As we celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, author Joe Nick Patoski, who has been writing about Texas music and musicians for five decades, examines Selena’s 1990 album, “Ven Conmigo.” It was added to the Library’s National Recording Registry in 2019.
To fully appreciate Selena, the superstar Tejano singer, start with “Ven Conmigo,” the second album that Selena y Los Dinos recorded for their new major label, EMI-Latin. Released in 1990, the record was a watershed for Selena and her siblings, the Quintanilla family band. They were from Corpus Christi and were serving notice that they were the new standard bearers of Tejano, the regional music popular among second- and third-generation Texans of Mexican descent.
The big band ensemble sound dated back to the 1940s and was built on the polka as its primary rhythm. Tejanos — the name also describes Texans of Mexican descent — borrowed the European dance tradition from Czech and Germans immigrants to Texas in the early 20th century and reworked it into their own style.
Tejano had its own living legend, Little Joe Hernandez of Little Joe y La Familia, but the music’s popularity had remained local until a wave of younger musicians appeared primed to reach a wider audience. Major record labels, including EMI, had taken notice and were betting on the crossover potential of acts such as Emilio Navaira, La Mafia, Grupo Mazz, and Selena.
The songs on “Ven Conmigo” illustrate the evolution that Selena and her siblings had made during nine years of management and direction from their father, Abraham Quintanilla Jr. He had once sung street-corner harmonies in his own version of Los Dinos in the early 1960s. Frustrated over his group’s inability to crossover into the mainstream, Abraham taught his English-speaking children to play the bouncy Tejano rhythm and how to sing in Spanish.
They began as a small combo that played Papa Gayo’s, the family’s Mexican restaurant in Lake Jackson, when Selena was in elementary school. Years of playing every weekend on the road polished the act into a state-of-the-art performing enterprise complete with recording studio and touring busses. Joining Selena was her older brother and producer-composer, Abraham III (known professionally as A.B. III), and her sister, Suzette, the drummer. Onstage was a full ensemble that included longtime colleague Ricky Vela on keyboards, and from Laredo, a second keyboardist, Joe Ojeda. Pete Astudillo, a singer-songwriter-dancer, co-produced with A.B. III. At the center of it all was 20-year-old Selena.
The head-and-shoulder profile photograph of Selena looking down, pensive, on the album cover, speaks volumes. The perky teen who came of age at Tejano Music Awards shows in San Antonio had grown into a woman in full flower, of exceptional natural beauty, her jet-black hair cut stylishly short.
Most songs on the album are straight up Tejano. They are distinguished by a gliding, danceable rhythm with keyboards and synthesizers replacing the traditional accordion and horns for a more modern sound. Then there were the romantic ballads, showcasing Selena’s soaring vocals.
That strange, weird polka groove drives the title track, with David Lee Garza’s accordion added on this song for old-school street cred. It also distinguishes “Yo Te Amo,” a duet Selena sings with Astudillo, on a song he co-wrote. The updated polkita rhythm also defines “La Tracalera,” a much-improved remake of her 1982 version of the Tex-Mex truckers’ anthem, complete with shout outs to San Antonio, Laredo, Houston, Dallas, Waco, Victoria, Corpus Christi, and La Feria.
“La Tracalera,” “Aunque No Salga El Sol” and “Despues de Enero” — the last a ballad showcasing Selena’s vocal range — were written by Johnny Herrera, her father’s mentor. Herrera, from Corpus Christi, had several hits in Mexico in the 1950s where he was known as “El Suspiro,” the Sigh.
Three songs on “Ven Conmigo” offer hints where Selena was headed.
The second single, “Baila Esta Cumbia,” completely strayed from the Tejano formula. The song was a cumbia, not a polka, and was produced by Astudillo and A.B. III. It borrowed heavily from Fito Olivares, who hailed from the Texas-Mexico borderlands. Powered by a mesmerizing beat tailored for dancing, the song hit big in Mexico, something few Tejano bands had accomplished. Selena was opening doors.
“Enamorada de Ti,” another percussive, made-for-dance collaboration between A.B. III and Astudillo, features a rap break with a growling, assertive Selena busting rhymes, showing what she’s got.
Along with “No Quiero Saber,” the production team was making a strong case that they could create the English-language crossover songs that the label executives wanted when they signed Selena.
“Ven Conmigo” froze all that in time.
Weeks after the album’s release, guitarist Chris Perez joined Los Dinos, adding a rock component to the band’s sound. Two years later, he and Selena married.
With “Ven Conmigo,” Selena was ascendant, earning comparisons to Gloria Estefan and Madonna. She was signed to endorse Coca-Cola, the first Tejana to do so. Yet to come were concerts that filled Houston’s Astrodome with 60,000 fans; street dances at Miami’s Calle Ocho that turned on the larger Latin music world to this new singer coming out of Texas; a movie with Johnny Depp; and a role in a Mexican telenovela. Each album that followed topped the previous one, capped by 1994’s fully-formed “Amor Prohibido,” which sold more than 500,000 copies. It was only the second time a Tejano act had sold that many records.
The success of “Ven Conmigo” also attracted the attention of Yolanda Saldivar, a San Antonio nurse. She first asked to run Selena’s fan club, but eventually worked her way into being Selena’s business associate, managing the singer’s boutique in San Antonio and assisting Selena as she developed a fashion line with designer Martin Gomez.
On the morning of March 31, 1995, Saldivar shot Selena to death at a Corpus Christi motel, following a dispute over charges that Saldivar had been embezzling funds. She was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. She is eligible for parole in 2025.
Selena’s legacy, meanwhile, glows brighter than ever.
Joe Nick Patoski has authored and co-authored biographies of Willie Nelson, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Selena, and the Dallas Cowboys.