La Malandrina

How Jenni Rivera changed Mexican culture forever

"La Chacalosa" and Rivera languished in the Mexican underground for a couple of years, known mostly through word-of-mouth and constant reissues. Rivera didn't help her career by refusing to perform, thinking there wasn't any future in it. But after Rivera composed "Las Malandrinas" and Pedro re-issued "La Chacalosa" in 1999, Rivera realized a tremendous opportunity was awaiting her.

By 1999, a new generation of American-born children of Mexicans had emerged. They blasted banda and hip-hop equally from tricked-out cars, swore by the law of the rancho and the swagger of the streets, and spoke unaccented English and Spanish. They'd dress in baggy jeans while sporting cowboy boots and shaved heads. And they considered themselves pure Mexican.

"My generation was taught to be 100 percent Mexican," Rivera says. "We had to speak Spanish at home and listen to Spanish music. At the same time, though, we knew the 'American' world. But we weren't Chicanos—that was just a fad. We were Mexican."

To capitalize on this teeming population, a slew of radio stations advertising themselves as playing los corridos más perrones(the most bad-ass corridos) launched. Most prominent of these was KBUE-FM 105.5, universally known as "Que Buena (So Good)." This was not Spanish radio as usual. The infomercials and ballads that characterize most Spanish language stations were nonexistent. The artists on rotation were, like Rivera, American-born Mexicans who sang with the barrio, not the rancho, as their nostalgic touch point. English and Spanish street slang peppered the on-air banter of DJs; the station featured custom trucks with buxom babes in its ads à la Lowrider Magazine. And with Jenni and Lupillo offering constant interviews and appearances, Que Buena roared to the top of the Southern California Arbitron ratings upon its debut in 1999.

Prodded by Que Buena, Rivera warmed to performing. Though she was first taken as a novelty act, her snarling stage performance soon had men and women alike whooping for more. Rivera dressed like a Sergio Leone villainess imagined by Snoop Dogg: menacing black-leather jacket over a bustier Madonna would have envied, dreadlocks dangling out of her gleaming white Stetson, cussing and drinking like a man. She varied her voice according to music type, dropping it a couple of octaves when backed by the accordion strains of conjunto norteñoor shouting her freedom when backed by the thunderous brass of banda. Women emulated her style en masse, proudly labeling themselves "malandrinas" in honor of Jenni's song, quoting verses like gospel:

Nos gusta andarnos paseando

nos encanta las loqueras

conocemos bien el mundo

no somos como las güeras

que de todito se asustan

(We like to go out

We love the craziness

We know the world well

Not like white women

Who are scared of every little thing)

Things got so crazy, fans would visit her Compton home in the middle of the night, asking for photographs. "I'd be there in my pajamas, and they'd gawk at me," she says. "For them, me living in Compton just added to my reputation." She moved to Corona in 2001 for some peace and quiet.

Rivera freely admits that she composed such brash lyrics for cash. "I became a singer because I'm a business woman," she says. "I was a business child, then a business teenager, and finally a business woman. No other woman was doing it, so I knew I'd dominate the market.

"At the same time, I didn't just want to be another pretty body onstage," Rivera continues. "I wanted to convey a message—that women could be as bad-ass as men. Look, Mexican society is going to be macho forever, because that's just how our culture is. But with so many people moving to the United States, it's changing. Mexican women no longer just sit there expecting men to support us. We can't anymore—it's too expensive. Either you get off your ass and make something of yourself or you starve.

"And men have to accept that. They have to accept the fact that when I go out to work, I become a stronger person because I'm no longer just stuck to my home. When they kept us in the house, we were housewives, we were cooks. But when we're out in the world, we're everything. That puts us on a different level. But no one sings about it."

Breaking gender norms is solitary work, though. Rivera remains one of the precious few female corridistas, and the only one who writes her own material. And she constantly weathers critics—mainly Mexican women who accuse her of cheapening Mexican femininity by acting so gauche onstage. When I told the Mexican women in my life (sisters, mother, aunts and friends) that I was writing a profile on Rivera, they grimaced and asked "Why?"—all insisting she's the epitome of classlessness.

Rivera howls when I tell her this. "A lot of people don't like me for the very reason some people love me—I made it out of the ghetto," she replies. "[My critics] are usually the people who didn't grow up in the hood, who think that there should be no intermixing between Mexican and American ideas. But you know what? I'm tired of uppity people who try to sing banda and corridos. They don't even know what it is being in the hood, what it is growing up poor. They don't realize that that's how my generation grew up. And my generation is the majority [of Latinos] in this country."

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