Rivard Report: My first recollection of Selena is meeting her backstage in 1989 or 1990 at Hemisfair Arena or some downtown venue. By then she already was racking up awards and record deals as a 19-year-old sensation. When did you first take her photograph?
Al Rendon: The first time I photographed Selena was at a Tejano Music Awards event, either 1988 or 1989. She wasn’t actually performing at the awards, she was performing at a pre-party; she was on an outdoor stage near the Convention Center marina. The first time I got to photograph her and meet her was when I did pictures for her “Entre a Mi Mundo” album. That was the first studio session I had with her and that was not until 1992.
RR: My other memory is how her father Abraham was, literally, standing in her shadow every minute, zealously guarding and chaperoning her. How important was he to her development and her ascent as teenage phenom?
Al: By the time Selena was old enough to perform, Abraham had already been a professional musician and he knew what it took to put a good band together. In the beginning, Abraham was more focused on his kids as a group, a family band. Later, when Selena was signed to the EMI Latin label, it became apparent that she was going to be the star in the group. Abraham was extremely protective of his daughter, which at that time was good because she was very young and very naïve.
RR: Selena was not only an amazing talent, she was a pioneer. Tejano Music, when I returned to live and work in Texas in the late 1980s, was dominated by male artists. It was pretty chauvinistic world. How was Selena able to surmount the cultural roadblocks that seemed to exclude other female performers and artists?
Al: Nearly all of the early Tejano groups were male dominated, but there was one woman, Laura Canales with Conjunto Bernal. Old school Conjunto and Latin music had female singers that were big stars all the way back to the ’30s. But Tejano music was all male until Laura and Selena came to the scene. – The other women in Tejano that competed with Selena – Stephanie, Stefania, and others – did not have the band and management experience that propelled Selena to the top. She succeeded as an artist musically because she was able to collaborate with her sister and her brother – her brother wrote a lot of those songs, music and lyrics. Selena couldn’t even speak Spanish – she had to learn the Spanish lyrics in all of her early hits. Selena was a very nice person, very pleasant to be around. The male Tejano artists were not threatened by her because she was just so nice, and she was so good. They had seen her perform since she was 12, she had been on the scene and they watched her grow up. She paid her dues and earned the industry’s respect.
RR: Selena was a musical and performance force of nature in South Texas. Before her murder became a national story sensationalized by cable news programs, how big was her stardom outside her home state? She certainly won Latin Grammys, and by the early 1990s her albums were not only winning critical acclaim and dominating the Latin music charts, they were starting to cross over and enjoy mainstream success. What level of stardom did she achieve?
Al: At the time of her death, Selena was a major act all over the United States. She was better known in the Tejano world. Tejano is not the major player that it was, but at that time, it drew giant crowds all over the Hemisphere. Abraham signed her to EMI because they shared his and Selena’s vision of a crossover career. Her English language album and crossover hits happened after the tragedy. Jennifer Lopez kind of assumed Selena’s ascension. Selena would have been in a perfect position to become a big star in the national market. Anyone who saw Selena perform recognized her talent and appeal. The girls all wanted to be like her, the men all wanted to marry her.
RR: You had the opportunity to know her before, during and after she gained fame and fortune. Did it change her? What was she like off-stage?
Al: I never saw a big change in Selena. I knew her from 1992 until 1995. Once you reach a certain level of popularity, too many people are trying to communicate with you, constantly trying to make contact. That’s where her father and his management team was so effective – they were able to control all the people crawling out of the woodwork. But that helped her concentrate on being herself, and she was always approachable, appreciative of her fans, signed autographs and posed for pictures, she was very humbled by all the attention.
RR: How has her music endured in the 20 years since her untimely death? How big of an influence has she been on the careers of other young Latina singers and performers who have followed in her footsteps?
Al: There will never be another Selena, but she is a significant influence and her music will live on. Obviously, 20 years later, people are still talking about her, she was included in the Smithsonian’s list of American Cool, there’s a festival in Corpus Christi – Selena will be a household name, and her music will be with us forever.
RR: Al Rendon, thank you for sharing your memories and your singular archive of Selena photography.
*Featured/top image: Selena Studio shot for Live Album and performing at 1991 Tejano Music Awards. Photo by Al Rendon.