How Museums Are Preserving and Celebrating Selena’s Legacy

The singer’s presence can still be felt at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History

Fans hold photo of Selena
Fans hold a photo of Selena during the ceremony honoring her with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2017. Tara Ziemba / AFP via Getty Images

Selena lived for almost 24 years. Her legacy will live much longer—it already has.

Last month marked the 30th anniversary of her Grammy-nominated 1994 album Amor Prohibido, which was the first Tejano album to hit No. 1 on the Top Latin Albums chart, according to Billboard. This April 16 would have been her 53rd birthday. Next March will mark 30 years since she was shot and killed by Yolanda Saldívar in Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1995.

In her short life, the Mexican American singer left a lasting impact on music and culture. She’s known as many things: the queen of Tejano music, a Grammy-winning singer, a Latin music legend, a ’90s icon and an icon of American pop culture in general. Selena Quintanilla grew up in South Texas and sang since she was a child. Her father, Abraham Quintanilla, formed their family band Selena y Los Dinos, in which she performed with her siblings. Their self-titled debut album released in 1984. Selena’s solo music began with her own self-titled debut album released in 1989. Selling millions of records worldwide, she captivated listeners with each of her subsequent albums: Ven Conmigo (1990), Entre a Mi Mundo (1992), Selena Live! (1993), Amor Prohibido (1994) and Dreaming of You (1995), released posthumously.

On March 31, 1995, Selena met with Saldívar, the former president of Selena’s fan club and manager of her clothing boutiques, at a Corpus Christi Days Inn. Earlier that year, Saldívar was fired after Selena’s family had accused her of embezzling money from the business. Saldívar shot and killed Selena. Saldívar was convicted of first-degree murder in the fall of 1995 and sentenced to life in prison with parole eligibility in 2025.

Selena, courtesy of NMAH
Selena performs at the 1994 Tejano Music Awards. This costume is on view in the National Museum of American History’s “Entertainment Nation” exhibition. Al Rendon / Courtesy of the National Museum of American History

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, National Portrait Gallery, National Postal Museum and American Art Museum all have collected artifacts that represent Selena. In 1998, her family opened the Selena Museum in Corpus Christi to celebrate her life. Tens of thousands of visitors come each year to see outfits, photos and other memorabilia.

Years and years go by, and the devotion to Selena lives on.

“A lot of people say ‘Selena vive,’ ‘Selena lives,’” says Ashley Oliva Mayor, a curatorial associate focused on Latin music and culture at the National Museum of American History. “That’s because people have kept her memory alive through all of these generations.”

Her posthumous album Dreaming of You debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart in 1995. The 1997 biopic about her life introduced her to people outside her fan base and to those born after her death. Writer and scholar Deborah Paredez published a book about Selena’s impact and importance, Selenidad: Selena, Latinos and the Performance of Memory, in 2009. The book was praised for how it studied grief and mourning over Selena’s death, and explored the cultural and political dynamics around her.

Selena's star
Singer Selena Quintanilla is honored posthumously with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2017. Tara Ziemba / AFP via Getty Images

Selena got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2017. She was the focus of a course at the University of Texas at San Antonio that launched in 2020 called “Selena: A Mexican American Identity and Experience.” Apple Podcasts’ “Best of 2021” named the “Anything for Selena” podcast hosted by Maria Garcia as the Newcomer of the Year, commending it for the way it “asks profound questions about belonging.”

As a fashion icon, Selena has even left her mark on the makeup industry. Cosmetics company MAC launched a Selena collection in 2016, and it later announced another collection in 2020.

“I stood in line at MAC trying to buy this collection that sold out before I ever made it to the door,” says Mayor. “When MAC launched the Selena collection, it kind of reminded us there is still an incredible following, an incredible fan base that loves her, remembers her, supports her, even in this collaboration that obviously is years and years after her death and after she has stopped making music. There’s not new music being made by Selena, but she continues to have this enormous power over us, those of us who were fans of hers.”

Inside “Entertainment Nation,” the permanent exhibition covering music, theater, sports, television and film at the National Museum of American History, visitors can stand under an arch to hear Selena’s music and watch footage of her. Near the arch is one of her leather outfits, which she wore to the Tejano Music Awards in 1994, donated by the singer’s family.

“It’s just incredible to see how folks still love her so much,” Mayor says. “We call Selena’s outfit at the Smithsonian a pilgrimage object, because people will come to D.C. with the express purpose of seeing her outfit on display.”

Eventually, Selena’s outfit, and the arch that features her experience, will need to rotate out of the exhibition for conservation purposes, Mayor says: “We want to make sure we’re preserving her outfit in perpetuity. It needs to get put away so it has a break from exposure to light and from tension on seams being mounted on a mannequin.”

Mayor says the outfit has been on display since the exhibition opened in 2022, but sometime in the next year, it will have to be taken from public view and replaced by the outfit and story of “a different figure who’s been influential as well.”

Selena in a Coca-Cola ad
Selena was photographed by Al Rendon for a 1994 Coca-Cola ad campaign. This photo is on view in the "American Enterprise" exhibition at the National Museum of American History. Al Rendon / Courtesy of the National Museum of American History

Producing the Selena experience inside the exhibition took nearly two years of development, Mayor says. The arch features selected songs and quotes from Selena.

“For me, I’m a fan of Selena,” says Mayor. “Having to narrow down all of her songs to like five selected songs for that one experience was incredibly difficult. I kept thinking, my favorite song of hers [‘El Chico del Apartamento 512’] didn’t even make it in. We have to be very thoughtful and intentional about what our messaging is, and what songs we’re selecting to carry the message and legacy of Selena forward.”

Selena had a voice, Mayor says, and it was undeniable. “That transcends language, that transcends genre,” she says. “You hear someone, and you are saying, ‘Wow, this woman can sing.’”

Meanwhile, the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of the American Latino is currently in organizational ramp-up, figuring out its collection plan, building staff and awaiting congressional designation on a proposal for a physical location. Ranald Woodaman, the museum’s assistant director of exhibition development, says that while its collection doesn’t currently have much representation of Selena, her story and spirit are part of the fabric of its mission.

“Our mission is collecting, recovering, documenting, displaying the legacy of Latinos and Latinas in terms of shaping U.S. society and making U.S. history,” Woodaman says. “Selena is obviously part of that.”

He visited the Selena Museum last year and says he gained a massive amount of appreciation for her, particularly as a designer. “She designed her outfits,” he says. “She was really in conversation with the fashion of the day. She had a sense of herself as a multidimensional artist.”

Selena interview, 1994

At the National Portrait Gallery, curatorial assistant of Latino art Gabrielle Tillenburg highlights two photographs of Selena in the museum’s collection. They aren’t currently on display, because photographs, like other museum artifacts, rotate in and out of view for conservation, she notes.

In a portrait by San Antonio photographer Al Rendon, Selena is “standing really powerfully with her hand on her jacket,” Tillenburg says. “Everything is very much in line with the glamour that you affiliate with Selena. Her facial expression is both soft and strong at the same time.”

In the portrait by John Dyer, another San Antonio-based photographer, “the lighting, her skin is so luminous, the red lip is so strong,” she says. “You’re so enticed by that. You want to be her.”

Tillenburg continues, “She’s owning it. As a girl growing up in the ’90s, to see this figure who simultaneously embodied this glamorous femininity and at the same time embodied power and owning her space on the stage, and at the same time was a Latina doing that really coming from a place of owning her culture. Yes, she’s crossing over and she’s doing pop songs, but she’s the queen of Tejano music. She’s going to be there representing cumbia, mariachi, all of these genres. This portrait, for me, really gets at that.”

One of Tillenburg’s favorite Selena songs is “Si Una Vez,” which she says was innovative in how it combined mariachi and cumbia sounds. The way the singer was able to put emotion into her voice is still impactful, she says.

In Tillenburg’s view, Selena’s legacy and history are being preserved, and, at the same time, they are still being written. She says the portraits show the impact she had in her time, but they also engage audiences in real time.

Selena means so much to so many, from the understanding of her as both a cultural phenomenon and regional artist to being able to identify with her as a person, says Mayor.

“Selena is American history,” Mayor says.

Get the latest on what's happening At the Smithsonian in your inbox.