La Malandrina

How Jenni Rivera changed Mexican culture forever

Nos dicen las malandrinas

porque hacemos mucho ruido

porque tomamos cerveza

y nos gusta el mejor vino

(They call us the bad girls

Because we make a lot of noise

Because we drink beer

And we like the best wine.)

This was the opening stanza for "Las Malandrinas," a Rivera-penned piece that, upon its release, became the anthem for the American-born daughters of Mexican immigrants straining to free themselves from their parents' expectations of how a woman is supposed to act. Innocuous lyrics, really, but never had a woman expressed so brazenly her desire to enjoy life, and Mexicans were soon in an uproar. Univisión's morning gabfest Despierta América (Wake Up, America!)and Mexican national newscasters alike railed against Rivera, insisting it wasn't "proper" for a woman to express such sentiments. Some Spanish-language radio stations in both the United States and Mexico even went so far as to ban "Las Malandrinas" from the airwaves.

Herrera-Sobek might have smiled. The professor had noted with glee in A Feminist Analysis, "The very need to structure such corridos indicates that Mexican women were not as submissive and passive as we have been led to believe. If they had been, there would be no need for such songs."

That Rivera expressed such sentiments wasn't surprising, but it was unexpected. She was born in 1971 in Culver City but moved to west Long Beach in the mid-'70s, around the area of Hill Street and Gale Avenue, a section still notorious for gang warfare.

"To us, it was a nice neighborhood," Rivera remembers, "but it was a ghetto neighborhood. I liked that we grew up in a diverse neighborhood. Our friends were Samoans, Filipinos, blacks, all races. But there were fights and gunshots. And when everyone got to Stevens Junior High, each race separated into its own gang. We would find ourselves picked on by someone just because [we] were a certain race."

Undeterred by racial warfare, Rivera maintained straight A's through her sophomore year at Long Beach Poly. Then she got pregnant.

"Usually, when a young girl is pregnant, she drops out of school and concentrates on being a mother," Rivera says. "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."

Rivera enrolled in Reid Continuation High School, graduating on time in 1987 as the class valedictorian. She then enrolled at Long Beach City College, transferred to Long Beach State and earned a business degree in 1991. After finishing college, Rivera started selling real estate because "that's where the money was."

As Jenni advanced her education, her father, Pedro, had launched Cintas Acuario Records in 1987 with the vision of releasing his corridos. That effort succeeded only minimally, but other artists Pedro produced—Chalino Sánchez, Las Voces del Rancho, and his own son Lupillo—helped popularize the narcocorrido, a violent updating of the corrido format that introduced drug-running, shootouts and gangsta bluster to the Mexican songbook. Soon, artists across Mexico began emulating the Cintas Acuario style, toughening their image—and singing the same girl-bashing lyrics of their predecessors.

Cintas Acuario was completely family-run, with Jenni assisting by writing legal contracts for the company. "As the label grew and they needed more help," Rivera says, "I started helping more. I did everything—sales rep, receptionist, publicist, packaging CDs, manager. Everything."

Except sing. Although Pedro encouraged Lupillo and two other sons to record for Cintas Acuario, he couldn't convince Jenni to unleash her pipes "He saw that I had talent, but the problem was that I preferred school," Jenni says. The one time Jenni sang publicly as a child—she was 11, and the venue was a Long Beach music hall—she kept botching the lyrics and ran out, sobbing, in midsong. "My dad was mad at me, not so much because I didn't win, but because I chickened out," Rivera said. "He taught us not to quit." She wouldn't sing again until she was 23, a period that Jenni refers to as "an 11-year grudge."

The personal relationship between father and daughter didn't suffer, but there was always tension between the two when each was present at the Cintas Acuario office. In a sort of peace offering, Rivera recorded a few songs for her father as a birthday present in 1994. Most of the songs were covers of such corrido standards as "Cruz de Madera" and "Mi Gusto Es." But one track in particular entranced Pedro: "La Chacalosa (The Jackal Woman)." Backed by the tuba bass of banda music, Rivera offered:

Me buscan por chacalosa, soy hija de un traficante.

Conozco bien las movidas, me crei entre la mafia grande.

De la mejor mercancia, me enseño a vender mi padre.

(I am wanted for being a jackal woman, I am a trafficker's daughter.

I know all the moves, I grew up around the top mafia.

My father taught me how to sell the best merchandise.)

Jenni wrote "La Chacalosa" as a defiant response to the narcocorrido records her father was releasing. "Nobody thought women should sing such songs, so I figured I would write one to show that we can," says Rivera. "When I gave him a completed version, he just smiled at me and said, 'I knew that one day, you could do something.' He put it out for sale, and it sold like crazy. The next year, he asked for another 'birthday present'—and again the next year. Soon, I fell into recording without thinking about it."

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