Latino Life in Philly

A big tribute and dance party for Philly to celebrate what Selena means to them

Brooklyn Bowl hosts the first local edition of the touring “Forever Selena” event commemorating the late Tejano singer.

Singer Selena Quintanilla Pérez painted next to the front entrance at Tina Taco’s in Fishtown neighborhood

Singer Selena Quintanilla Pérez painted next to the front entrance at Tina Taco’s in Fishtown neighborhood

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

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Hearts may go “bidi bidi bom bom” at Philly’s big Forever Selena event this weekend in more ways than one.

The Friday night tribute/dance party at the new Brooklyn Bowl event space in Northern Liberties commemorates the beloved Selena Quintanilla, who died 27 years ago at age 23 after being murdered by her fanclub president, Yolanda Saldivar.

“It’s a celebration,” said DJ and musician Erick Santero, the organizer of the tribute. “It’s also a way for all of us to bond and to be together and to remember who she was, what she represented to us, and of course, dance to her music.”

For many in the Latino community, Selena needs no introduction. Known as the Queen of Tejano, Selena gained worldwide success for her pop-influenced Tejano music, a unique genre that originated in Northern Mexico. It features a lot of accordion and combines Tex-Mex and European influences, particularly from polka and waltz.

Selena rose to fame in the 90s with hits like “Amor Prohibido” and “Baila Esta Cumbia,” and contributed to the rise of Latin music in the United States.

She dominated a predominately male music genre and eventually became the first Tejano artist to win a Grammy.

“The depth of the connection that people made to her and her music is so strong and it’s a beautiful thing,” said Santero, who has worked in the music industry for 30 years and currently serves as the senior music content editor for Latin America at Gracenote — a media data company owned by Nielsen.

Selena’s impact has remained strong throughout generations, and in the past five years Santoro has helped host dozens of successful Forever Selena events across the U.S.

Philly is the newest addition to the roster and one of the many events at Brooklyn Bowl that bring Latino talent to the venue.

“Philadelphia has a flourishing Latino community and we want to make Brooklyn Bowl Philadelphia a home for artists and fans alike,” said Paul Bacher, the talent buyer for Philly.

The event on Friday features various DJs and performers, including the on-air mixer for Pitbull’s radio station on Sirius XM, Yo Yolie. Everything will be on blast — from classic and remixed Selena songs to the 80’s and 90’s jams that inspired her music. Of course, no Selena-themed event would be complete without the Mexican genres that she was known for: tejano, cumbia and banda will also be pumping through the speakers at the NoLibs venue.

Fans who plan to attend are encouraged to come ready to dance and don their favorite Selena merch — or even dress like her.

“We’ll be giving away prizes for best costumes and we’ll have a dance contest on stage,” said Santero, who will also be spinning tunes at the event. “People are in for a treat.”

‘She looked like me and was beloved’

Selena’s tragic death in 1995 left the world heartbroken.

Thousands waited in a line seven-football fields long for a chance to pass the artist’s casket during her funeral. Her death was not only unexpected but halted the Tejano artist’s sudden rise to stardom.

Selena embodied the duality of bilingual and bicultural young Hispanic-Americans, “who can be just as passionate for the countries their parents left behind as they are for the one where they are coming of age,” wrote Lydia Martin for the Philadelphia Daily News in February 1997.

For Gabe Castro, the member programming manager at PhillyCAM, podcaster and Temple University professor, that’s what Selena represents.

Castro grew up in a mixed household — her mother is white and father is Puerto Rican. Her first experience with Selena was as a child, when relatives listened to the music while babysitting. Those were the few times she experienced any popular Latino culture.

“I am not Mexican, I’m Puerto Rican. But I also can’t speak Spanish in any fluent way,” said the 30-year-old. “So watching Selena struggle to be accepted by these two different communities — not being Mexican enough in Mexico, not American enough in America, hit very close to home for me.”

Castro, whose favorite song is “Dreaming of You,” saw her appearance represented in Selena, too.

“She was one of the only people that looked like me in any way and was beloved,” Castro said.

Memorialized in Philadelphia’s streetscape

Growing up, the Selena movie captivated Taylor Phillips: the storyline, the music, the fashion. Every time she’d watch the movie, she’d hope for a different ending, wishing that somehow this time it would be different. While she can’t change the past, Selena’s story reminds Phillips that anyone can leave a legacy.

“No matter what happens physically, you can leave a mark on this world,” the 29-year old-muralist said. “Your music, your art can live on, it’s not about what’s on this physical Earth but it’s about what you can leave behind.”

So when the owner of Tina’s Tacos in Fishtown pitched the idea to make a Selena-inspired mural at the front of his restaurant, Phillips knew she had to do it.

The mural often draws customers inside the Bob’s Burgers-inspired restaurant, where they’ll sometimes hear Selena playing in the background.

Symone Salib, another Philadelphia muralist, didn’t grow up listening to Selena, but discovered her music in high school. Now 29, she blasts “Dame Un Beso” whenever she’s in her studio or making empanadas with friends because “that feels like home.”

“Music is so beautiful, because it can play this really important visceral feeling in the background of memories,” said Salib, a Cuban and Egyptian artist and art educator in Philly. “It can feel almost like she’s a part of the process even though she doesn’t know me.”

Salib’s work is typically community-centered, and often she makes art that represents her culture or parts of herself. In 2020, she started posting potential mural ideas on her Instagram as a way to manifest them into reality.

After having a Selena day filled with binge-watching the Netflix original series, 2 hours worth of interviews of her, her family, and her killer and ending with the 1997 titular movie, she decided to make a mural mockup of the artist.

While it has yet to grace any buildings, Salib knows she’ll make it a reality one day.

The 'Selena Forever' tribute party is coming to Philadelphia for the first time

The 'Selena Forever' tribute party is coming to Philadelphia for the first time

Courtesy Erick Santero

‘Forever Selena’ is a labor of love

Selena meant a lot to Santero, who’s running the dance party this weekend.

For him, it was about her music and also about identity. As a Chʼortiʼ Mayan Guatemalan immigrant, seeing Selena blend genres from pop to classic Mexican genres was affirming to him.

“Just to see somebody just be her, like, unapologetically, was so amazing and refreshing and inspiring to me,” he said. “Probably has a lot of influence on why I’m still doing what I do today.”

The Forever Selena events are a lot of hard work, but it’s rewarding for Santero to see fans and creators gather in one place to honor one of their favorite singers and have a fun time.

“We do this out of the love for Selena and for her music,” Santoro said, “and for the community that she left behind.”

Want some more? Explore other Latino Life in Philly stories.

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