Selena Quintanilla was born on April 16, 1971, in Lake Jackson, Texas. She was the youngest child of Marcella Ofelia Quintanilla (née Samora) who had Cherokee ancestry and Abraham Quintanilla, Jr., a Mexican American former musician. Selena was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness. Quintanilla, Jr. noticed her musical abilities when she was six years old. He told People magazine, “Her timing, her pitch were perfect, I could see it from day one”. In 1980 in Lake Jackson, Quintanilla, Jr. opened his first Tex-Mex restaurant, where Selena and her siblings Abraham III (on bass guitar) and Suzette Quintanilla (on drums) would often perform. The following year, the restaurant was forced to close after a recession caused by the 1980s oil glut. The family declared bankruptcy and were evicted from their home. They settled in Corpus Christi, Texas; Quintanilla, Jr. became manager of the newly formed band Selena y Los Dinos and began promoting it. They needed money and played on street corners, at weddings, at quinceañeras, and at fairs.
As her popularity as a singer grew, the demands of Selena’s performance and travel schedule began to interfere with her education. Her father took her out of school when she was in the eighth grade. Her teacher Marilyn Greer disapproved of Selena’s musical career. She threatened to report Quintanilla, Jr. to the Texas Board of Education, believing the conditions to which Selena was exposed were inappropriate for a girl her age. Quintanilla, Jr. told Greer to “mind her business”. Other teachers expressed their concerns when they noticed how tired Selena appeared when she arrived at school. At seventeen, Selena earned a high school diploma from the American School of Correspondence in Chicago, and was also accepted at Louisiana State University. She enrolled at Pacific Western University, taking up business administration as her major subject.
Quintanilla, Jr. refurbished an old bus; he named it “Big Bertha” and the family used it as their tour bus. In the first years of touring, the family sang for food and barely had enough money to pay for gasoline. In 1984, Selena recorded her first LP record, Selena y Los Dinos, for Freddie Records. Despite wanting to record English-language songs, Selena recorded Tejano music compositions; a male-dominated, Spanish-language genre with German influences of polka, jazz, and country music, popularized by Mexicans living in the United States. Quintanilla, Jr. believed Selena should record musical compositions related to her heritage. During the recording sessions for the album, Selena had to learn Spanish phonetically with guidance from her father. In 1985, to promote the album, Selena appeared on the Johnny Canales Show, a popular Spanish-language radio program, on which she continued to appear for several years. Selena was discovered by Rick Trevi, founder of the Tejano Music Awards, where she won the Female Vocalist of the Year award in 1987 and for nine consecutive years after. The band was often turned down by Texas music venues because of the members’ ages and because Selena was their lead singer. By 1988, Selena had released five more LP records; Alpha (1986), Munequito de Trapo (1987), And the Winner is… (1987), Preciosa (1988), and Dulce Amor (1988).