mexico, Selena mangled her conversations in Spanish like the rest of us, but not for long. She said, “It’ll be cool. You watch. I’m going to learn Spanish and surprise everybody.”

Every minute we were in Mexico, Selena’s Spanish jumped up a notch. She got better and better, to the point where I’d have to ask her to slow down so that I could understand what she was say­ing. Her fluency in Spanish eventually helped her in Los Angeles and Miami as well as in Mexico, because at those concerts the audience was also made up mostly of Spanish- speaking fans who all wanted to hear her music. They came from Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, you name it: the accents were all different, but every­one loved Selena.

Reprinted from "To Selena, with Love" by Chris Perez by arrangement with Celebra, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., Copyright (c) 2012 by Chris Perez.

soundoff (26 Responses)
  1. R.I.PSelena

    The only Selena I've ever heard about was Selena Gomez. Until one day, my dad was watching her movie with J Lo starring as her. I heard her singing, and I was like, Is there an angel in your room dad? I spent the rest of the afternoon watching the movie with her. Jealousy took her life when she had so much more to live! R.I.P&L Selena!!! We'll never forget you.

    February 25, 2013 at 2:54 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Melissa Potter

    Selena was a real true talent who was loved by so many. I don't think she realized how much she was loved and it's sad but, I think she should have had better security. I listen to her music all the time and wish she would have had the chance to cross over and to have a family. I think people need to respect her family wishes for more privacy. I hate it that there are pictures of her on the internet of her in her coffin and at the morgue. I have seen the pictures of her laying on the table showing the bullet hole in her back and that is wrong and very disrespectful. The memory videos of her that have pictures of her in her coffin are wrong and in bad taste. Selena would not want those private moments out there for the whole world to see. Selena would want to protect her family from the hurt these images have caused all who loved her to feel. Sorry got off the subject. Just hope if anyone comes across these images let the site know how wrong it is and hopefully they will find some self respect and remove them. R.I.P. SELENA and we will never forget you!

    July 1, 2012 at 5:38 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Josie

    My best friend introduced me to Salena in high school. I remember hearing about her death, and it was shocking. I still listen to her music to this day both when I am in the mood or visiting my best friend.

    April 13, 2012 at 1:29 pm | Report abuse |
  4. hugeFAN

    Love Selena so much so happy that she still lives on, mainly through her fans! Jennifer Lopez owes her breakthrough to Selena the movie... never will JLO ever measure up to Selena. Selena was the best... she was genuine, a sweetheart, and very talented had an amazing voice. I can't wait to purchase the book!!

    April 11, 2012 at 8:17 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Summer

    It is hard to believe that it's already been 17 years. When I was in high school, I discovered her music. She was already dead, and I didn't know that until the movie was released. It sounds off topic, but I think Selena paved the way for Jennifer Lopez's career. After the movie, JLo rose to stardom, doing everything in her life that Selena did in hers. It's amazing what hard work does to anyone. It's so devastating that Selena's life was stolen from her.... I feel she would still be a major star today if her life wasn't cut so short.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:28 pm | Report abuse |
  6. sall

    Talented and beautiful young lady!! We need a government campaign on how to recognize mentally ill people before they pull the trigger. At Virginia Tech, professor Nikki Giovanni had warned people about that shooter before he attacked.

    April 7, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Report abuse |
  7. white guy

    she was talented no doubt.

    April 7, 2012 at 9:28 am | Report abuse |
  8. madamelaverite

    I learned about Selena when I awoke to her beautiful voice on the radio singing "I could fall in love," I remember thinking wow, who is this? I never knew until I saw the movie Selena on cable TV. I was blown away. In a scene when the record exec is talking to her dad, saying she could be the next Gloria Esteban, no offense to Gloria, but Selena's voice is much better and had she lived she would have Beyonce star status. She was so talented and lovely, talent like that comes along once in a lifetime. I'm sad the world had to lose her so soon. R.I.P. Selena, La Reina.

    April 5, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Donald in CA

    What a waste of talent and beauty. I still think her father should have protected her more.

    April 4, 2012 at 8:29 pm | Report abuse |
  10. TC

    I met Selena before she was a huge star. At the time, the band was called Selena y Los Dinos. My dad was friends with local El Paso DJs back in the 80s and Selena y Los Dinos were playing a Cinco de Mayo show. She was still singing English cover hits at the time. My dad told the DJs to come over to our house for a small get together... Selena over heard and asked if they could tag along (jokingly) and my dad said yes. Selena and the whole group showed up to our house in Big Bertha, their tour bus. They hung around and ate pizza with us in our living room, watching a play back video recording of their show from that night (my dad recorded them that night, as well as them at our house). I was small, but I still remember them being there, not knowing we were in the presense of a group of true talent. AB, Suzette and Selena all cracked jokes at the video camera...... and we still have that video to this day.
    I was in Jr. High when I found out she was killed, not 2 hours away from where I was living. We all thought it was a cruel April Fool's joke, but it was true.

    Though I don't listen to Tejano music like I used to (only when I'm around my dad do I have to listen to it - his truck, his music!), there are times when I just want to hear a Selena song. RIP Selena.

    April 4, 2012 at 12:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • robert

      I grew up with Selena in CC. We were neighbors and I never knew how big of a star she was until she passed away. Although her family moved out of the neighborhood (Molina) years ago she still lives in our souls. Every time I pass by her house in CC I see her passing out ice cream to the neighborhood kids as if it were yesterday. She was seen as a neighbor at the time she lived there and not as a BIG star. She was very down to earth and blended in with the rest of the kids and teenagers in the neighborhood. We Miss you Selena!!!!

      April 4, 2012 at 2:32 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Really???

    I met Selena at her shop opening in San Antonio. She had a fabulous fashion sense and her clothes were fun and exciting; everywhere she went she drew a crowd; everyone in San Antonio adored her; I watched her in concert twice and she was at home on the stage... You could feel her sincerety and you knew she was the real deal. When I met her, she treated me like I was a long lost friend and we laughed.. She had no reason to feel scared; sure, she had her crazy fans, but she loved them! I shudder to think what would have happened had she successfully continued to rise in stardom in America! She had the saavy to become a Super Super Star.... RIP Selena and heartfelt peace to your family and husband

    April 4, 2012 at 12:27 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Kriss greenn

    Selena was a very awsome/ talented/ loving person during her time on earth (pretty sure she's the same way in the afterlife). I remember being one of the teeny-bopper kids that tried they're hardest to dance like her. It was EXTREMLY heartbreaking when she was killed. R.I.P. Selena.

    April 2, 2012 at 2:56 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Jenna

    Selena was awesome. 'nuff said.

    April 1, 2012 at 3:35 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Kelly

    Don't speak Spanish, but I did enjoy her music.

    April 1, 2012 at 11:21 am | Report abuse |
  15. A Fan

    It is understandable that the next generations will loose some of the language or even the tradtion beacause living in the States most people who has another culture will become more "Americanist".She will always be missed because she was real & humble even though of her stardum.

    April 1, 2012 at 2:36 am | Report abuse |
  16. Moncada

    I had a teacher that modeled for Selena's clothing line, she said that Selena was a great person.

    March 31, 2012 at 10:12 pm | Report abuse |
  17. fernace

    More American than Mexican!? Is this an American media attempt to "claim" Selena, after 17 years?Fact:Selena was a Mexican-American, born of Mexican-American parents & lived in Mexican-American middleclass neighborhoods! How does this make her more American? Because she had to learn Spanish? Fact:American media didn't sit up & notice her until after she was murdered! Then there was a deluge of sad commentary & praise for her music! The fact is that Selena was a universal Latino community icon before American media caught on! Still, she was a 3rd generation Mexican who, as most of her counterparts, became Americanized! I'm Zero gen Swede & it has happened to my family! Here's the deal: It's OK for American media to pay homage to a Latina star, born in the USA, even though she wasn't wellknown on her homesoil & w/out trying to "Americanize", palatize, or patronize! She would be a huge star in this country, too,had she been allowed to live, but that's beside the point! She was who she was, let's Celebrate That!!

    March 31, 2012 at 7:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • madamelaverite

      Actually that title to me seems a little racist, but I'm not Latina to judge for sure. I can just say as an African American I would feel insulted as if they were trying to erase my heritage. Of course I'm proud to be an American but even though I don't know precisely the African side doesn't mean I want it discounted by saying I'm more this or that. Seems silly. Everyone here is an immigrant or the child of immigrants except for the Native peoples.

      Selena was fully American and fully a Latina. And she's still a Latina whether she spoke Spanish or not.

      April 5, 2012 at 6:31 pm | Report abuse |
  18. Glitteratti

    @Gijoe – It's better to remain silent & be thought a fool, than to speak up & remove all doubt.

    March 31, 2012 at 1:04 pm | Report abuse |
  19. Gijoe

    Viva mehico the land all the mehicans ran away from,what a joke

    March 31, 2012 at 12:56 am | Report abuse |
  20. Bailey

    I agree, taken too young. She had great music and would really be something today.

    March 31, 2012 at 12:13 am | Report abuse |
  21. Selis071

    Seriously more American than Mexican. Selena was a true Latina superstar. She didn't come up from the streets. You might want to check your stats before you write.

    March 30, 2012 at 4:47 pm | Report abuse |
  22. Johndra Bevins

    Sorry, i meant a voice of a Angel.

    March 30, 2012 at 4:46 pm | Report abuse |
  23. Johndra Bevins

    I loved Selena, she was beautiful with a of a Angel. And if she was with us today, she would still been as great. R.I.P.

    March 30, 2012 at 4:45 pm | Report abuse |
  24. franklovesfl

    Way to go off topic!

    Selena was awesome and she is missed.

    March 30, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Report abuse |