La Malandrina

How Jenni Rivera changed Mexican culture forever

Photo by Jeanne RiceJenni Rivera rests in a Maryland hotel room, the protagonist in a success story she never sought but now promotes with fervor.

The Mexican regional singer is in the middle of an East Coast tour that will introduce her to Virginia, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and other regions of the United States just experiencing the massive Mexican migrations other sections have already weathered.

"It's a little different here than the West Coast—colder, for one," Rivera says with a sweet, clipped voice as she chuckles over the telephone. "Most concertgoers on the East Coast are recently immigrated from the rancho, while those on the West Coast are more sophisticated, more assimilated. On the West Coast, they know me on a personal level—they know my life story. On the East Coast, they only know my music. They still don't know me."

They—and the rest of the country, not just its Mexican underclass—soon will know her. Already well known is the epic of her family—of patriarch Pedro, a bartender by trade who parlayed a Paramount Swap Meet post into a tiny Long Beach recording studio that became the most influential Mexican music label of the past 10 years, if not ever. Of younger brother Lupillo, exemplar of a movement that updated the hardscrabble Mexican corrido song form to address the real-life violence Mexican immigrants face in their American experience. Of the Riveras as a whole, ridiculed by Mexicans but adored by Mexican-Americans as a sort of barrio Osbournes. The Rivera saga is a story oft-told in Spanish and American publications, presented as a sort of rags-to-riches story. There's even a bilingual biopic on the clan in development. But often forgotten in the retelling is 33-year-old Jenni. This is expected, though—she's a woman living in a Mexican world.

Yet Rivera has trumped Mexico's endemic sexism to emerge as the most important member of the Rivera family, one who not only recorded groundbreaking music but also smashed the female stereotypes that have always blemished Mexican music. One of the few females who sing narcocorridos—a genre in which bards sully their guitar laments with a worldview that treats women as little more than breasts to adorn record covers—Rivera introduced through song the radical notion that women could be depicted as flesh-and-blood creatures. And for this, a gender is forever grateful.

"I'm blessed to be able to say that, when I'm onstage," she remarks with genuine bewilderment, "people stare and listen."

Gender relations are the primary Mexican neurosis with good reason. Mexico is a country whose two cultural mothers were a whore and a virgin—la Malinche, the Indian woman who served as a translator for Cortés as he butchered his way toward Tenochtitlán and remains synonymous in Mexico with treason; and the Virgin of Guadalupe, the brown-skinned apparition of the mother of Jesus. Though the legends of la Malinche and the Virgin of Guadalupe date back more than 400 years, they remain the psychosocial foundation for Mexican women. In fact, the notorious philosophy of machismo draws its strength from this Madonna/whore duality, arguing that men must protect the saints and castigate the sinners, with no gray area for women to occupy.

Such sexual subjugation found its most virulent expression in the corrido, the living, breathing repository of Mexican culture. In her 1990 book, The Mexican Corrido: A Feminist Analysis, María Herrera-Sobek (now a professor of Chicano studies at UC Santa Barbara, but a professor at UC Irvine when the book was published) studied hundreds of songs and concluded that most corridos featuring women as protagonists characterized them as variations on la Malinche or la virgen. Herrera-Sobek argued that corridos served as "socializing agents designed to instruct, coerce and frighten rebellious and unruly young women into 'proper' behavior. The ballads are literally ejemplos, or exempla [sic], designed to instill conformity in young maidens who might be foolish enough to transgress the social norms instituted by the patriarchal order." Such a philosophy, Herrera-Sobek added, was no different than the dogma that clergy had preached to the indigenous "to instruct the faithful on matters of proper social and religious control."

Herrera-Sobek cited as a prime example of musical female suppression "Rosita Alvírez," a corrido whose author is lost to history but remains wildly popular more than a century after its 1900 writing. The tune focuses on the crime of its namesake, killed for refusing to dance with a man. As she is dying, the song says, "Rosita tells [her friend] Irene/Don't forget my story/When you go to dances/Don't reject the advances of men."

"It's something that no longer happens, but it tells you how it was in the past," remarks Rivera, who performs "Rosita Alvírez" at all her shows. "Women didn't even have the right to say no. I like to sing it to remind people that we've come a long way."

Rivera's half-right. Though women no longer face death for refusing to polka, "Rosita Alvírez" and other misogynistic corridos continue to be covered, played and referenced by most Mexicans, men and women alike. So Mexican society was shocked in 1999 when the following mocking cant rumbled out of Long Beach:

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