As all Selena fans know, Selena was born in Lake Jackson in 1971, the year I graduated from Brazoswood High School. I had friends who lived close to the Quintanillas' house, but I never know them. Selena's uncle Isaac was a year ahead of me in school, and I vaguely remember him from junior high, but he kept a very low profile.
After her tragic death, I was called upon to research her early years of life for the biography, Como La Flor, by Joe Nick Patoski. Our intention (and ultimate accomplishment) was to produce an accurate and interesting biography of this extraordinary young woman.
What follows are some reminiscences of Selena and her family from friends, co-workers, and neighbors during the Lake Jackson years.
Papa Gayo's Restaurant at 121 Circle Way opened in 1981 and closed the same year. It never had a listing in the phone directory. The Quintanillas lived at several addresses in Lake Jackson, in the following order: 109 Ivy Court, 146 Trumpet Vine, 104 Caladium, and 401 Garland Dr. Apt. 211.
The Ivy Ct. and Trumpet Vine addresses are in L.J.'s "slum" area. These wooden duplexes were the first housing built in L.J. back in the early 1940s. They evidently moved into the Garland Dr. apt. after the restaurant went bust.
Mrs. Annie Perez was Selena's 3rd grade teacher.
I didn't remember at first that I had had her as a student. "Didn't you have her?" I asked Mrs. Elaine Oelfke. I remember her being good friends with Lynn Cappel. She was an ideal student. You usually remember the outstanding ones--the really good one or the bad ones. She did everything she was supposed to do. She was an average student (scholastically), did her work, was obedient. She had a glowing personality, but was quiet at the same time. On the playground the kids would call out "Selena!" She was friendly with the other students.
Elaine and I would team teach our classes; one would teach reading, the other would teach math, and so forth.
This was an excellent class, a neat class. There were no problem children in it. It wasn't like the classes today; so many of the kids today are on medication, for attention deficit disorder and such. She was in the class Christmas play. Amy Ledbetter was Mrs. Claus. Jerry was Mr. Claus. I don't remember what Selena played. It wasn't a musical but everybody had a part. She might have sung--they had to sing some Christmas songs (maybe Abe helped out with this?)
For Valentine's Day the kids made Valentine boxes and some of the kid's boxes were in the paper. But I don't remember Selena's box. Maybe she didn't make one, that might have had something to do with being a Jehovah's Witness. She was the only Hispanic in the class [with the possible exception of the girl on the front row, right], but English was her primary language. She didn't have any language problems at all. I don't remember any meetings with her parents.
I was the only Hispanic teacher at Roberts Elementary at the time. Selena's class was full of rich folks' kids from Flag Ridge (a subdivision). I got a lot of those kids. [Mrs. Perez had a rep as a good teacher.]
Mrs. Sam Johnson was a neighbor on Caladium.
Our kids were older than the Quintanilla kids, so we didn't interact that much as families, not as much as if our kids had been the same age. We talked over the fence or in the yard, as neighbors will do. The kids played over on Caladium Court. Their garage was on the other side of the house from our house, so we were never disturbed by the music. They put carpet up all around the garage, soundproofed it as best as they could. They never played late, never gave anybody any problems.
They were very good neighbors but we never really got to know them that well because our kids were different ages.
We could hear the music, but it was never loud enough to bother us. They were very considerate. We never went to the cafe to see her sing, but we don't go out to eat very much.
Mrs. Robert Smith was a neighbor across the back fence on Caladium.
There was a big thick bamboo hedge that went all around the backyard, so we didn't see or hear much of them, neither did the Johnsons. The previous occupants had planted the bamboo. It's gone now, but back then, it pretty much isolated them.
We had no complaints about them as neighbors and couldn't really hear the music.
Mrs. Pat Diehl was Selena's 2nd grade teacher.
She was a quiet good worker. She wasn't a troublemaker, not out to get attention. She was a sweet little girl, an average student, not outstanding, but not below average.
She was in one of my first classes at Roberts. I had taught in Freeport before that.
She was in a school program that we did. We had to do one program a year. Another teacher and I combined to do a program. She participated in a folk dance. It seems like it was "Shoo Fly," but I'm not positive. She danced and sang in that. She had rather short, shoulder-length hair in her class photo. I would not have recognized her in later years. I don't remember anything about her mom and dad.
All the kids liked her. There were never any problems. She was a happy little girl, an average happy little second grader.
I don't recall her not being able to participate in school activities. There were some kids that couldn't do certain things, but I don't remember that about her. She dressed like the other kids, not flashy, not dirty.
She had no language skill problems. She was an average reader in an average group.
I never recall her coming up to me and talking to me about singing. When I heard that she was singing in the restaurant I was really surprised. She never did anything in class that made her stand out, in that respect, as a singer. I wonder what role her father played in that, if he pushed her. We never went to see her at the restaurant.
[In later years] I heard about Selena but never connected her with the little girl I taught until I heard about her death. Our custodians were upset about her death. We didn't know why at first. The secretary answered a lot of phone calls; she didn't know what was going on. After a while we put it all together and figured out who she was. The custodians came to me, got my class picture, made copies of it, and shared their magazines with me. They were very upset about her death.
Louie Matula was a Dow employee who knew Abe.
Abe was a shipping clerk and tow-motor operator in Metal Warehousing, B-201 building. We hauled stuff to him. He really loved to play music. His first love was his band. They played around at different places in the area. He was a pretty good worker, but was more interested in his music than his work. They would play until late and then he would come into work. Abe was an opinionated, outspoken guy who knew what he wanted. Working at Dow was just a way to get enough money to further his musical career. He started the restaurant while he was working at Dow, then he quit Dow to do the restaurant full time. We talked because we both had similar vans at the time. He had rigged out his van to carry the band's equipment and members. I had a 1965 Chevy Sports van, short wheelbase. He had a 67 Chevy Sports van, long wheelbase, red and white.
Primo Ledesma is local Hispanic community leader who hosted a local radio show in 1971. He says he "discovered" Selena.
I went to the restaurant and heard her singing. I thought "Man they're pretty good." Her father came over to me--I had known him since way back when he was with the Dinos. "I'm not going to push her," he said. I had my tape recorder with me; I always carried it around, just in case I came across a story, interview or something. I asked her father if I could tape her. Then on my next radio show (the next day), I said, 'We've got a new talent on the radio today,' and I played the tape. Immediately after, people started calling and asking who she was.
The next time I went to the restaurant, Her father told me that someone had offered her $2,000 to sing at some opening in Houston. But he said he wasn't going to do it, gave same excuses about protecting his daughter's childhood. But then he told me later that they did go, and it took off from there. They sang at the fair grounds, the Fiesta Ballroom (in Freeport; Primo works for them on the side), at Bobby Jo's (in Angleton).
He had a partner in the restaurant, name was Felix Cerda. After it went broke, Cerda complained to me that he lost all his money in the restaurant. He went back to the valley. Abe showed me the place just after he opened, and showed me how he was going to remodel the place. The building eventually became a daycare center, which it still is. Some of the equipment from the restaurant is still in there. I used to have the cleaning contract until 6 years ago. I can take my grandchildren in and point to the corner of the room and tell them, "that's where it all started." They did a good lunch business, but nothing at night. It's not a great location, and back then, there was no big shopping center across the street. It only stayed in businesss 8 or 9 months. They didn't have any restaurant experience. The economy was bad. There wasn't any cheating or till-dipping, just ineptness and bad luck.
They were buying the house on Caladium, but lost it when the restaurant closed. He had to start driving a dump truck. They moved to the apartments on Garland. He didn't want anybody to know he was driving a dumptruck. He wore sunglasses and a hat and kept the windows mostly rolled up [Given Gulf Coast heat and humidity, keeping the windows up was a considerable sacrifice in comfort.] It was a big old ugly thing. Then one day he parked the truck in the McDonald's parking lot across the street, by where the dumpster's at now, and they just took off--he didn't want anybody to know. That truck stayed there 6 or 7 weeks before it was towed off. I saw it early on and knew whose it was, but I didn't say anything.
When she was very young I told her father that she would go places. She had it all, everything is there--the voice, moves, smile...but her father said 'I won't take her childhood away from her.'
Witness kids are segregrated from the rest of the kids [at school, in life]. There are a lot of activities that they aren't allowed to take part in--Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, parties, nothing. It's a real shame.
One time when she played in Clute, a blind girl at the show said 'I can't see her, but I want to touch her.' Selena got the message and came down to the girl and took her hand. It was really a big deal that night.
[At one point in her career] they had one of those Flexible Flyer buses. It had an old diesel engine that was putting out a lot of smoke and running rough. A security guard told him he'd have to shut it off because of the fumes, but Abe said 'If I cut it off, it may never start up again.'
I talked to Abe about 4 years ago at the San Antonio flea market, and he was telling me about a deal he had cut for her to have one of the lead roles in Dos Mujeres, Un Camino, worth something like $20 million. But that didn't work out, I don't know why, I heard it something to do with Erik Estrada, something like he didn't like the idea of having her as a wife? He told me about the Coca Cola deal. She would get 20,000 just to walk across a room, or whatever and say I like Coke, or whatever, for a Coke commercial.
One time at the Tejano music awards, the emcee introduced her--Here's Selena, she's so hot, and as she came on stage, a speaker on the left side of the stage began to spark and caught fire. People thought it was part of the act, but it wasn't.
The writer came from Miami after reading the FACTS special edition. She said that Miami scandal sheets had written that Yolanda was really Selena's mom and that Emilio Naivara's wife had killed her. She wanted me to get a copy of her birth certificate to prove her real parents.
The original tape I made of Selena at the restaurant is lost, got lost when the radio station moved several years ago. Suzzette showed up for a quincienera in the summer of '95.
Rena Dearman played in Selena's first band.
We didn't talk too much, but she did express her displeasure at being misquoted by a Houston Chronicle reporter who taped their interview and still got details wrong on how she and her friend met the Quintanillas. She and a friend went to audition for a dinner showcase, then got involved with the Dinos. Later, they needed a keyboard player and Rodney Pyeatt auditioned, they met, he joined band, and they married. But they didn't know each other previously.
Armando Trevino lives in Angleton. He never heard Selena sing at restaurant, but saw her hanging around there. He was living in Freeport at the time and stopped for food to take home several times. He discovered the place while driving by and decided to try it out. The food was good--he thinks word just didn't get around about the place. He thought it was breakfast food that he picked up. He thought they made their own flour tortillas, at least they looked and tasted that way, but the corn tortillas were storebought. He didn't remember much else about the food, like if he had eaten fajitas, just that the food had to have been good, or he wouldn't have returned several times. The last time he went, he found a sign saying the place was closed.
He and his family went to the Mosquito Fest to see her; they wouldn't have gone otherwise. He had been a couple of times before and didn't care for it too much. He told me to call his friend Cruz Flores, who used to live in the apartments in Angleton that Selena's uncle owns. She used to visit that uncle and he saw her playing around the apartments.
Mrs. Nina McGlashen was Selena's first-grade teacher and now lives in Clear Lake.
She was a perky, enthusiastic, happy little girl, like most other first-graders are. She loved to run and play and was good at athletics. She got along well with other kids, even though she was hispanic. She wasn't isolated. She was well-liked and had a bubbly personality. I didn't realize that she was into singing, that came along later, when she was 9 or so. I never associated "Selena" with my Selena Quintanilla until after her death. I'm sure I had contact with her parents, since we had parent-teacher conferences back then, but I don't remember anything about them. She was a delightful little girl, and I'm sure that this personality served her well.
Mrs. Judy Peacock was Selena's music teacher.
Selena lived around the corner from us. She was a natural talent. I didn't teach her a single thing. Her dad was real controlling. He wouldn't let her sing Christmas carols because of being Jehovah's Witness. She had been chosen to sing at the school Christmas assembly, but couldn't. She couldn't even have happy birthday sung to her. One day she came in and said it's my birthday but you can't sing happy birthday to me. But we sang happy birthday to her anyway. She was a sweet girl and a natural-born talent, always cooperative. One day she came into class all excited and told me, "Mrs. Peacock, I got to sing with the band last night and it was great!"
Selena never took a major part in any school play or program. She never belonged to the choir because she wasn't allowed to sing religious, holiday, or patriotic songs, which made up most all the repertoire of the choir. They spent the school year learning songs for upcoming programs. She also remembers Selena being very sad during her fifth grade year, probably because of the family's economic problems, but then she added that it might have been something else too, just part of growing up as a girl. Selena never talked about it. She was private.
Yolanda Flores used to live in Henry Ramirez's apartments at 117 W. Magnolia (the Magnolia Apts.) in Angleton, for about 2 years in the early 1980s, and was there when Selena briefly lived with her uncle Henry.
She used to play in my apartment. We would read the Bible. She was 11. They lost their house and everything. She lived with her aunt and uncle. Everyone else went to Corpus Christi, her parents and siblings, Abe was looking for work.
"Dina" was her nickname--that's what her aunt and uncle called her, not Selena. In the evening, we would sit outside on a bench and she would sing, in English, not in Spanish. It was a song about a flower that bloomed in the fields, or something like that--I think she recorded it later? but I can't remember the song's name. I didn't speak much English, and she didn't speak Spanish--"I just can't speak it" she said, but we managed to communicate somehow. She was very nice, liked to talk and laugh, but was also very respectful. My daughter was about 6 mo. old at the time, and she would sing to my little girl as she carried her around and would dance with her. The baby would look and look at her--she had such a thick rich voice, I was afraid the baby would get the "ojo," but of course, she didn't.
I didn't meet her dad or siblings, just her mom, who was the one who dropped her off with her aunt and uncle. Despite all the family's problems, she wasn't sad or depressed, she was very wrapped up in her music. She said that she was going to be a star. I said to her, you're not going to forget us when you're a big star, are you? She said no, she wouldn't. She came back to visit later, and I asked her, do you remember carrying my little girl around and singing that song to her. She didn't remember too well, but I showed her my girl and reminded her of the song. We were fans of hers as she got famous and went to see her at Mosquito Fest. I think I have a photo of her and the baby from that period.
Caley Cutshall was one of Selena's elementary school friends.
Selena's father would come to school whenever she would sing, but I don't remember why he came. She had a big butt even in elementary school. I teach in a highly hispanic high school in east Houston, and the big talk after the fat stock show was whether Selena had had butt implants. I said no, her butt was big in 3rd grade, and I brought pictures to class to prove it.
Mrs. Tanner was her 5th grade teacher.
I didn't know that she was singing at the time and was that committed to her career. You just don't always know what your students are up to after school hours.She was a delightful litle girl. I was told that her sister came to the school recently and inquired about me, but she was told that I had retired from teaching to do other things.
LJ and Dow Chemical are inseparable. Lake Jackson only exists because created it, out of land that some cow pasture and abandoned cotton field, but mostly jungle of the coastal Texas variety. It had previously been part of the Abner Jackson plantation, which had been abandoned after the 1900 storm. It was a battle to carve a townsite out of that thicket, especially during the war. Not surprisingly, LJ in the 1971 was still imbued with considerable pioneer spirit. There were still lots of poisonouse snakes to kill and poison ivy too. And always the mosquitos and humidity. But still, it was very beautiful, in an English garden sort of way, after the wilderness had been tamed--the majestic liveoaks, magnolias, azaleas, dogwood, japonica, sago palms, smooth carpets of immaculate green grass, english ivy and all the lovely new middle-class houses. While there weren't any segregation ordinances in affect, it was a 99 percent white, middle-class town that had very strict building codes. Trailer houses were totally banned.
The town was still so new when we moved there in 1964 that the oldest homes and commercial buildings were barely 23 years old. Most were less than 10 yrs. old. In 1970, there were between 30 and 40 families with Hispanic surnames living there, out of a total of about 3,000 families. Many of these were not Mexican Americans, but rather Dow engineers from all over the Spanish-speaking world. "Mexicans" and blacks lived in Freeport and Clute, where older, cheaper housing was plentiful, as well as the low-brow jobs connected with the fishing industry that they depended on. The older, nastier Dow plants were also at Freeport, like the magnesium cells and the chlorine plant, where I worked one summer, overhauling cells and polishing electrodes. I had a black foreman named Railroad Johnson. They were just beginning their climb up the career ladder. One of the first high-placed blacks at Dow was Personnel Director, or something similar, and he was caught in flagrante delicto, with a white lady high school teacher. She was gone the next day. He and his family were the first blacks to live in Lake Jackson, I believe. Anyway, the first black family came about 1969 or 1970. There were about 20 Chicanos, maybe, in my high school class, and about a dozen blacks, all from Clute.
When Brazoswood H.S. was spun off from Brazosport in 1969, it had the effect of recreating segregation, although there was never any hint of this officially. It was just a natural reflection of local demographics. Maybe somebody planned and knew it, but the state of Texas never complained. Most of the Hispanics in LJ in 1970 still had small children, if any at all, like the Quintanillas. And they were all assimilated or assimilating.
Lake Jackson is not an overtly hostile, redneck town. It is a very well-educated town, given the number of chemists, engineers, executives, doctors, lawyers, etc., who live there. Lake Jacksonites tend to be Republicans, Libertarians, and/or John Birchers. We had a symphony orchestra beginning in the 1960s and a regular classical musical season each year. We went to every concert.
LJ was also a very religious town. Episcopal was most prestigious, followed by Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Church of Christ, Lutherans, Catholics. Baptists were most numerous and influential. There were no school activities scheduled on Wednesday afternoon after 6 pm because of Wednesday night church, and there was always a big group of kids who weren't allowed to square dance in PE class or go to school dances, or in Witnesses' cases, do much of anything but study.
Don't forget, the area elected Ron Paul to Congress multiple times, the guy who avoided "pork" politics as if he were Hasidic.
Lake Jackson would accept you, no matter what your ethnic background, if you conformed to local standards. As you now know, the Quintanillas were largely assimilated; look at Selena's language preference and food preferences, and what her friends and neighbors and teachers have said. If they had barbecued cabrito and thrown pachangas all the time, I would have heard about it from somebody, just because LJ is such a staid, conservative town. Even the live music. In Austin, garage bands torture neighbors for blocks around. In LJ they had to practice in a sound-proofed room during only the early evening hours. Otherwise the neighbors would have ostracized them.
Those of us who have left Lake Jackson sometimes refer to it as "the womb." Yet the people who live there love it and wouldn't live anywhere else, for the very same reasons I sometimes disparage the place, for its smug single-mindedness. It was like Brigadoon every day. Sure, it's not as idyllic now as it was then, but it's still pretty insulated from the real world.
There was never much crime in Lake Jackson, but there was always the perceived threat, from any of the four nearby prison farms. Brazoria County has more prison farms than any other county in Texas, which I believe owes to its isolation. It was a tough area to escape from, besides being a fertile place to grow crops and raise cattle. Prisoners would escape several times a year and the whole town would go on alert, but they hardly ever got as far as LJ. Usually they got lost in the surrounding jungle and were tracked down by the dogs and guards on horseback. It's a miserable place to serve out a sentence, chopping cotton in the heat and humidity and mosquitos. I did enough manual labor out of doors back then to know and appreciate what they went through. I feel that it was my extensive, intensive Boy Scout experience in the jungles of Brazoria County that disabused me of any desire to go to Vietnam and be a hero. I spent enough time camping and hiking and coon hunting with dogs at night to want to go to a place where the jungle was just as bad or worse and you had to worry about being shot or blown up. By the age of 18, I had spent a year of my life sleeping/living outdoors, most of it down there, during all four seasons of the year. I was a camp counselor at Camp Karankawa, so I often spent most of my summer and winter school vacations living in a tent or screened-in hut. I dusted my boots and socks with sulphur powder every morning, bathed with dog soap, and washed my hair with dog shampoo once a week (human shampoo the rest of the time). That was my solution for staying parasite and pest free. I am not exaggerating the thickness of the undergrowth a bit. You could get totally lost in a few hundred yards, which is what happened to the escapees who also got ate up by mosquitos, ticks, fleas, flies, etc. Angola prison doesn't have much on the Brazoria County archipelago. Brazoria County was very much physically isolated from the rest of Texas, being penetrated by only a couple four of two-lane state highways and farmroads. We do now have the 4-lane Nolan Ryan Expressway, but even it has stoplights and lots of crossroads. There's still open land all around for miles at a time, once you leave town. But at the same time, paradoxically, thousands of Houstonians invaded Surfside beach, along with Quintana and Bryan beaches, in that order, every spring and summer. But they seldom strayed from Highway 288, which bypassed LJ slightly to the east.
The Quintanillas never would have made it in LJ as Mexicans; they had bought into the American dream, Dow-style. They bought the nice house on Caladium, on his salary as a shipping clerk and tow-motor operator. That's how well Dow paid back then, back in the days when DuPont advertised "Better Living Through Chemistry" and the man in The Graduate told Dustin Hoffman's character to get into plastics. This was Camelot, Republican style. For the last 10 years, Dow has been cutting back on employees and benefits, in the face of a shift in the bulk-process manufacturing of basic plastics to the asian countries. I have no idea of whether Abe tried to get back on at Dow after the restaurant closed. Even if Abe had wanted to go back to Dow in 1981, they might not have had room for him. I don't know exactly when they started cutting, but by 1985 they were offering golden parachutes to anyone who wanted to retire early, which my dad took. They needed to get rid of a couple of thousand employees, and didn't want to have to resort to actually firing anybody.
Now you can see why Abe slunk out of town without telling anybody, dumping his truck off in the McDonald's lot. While at Dow, he had bragged about he would make it big doing what he really liked, and that he wouldn't be at Dow forever. Then the big Day came and he told Dow to kiss off, he was going into business for himself in a nice new building in Lake Jackson in what was probably one of Lake Jackson's first Mexican food restaurants. When it went down the toilet and he had to walk away from his mortgage and he was reduced to driving a dumptruck like some bum from Clute or Freeport just so he and the family could live in some cheap apartment on the fringes of town, well that was too much for his pride to bear. At the time Selena was born, her future neighbors of Caladium Court included my journalism teacher, Junior high school principal, and several of my classmates and their families, all Dow employees. That house at 104 Caladium was built between 1966 and 1970.
I'll tell you a little story. Our family doctor was a John Birch Society member. I had hair as long as the school district would allow, which was slightly longer than military, and an opening questioning attitude about the powers and mores of the time.
I had to go to him once when I got blood poisoning in my foot (I was 17, I think), so that he could lance the point of infection on the sole of my foot and presumably remove the offending thorn or whatever was in there. He looked at me and told me he would have to cut, and then said, "A big tough guy like you doesn't need any painkiller, does he?" Of course I told him "No." Pride allowed me to do no less. I lay face down on the examining table. He jabbed my foot with relish 5 or 6 times with a scalpel, about 1/2 inch deep and probing each time. I grunted with the pain, but didn't yell or scream or cry. Yet he even begrudged me my grunts, saying, "Oh that doesn't hurt that much." He found nothing, and wrote me out a prescription for antibiotics, since the infection was sending red rays of inflammation up my shin and calf. He bandaged it and I hobbled out to the car, where I sat for 30 minutes before the pain subsided enough for me to concentrate on driving home. My foot was felt big as a basketball and was pulsing so much from the pain I thought it would it explode. But finally it subsided and I drove home and took some aspirin. The infection went away okay.
Three years later, I was hit by a truck in West Columbia on my bike and had to go the emergency room. I had no broken bones, no concussion, never lost consciousness, just had cuts, scrapes, some glass shards in my back, and a compressed disk in my back. The doctor came to check me out. I was lying on my back, naturally, on an E-room gurney, with the glass shards stinging my back like mosquitos. He walked in, took a look at me, and just said, "Huh, you again," with contempt in his voice. I felt Ronald Reagan-cocky at that point and said something appropriately smart-aleck in return, although I can't remember what it was. I do remember what I said next. I told him that tomorrow was Father's Day and my Dad and I were going to see the Astros play and I would be walking up the stairs. I also said I'd be back on my bike in a week or ten days and he could just watch out for me on the streets. I also eschewed a wheelchair and hobbled out on a cane with my parents in close attendance. And I did everything I promised him I would. I don't know what this has to do with Selena; I guess my point is that a Nazi like him was a pillar of the community and I was considered an intellectual troublemaker.