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.
“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.
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.