There are great performers, and then there are game-changers. Jenni Rivera, who died at age 43 in a plane crash outside of Monterrey, Mexico early Sunday morning, was that rare breed of artist who will be remembered not only for her success, but for all the rules she re-wrote.
As the undisputed queen of banda music, her professional achievements within a male-dominated genre run deep – among her many feats, La Diva de la Banda sold some 1.2 million albums in the United States alone and sold out arenas like the Staples Center in Los Angeles, something no other female regional Mexican artist had done before. But make no mistake: nothing was ever handed to this woman.
Rivera was born in Long Beach, California on July 2, 1969, one of six siblings. The daughter of bartender-turned-music mogul Pedro Rivera, who launched his own record label, Cintas Acuario, in 1987 to produce the music of narcocorrido legend Chalino Sanchez, among others, and launch the career of his own son Lupillo, Jenni was a straight A student in high school. When she got pregnant with her first child as a sophomore, instead of dropping out, she earned her GED at a continuation school in 1987 – as the class valedictorian, no less – before going on to earn a college business degree in 1991.
“Usually, when a young girl is pregnant, she drops out of school and concentrates on being a mother,” Rivera, who grew up in a gang-ridden barrio in Long Beach, Calif., told journalist and author Gustavo Arellano in 2003 for an excellent article titled “How Jenni Rivera Changed Mexican Culture Forever,” in the OC Weekly. “I thought that’s what I had to do, but my counselors told me there was no way they would let me drop out. I had too much promise.”
After high school, Rivera started selling real estate (her company, Divina Realty, is still a part of her multi-million business empire to this day). Soon, Pedro would ask her to help in the family-run business by writing legal contracts. But in 1994, a birthday present to her dad in the form of a corrido recording would change everything. One recording turned into several, and soon, local radio stations in Southern California were playing her music and people were paying to see her perform live.
“Though she was first taken as a novelty act, her snarling stage performance soon had men and women whooping for more,” wrote Arellano in his article. “Rivera dressed like a Sergio Leone villainess imagined by Snoop Dogg. She varied her voice according to music type, dropping it a couple of octaves when backed by the accordion strains of conjunto norteño or shouting her freedom when backed by the thunderous brass of banda.”
From the get-go, there was nothing traditional about Rivera’s lyrics or her performance style. The self-penned “La Chacalosa” (The Jackal Woman), released in 1995, is the story of a drug trafficker’s daughter who brags about the quality of “the merchandise” she hustles.
In these early recordings, Rivera manifested herself as neither La Malinche (the whore) nor La Virgen de Guadalupe (the virgin) – the two main cultural archetypes for Mexican women. She was just Jenni. And although male artists had been singing corridos since the early 1900s, no woman had ever been as fearless in her lyrics and delivery. The very reasons she was disliked by some, were the same ones that conquered the hearts of her fans, a new generation of people who moved comfortably between the two worlds – Mexican and American.
“Jenni had a plan and she was going to get it,” says Arellano, reflecting on Rivera’s legacy after her passing. “Everything she said she was going to do, she did it – which is amazing. She said, ‘I’m going to have a line of jeans for women like me,’ and she did it. My mother’s generation viewed her as arrogant, but it’s not arrogant when you actually go out and get it. Rivera’s life was cut short, but it was a full life.”
Having established herself as a norteño and banda artist, Rivera also experimented with rancheras, ballads and more pop-oriented recordings, with much success. Her most recent single, the break-up anthem “La Misma Gran Señora,” shows Rivera at her best – a woman singing from a place of hurt, who then finds the strength within herself to hold her head up high and keep moving. “You, without me, are worth nothing in this world,” she sings. “Leave now and close the door on your way out/Don’t think that without you I’d die/I was the one who gave you status/How are you going to think that for your love I would suffer?”
After her passing, Gustavo Lopez, an executive vice president at Universal Music Latin Entertainment, an umbrella group that includes Rivera’s label, told the Los Angeles Times that Rivera was the “Diana Ross of Mexican music” – a comparison I don’t necessarily agree with because I don’t think Rivera has a counterpart on the Anglo side – her story and her circumstances are just too unique.
But while we’re on the topic of comparisons, it’s inevitable to think of Tejano music queen Selena Quintanilla, who was murdered in 1995. Both were women who changed regional Mexican music forever and whose lives were cut short by tragedy.
On the surface, there are obvious similarities. Both were born and raised in the U.S. (Quintanilla in Texas and Rivera in California) and throughout their remarkable careers, they straddled both sides of the border, conquering the hearts of Mexican immigrants and their children.
Both came from close-knit musical families, whose patriarchs guided their careers.
Onstage, they were larger-than-life, not unlike great Mexican singers of eras past. Offstage, they were accessible, Jennis From The Block, versions of your homegirl, your sister, your cousin. Leila Cobo, executive director of Latin content and programming at Billboard tells me: “They [Jenni Rivera and Selena Quintanilla] were both Mexican Americans in a very unique position to appeal to people like them. When girls looked at them, they recognized themselves for the first time. All the other singers who came from Mexico looked very different from the girls raised here – they weren’t raised in the hood. As famous as Selena and Jenni Rivera became, they stayed grounded and they still thought of themselves as real people whose success depended on their connection with other real people.”
Both did more than just music – Quintanilla had boutiques and beauty salons, while Rivera had everything from her own line of jeans and cosmetics to a growing media empire. Just last week,Deadline Hollywood reported that a new scripted family comedy, inspired by Rivera’s life, was in the development for ABC. At Sundance this year, Rivera also made her feature film debut in the indie drama Filly Brown, playing a drug-addicted mother whose daughter (Gina Rodriguez) turns to rapping as a way to bust her out of jail. Edward James Olmos raved about Rivera’s performance at Sundance.
But the lives and careers of both women were markedly different, and there is reason to believe that Jenni Rivera’s death will ripple with greater magnitude than Selena’s – even if they are equally tragic.
Arellano sums up the key difference between the two artists thusly: “Selena was a Tejana; she had to learn to speak Spanish and had to learn how to be Mexican so she could cross over, and Jenni was unapologetically Mexican. Selena was a humongous star in her own right – she sold out the Astrodome in Texas – but she hadn’t yet crossed over into the totality of Latino USA until after she passed away.”
The news of their deaths spread in very different ways, with celebrities and fans alike sharing their thoughts on Rivera’s passing on Twitter and Facebook within minutes of reports stating that her private jet had disappeared. These were social media tools that did not exist during Quintanilla’s lifetime and which Rivera herself often used to communicate directly with fans and expand her brand.
The availability of iTunes and YouTube means more people have instant access to Rivera’s music, whereas fans didn’t have a choice but to buy physical copies of Quintanilla’s albums – at least while she was alive. Add to that the fact that, as Cobo notes, back in the day, regional Mexican music wasn’t sold everywhere as it is today; you had to go to flea markets or mom and pop shops to find it. At the same time, those same tools that Rivera enjoyed while she was alive enable a younger generation of listeners to discover Quintanilla’s music despite the fact that she died before they were born – even if many would argue that if it weren’t for Jennifer Lopez’s unforgettable portrayal of Quintanilla in the 1997 biopic Selena, she wouldn’t be as well known.
Rivera also lived 20 years longer than Selena – allowing her to record 12 studio albums, in addition to five live albums. Quintanilla certainly made her mark in Tejano music, and on her posthumousDreaming of You album, we saw the promise of a great crossover pop artist. To date, Quintanilla has sold more than 10 million albums worldwide, according to Nielsen Soundscan, but it’s hard to say how many more she would have sold, or whether she would have sold that many had she not died.
Quintanilla’s life was relatively private and drama-free, in comparison to Rivera’s – which was anything but. It’s only in 2012, 17 years after Quintanilla’s death, that reports surfaced of an affairshe allegedly had with her plastic surgeon while married to musician Chris Perez.
By contrast, Rivera’s life was constantly in the news. She went through three divorces, the most recent one filed in October 2012 to baseball player Esteban Loaiza after two years of marriage. Rivera spoke often the abuse she suffered at the hands of her first husband Jose Trinidad Marin, (who in 2007 was convicted to 31 years in jail for sexually molesting their daughter Chiquis and Jenni’s sister Rosie.) In 2010, Rivera launched the Jenni Rivera Love Foundation, an organization dedicated to helping victims of domestic violence.
Nothing about Rivera’s life – from discussions about her sex life to full-on diva antics – was off limits for the producers of her hit reality show on mun2, I Love Jenni, a sort of Latin-ized Keeping Up With the Kardashians. And when giving interviews – whether in Spanish or English – there was no question Rivera wouldn’t comfortably answer. In this, her last interview with Univision,, she told El Gordo y la Flaca co-host Raul de Molina that she was “smart enough to get a pre-nup” when she married Loaiza. Rivera was a friend of the show, appearing numerous times over the years to personally address scandals like the sex tape that was allegedly stolen in 2008 from her home, or her son’s arrest on charges of having sex with a minor in 2010. It’s hard to imagine Quintanilla opening up about her personal drama the way Rivera did for the cameras, but then again we’ll never know.
Rivera, unlike Quintanilla, lived long enough to have five children – and two grandchildren – through which her legacy will live on. Chiquis can be seen following in her mother’s entrepreneur footsteps on her own mun2 show, Chiquis ‘n Control, about the launch of her first business, a blow-dry salon.
Just like her mother, Chiquis has had to endure scandal in the public eye. In October, she took to Twitter to address rumors that she had an affair with Loaiza. “I would NEVER do that, Ever! That’s a horrible accusation,” she tweeted.
In the fascinating telenovela that was Jenni Rivera’s life, it was just another rumor, another obstacle to overcome. One of Rivera’s last quotes, spoken during a press conference after her concert in Monterrey on Saturday night before boarding that private jet, says it all: “As many times as I’ve fallen, I’ve gotten back up.”
As for her legacy, Rivera summed it up best when speaking to Arellano 10 years ago. She couldn’t have possibly known how her story would end, but she must have had a sense of the impact it would have on generations to come: “They’re going to think of a woman who’s real,” she said, when asked how she’ll be remembered. “They’ll think about a woman who went through hell and back and never gave up. No one else has ever opened doors for me. I opened them myself.”
This story was originally published on Fusion (ABC/Univision).