South Texas' inaugural Fiesta de la Flor will be historic
Most Selena fans have experienced her more frequently in slow motion than at regular speed. Consider the number of tributes, in-memoriam TV specials, posthumous music videos featuring clips slowed down to half-speed, not to mention the hundreds of unofficial fan eulogies all over the web – virtual ofrendas, immortalizing as beatified saint, the young singer murdered in her prime.
Close your eyes and there she is: whipping that massive black mane, pageant waving, then turning those dizzying spins for which her purple jumpsuit became legend. So much blurry slo-mo. Gauzy, dreamlike.
March, 1995, Austin. Change hung in the air. South by Southwest moved to the new Austin Convention Center. KOOP 91.7FM prepared to launch. Spoon cut its full-length debut for Matador Records.
Down south, Texas native and Corpus Christi homegirl Selena Quintanilla-Pérez, lead singer of Los Dinos and a young fixture on the Tejano/Latin music charts, recorded a crossover album that had fans and industry honchos alike perched, awaiting her ascent into superstardom. On the last day of the month – "Black Friday," as the day became known – her life ended with a bullet.
Superstardom happened anyway.
Dreaming of You, released three months after the singer's murder, hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200.
In Texas, young Stephanie Bergara and Claudia Zapata had a hard time moving on. For the former, now a programming specialist with Austin's Music & Entertainment Division, it was personal. She was 8 when Selena died.
"Listening to music – anything pop culture-y – seemed so much sadder for a really long time," says Bergara today.
For 10-year-old Zapata, music played a bigger role than the backing track of a traditional Tex-Mex upbringing. On a family trip to Europe, her sister's Selena megamix cassette touched a nerve.
"It was so good," she recalls excitedly. "It was funny, it was clever, it had a really good beat. [Los Dinos'] ear was trained – not just for the very specific rhythmic quality of regional Mexican music – but for this diaspora of American funk, R&B, and cumbia."
An undeniable edge in Los Dinos' sound, says Zapata, was "Chris' guitar – the Chris licks."
No Puedo Dejar de Pensar en Ti
Chris, of course, is Chris Pérez, lead guitarist of Los Dinos and husband to Selena. Gregory Nava's 1997 film Selena – besides breaking out the early career of one Jenny from the block – made the case for Pérez not being your typical Tejano player. The scene where actor Jon Seda (as Chris) is auditioning for Selena's dad, Abraham (played by Edward James Olmos), cuts to a close-up of guitarist hands tapping out crazy Eddie Van Halen-style riffs.
That close-up: Chris Pérez's hands.
After Selena's death, he continued in music, playing with A.B. Quintanilla & the Kumbia Kings and racking up a Grammy for his first LP, Resurrection.
Austin Chronicle: What's one moment of sheer musical bliss or epiphany that happened with Los Dinos?
Chris Pérez: When I first heard the Selena Live! tracks. We'd just taken a big creative step. The way Selena attacked songs, I knew I had to bust out of this [Tejano guitar] formula. I shouldn't have to rely on these upchunks, you know? Obviously I can't get all Pantera or Nirvana on your ass, but ... [laughs].
Listen to "Techno Cumbia," or even the conjunto-type songs, where I'd double the electric with an acoustic in an effort to mimic a bajo-sexto sound. In other songs like "No Debes Jugar," "La Llamada" – there's some little guitar nuggets in there.
We had just finished mixing Live! Abraham was all excited to hear the mix. When he got to the new shit, his head blew up. "What are y'all thinking?! They're not ready for this shit!" Guess what? Those were the two biggest songs we ever had, up to that point. Even today, that shit sounds hot. Back then when we played it, whoooooo, we were breaking the law.
AC: Your 2012 book, To Selena With Love, seemed like a punctuation mark, a bit of closure for you and that part of your public life.
CP: I got to clarify a lot of things in a cool way. I did not want the book to be some kind of tell-all, but I got to talk about Selena and the way she was off the stage.
With the book, I got to shine a light on her and let people know and see that she was a great person offstage as well. And it wasn't just talk. When she said, "Don't do drugs and stay in school," or when she spoke up about domestic abuse, she [was standing up] for what she believed.
Also, you know, it wasn't all butterflies and flowers and roses all the time. And I put some of that in there, too.
Would You See What's Inside?
Claudia Zapata reflects, "She became this legend. Like any rock star who dies young, they stay young forever. You never really hear anything bad about Selena."
"We have her crystallized in that sense of potential," says author and UT Associate Professor of English Deborah Paredez, whose 2009 book, Selenidad: Selena, Latinos, and the Performance of Memory, traces the mark left by the singer on Latin cultural identity. "She had genuine talent. She could sing, and she could dance – [important now] in these days of post-AutoTune."
Likewise, Texas music bon vivant Joe Nick Patoski, author of Selena biography Como La Flor (1997), wonders about the "what-ifs." Selena was a music business "game changer," he says.
"She elevated Latin music out of its regional sound. We're still in the midst of that change," he adds, noting the impact of contemporary alt-Latino artists like Austin's Gina Chavez or San Antonians Piñata Protest and Nina Diaz of Girl in a Coma.
Paredez speaks of the singer's impact as an enduring icon, not only for Latino/as, but also "for a queer community coming off the age of AIDS. So many young people taken too soon, but also, in a way, the culture surviving that."
Anyone with a toe in to any Southwestern gay bar knows the extent of her appeal in the drag circuit. Even 20 years later, Selena resides in the pantheon amongst other one-name divas: Cher, Madonna, Beyoncé. Or as Patoski chirps, "More drag queens, por favor!"
"She never really got to fully realize what she wanted to do," he says. "Unlike telenovela stars of the time, Selena did not have bleached hair or pale skin. That sent a pretty powerful message."
Paredez concurs: "Selena died before she was forced to dye her hair."
There's Nowhere in the World I'd Rather Be
AC: Selena y Los Dinos are credited with changing the face of Latin music. Where's the Guitar World or Guitar Player Chris Pérez interview? You've got decades of shredding, composing, Grammys: Do you feel taken seriously?
CP: I feel taken seriously by people who love to listen to music. As far as that other stuff, it would be nice, but I don't think about it. In this business, you have to have a thick skin. Like when I won the Grammy – there was a lot of backbiting. Winning a Grammy was not as fucking awesome as it should have been.
AC: OK, silly question: Where do you keep your Grammy?
CP: My mom's house. She had my first Gold record as well, which we got with Selena for the album Ven Conmigo – the black-and-white cover of her in that sideways pose, and her face ...
I never hung up any of my Gold or Platinum records, and there's quite a few, especially after Selena passed away, because of the Latin genre explosion. Again, I was in a different headspace.
AC: Is there any artist you've been compared to that took you aback?
CP: Carlos Santana invited me to play with him in Corpus Christi years ago. Long story short, I said no, but they sent someone to get me, basically dragged me to the venue. I get backstage, and he comes out: "Where's your guitar?" I said, "You were serious? I didn't bring it. I just came to enjoy the show." So he goes where his guitars are laid out – the iconic yellow Paul Reed Smith and the other one, the greenish-blue Paul Reed Smith, the Santana signature series, the freaking guitars! What does he do? He picks up the green one and goes, "Here. I want to jam with you."
A light came down from the sky and everything!
He picks up the other guitar. "Okay, so if I start playing this..."
So, I start slowly, kind of soulfully, and he's like, "Nah, nah. Do that other stuff."
"What stuff?" And he goes, "That stuff! Like that close-up of the hands in the movie!" Fingerboard, tapping B.S.
"Are you serious?" And he goes, "Well, yeah. You kind of remind me of that dude."
I said, "What dude?"
"Eddie Van Halen!"
So I obeyed the master and went out [during Santana's encore]. There was a two-handed tap fest onstage, man.
Cómo te Necesito
"Selena was the first person I saw on television that looked like me or someone in my family. That was the first time I identified with my heritage," says Stephanie Bergara. "I remember being so mad at my mom because she wouldn't let me audition to be Selena in the Selena movie."
In hindsight, she concedes mama's good sense. None of which matters, because Stephanie Bergara fronts Bidi Bidi Banda, Austin's first all-star Selena tribute band. This month, the band has been hustling to honor the 20th anniversary of Selena's passing, serving up playful memories – musical hugs, really – during times of great collective pain and commemoration.
When Claudia Zapata first saw a cassette of the singer on her mother's dresser, she was knocked out by what stared back at her.
"As a little queer girl, unbeknownst to me, I was completely struck."
She remembers clearly the day after the news broke.
"Everyone was wearing their shirts: The Amor Prohibido cover, with the ruffles, white shirt, leather jacket, pouty lips. Selena was like Latinos' JFK."
Now, Zapata's a member of local art and culture jammers Puro Chingon Collective, hosting an interactive screening of Selena for Fusebox Arts Festival this week.
Mi Amor, Cómo te Extraño
AC: So many only know you from the movie. Was there one moment related to the portrayal of you that made you go, "Hmmm," or scratch your head?
CP: The real question would be if there was one part that I thought hit the nail on the head. It was basically all head-scratching, chin-rubbing, "What the ...?" But I have to take a lot of the credit for the exaggeration. I was in a crazy place. I clammed up. I stopped doing TV interviews, especially on the Latin side of things. Partly because of what had happened to my wife and partly because the media turned me into a hermit. Every time I tried to do these interviews or shows, it was super-sensational: slowing the footage down, playing sad music, pulling heartstrings.
AC: But you eventually came around and worked with the movie crew?
CP: When Jon [Seda] got the part, we started hanging out quite a bit. That's an understatement. We were so much alike. We liked the same kind of music: Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Van Halen, AC/DC. He wanted to learn to play guitar, so I helped him out.
AC: You referred to the movie getting one thing right?
CP: The scene in the movie when [Selena/J-Lo] comes to the hotel and [proposes to Chris/Jon], "We need to get married. That's the only way this is going to work!"
I got to tell Jon the feeling behind everything that happened, how I reacted to her. Before that, he and I never really "went there" when it came to my relationship with Selena. He'd seen me hanging out with [Los Dinos] Ricky, Joe, A.B., and Suzette, but the one thing nobody outside the circle would know is how Selena and I acted together.
There was nobody in that room except Selena and I, and they got it right.
Como la Fiesta
In late January, the city of Corpus Christi announced the first of what will be an annual festival to honor the memory and legacy of the beloved Texan superstar. Scheduled for Friday and Saturday, April 17-18, downtown in North Bayfront Park, the first historic Fiesta de la Flor will feature a glitterati of artists, including Grammy winners Los Lobos, Little Joe y La Familia, and members of Selena Quintanilla's family, including Pérez. The who's who of Tejas talent also includes Las Fenix, Clarissa Serna, Nina Diaz, and more.
This marks the first significant citywide tribute in collaboration with Selena's parent (literally) organization, Q Productions.
AC: This is a crazy Grammy-laden bill; who are you most excited to see or to play with?
CP: Honestly, as big-headed as it's going to sound, I'm most excited to play with my guys. We've got some really cool things going on. I want things to be a surprise. This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I know that it's likely to happen again, but at this point, this is the one and only "Selena Fest."
For more on Fiesta de la Flor, see austinchronicle.com/daily and www.fiestadelaflor.com. For details about upcoming Bidi Bidi Banda shows, check www.fb.com/bidibidibanda, and for the upcoming Selena screening at Fusebox, Fri., April 10, 8pm, see www.fuseboxfestival.com/festival/selena.