Back in 2003, I pitched my then-editor at the Weekly a profile about a woman for whom I didn't particularly care. Her name was Jenni Rivera, a Long Beach gal who was already a cult hit in Southern California for her unconventional, woman-power approach to Mexican regional music, but virtually unknown anywhere else. I really didn't care for her music—being a traditionalist, I found it improper a mujer would sing about getting drunk and flirting around and being proud of it, especially in a genre and culture in which females were expected to be classy damas.
But I also knew a great story when I saw one, so I went forward. Rivera's publicist gave me one hour to interview her; we talked on the phone for three while she was in a Maryland hotel room on her first East Coast tour. Over the course of that conversation, I dropped all my macho bullshit and became an eternal fan. It wasn't just the music, which was loud, brash and wonderfully unapologetic, but also what she represented: a visionary who, as I would write, "changed Mexican culture forever" simply by singing about her rags-to-riches story and urging fans to believe they also could find success if they only tried ("La Malandrina," Nov. 27, 2003).
We talked again in 2009, this time in person for a profile I was writing for Latina. We sat in the wood-paneled Woodland Hills offices of Fonovisa, the label at which she stayed for most of her career. By now, Rivera was a megastar, and her songwriting had become even better—but, as during our first interiew, she told me music wasn't enough. She wanted to create a beauty line. Beauty salons. Businesses for her daughters. A clothing line. Make the crossover to television. Acting. Real estate. Start a charity. Get into political activism. And conquer the "mainstream" English-language market that refused to acknowledge her because her success was only with Mexicans.
What was most amazing about Rivera is that everything she told me she'd do in our two interviews, she accomplished—empty promises simply didn't exist in her life. And she was just about to introduce her zaftig personality to the rest of America. Last year, Long Beach Poly inducted Rivera into its alumni Hall of Fame. She was in talks with fellow Jackrabbit Snoop Dogg to collaborate on a track. Just last week, ABC announced a development deal for a sitcom that, as Deadline.com put it, would star "Rivera as a strong, middle-class, single Latina woman working to raise a family using unique parenting skills, while struggling to run a family business and navigate her extended, co-dependent relatives—all while fighting the cultural perception that she needs a man to do it."
In other words, the story of her magnificent, inspiring life, which was cut tragically short Dec. 9 when a plane carrying the 43-year-old Rivera and six others crashed south of Monterrey, Mexico. She left behind five children, two grandchildren, her parents and siblings, and a grieving—but eternally thankful—fan base of millions.
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Rivera's tale is a Horace Greely fable via a telenova. She was born in Culver City, still in her mother's womb as they crossed into the United States in 1969. The family eventually settled in a rough part of Long Beach. Rivera dropped out of Poly when she became pregnant at 15, but she finished at Reid Continuation High School, not only earning her GED, but also graduating as class valedictorian.
And then she met societal expectations: not just those that Americans had for single mothers, but also what Mexicans had for women. Rivera became a receptionist for Cintas Acuario, the legendary label founded by her father, Pedro, that launched the narcocorrido genre and featured her brothers as hitmakers. But she saw a huge opportunity: No artist in the Mexican music industry was telling the stories of mexicanas outside the traditional Madonna/whore prism.
"I became a singer because I'm a businesswoman," she said in her 2003 Weekly interview. "I was a business child, then a business teenager, and finally a businesswoman. 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 continued. "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."
Dominate, she did. Starting with novelty singles ("La Chacalosa" and "Las Malandrinas" translate as "The Jackal Woman" and "The Bad Girls," respectively) that scandalized Mexican society in the late 1990s, developing depth with age, yet never losing her sense of humor (her 2009 smash single, "Ovarios," demanded society consider ovaries as metaphors for courage the same way we lionize balls), Rivera transformed herself into someone without peer in American music. She had the ball-busting bravado of Janis Joplin sans the destructive streak; advocated the grrl-power of punk, but addressed real-life issues instead of the abstract; penned confessional dirges similar to those of Joni Mitchell, but backed by the hard-charging sway of banda sinaloense (her nickname was "La Diva de la Banda"); possessed the vocal and sartorial bombast of a Diana Ross or Cher, except she sang about substance and substances. Hers was a tough life—three divorces, a domestic-violence survivor, weatherer of continued snips by doubters who saw her as simultaneously too hood and too low-class Mexican—but it was hers, and she performed it without shame.
And that's what endeared her so much to millions of Mexican women and more than a few males. Rivera was the cousin whom the tías always clucked about; the prima who was a bit too loud, a bit too independent, but successful; the type of woman everyone wanted to be; the American success story Mexican immigrants want for their children. More important, Rivera never forget her hardscrabble roots, peppering her songs and performances with shoutouts to her hometown of "Playa Larga." Though she reveled in luxury (her most recent home was a multimillion-dollar Encino estate), Rivera lived for the fans and always let them know that; her 2007 album, Mi Vida Loca (or "My Crazy Life"), memorably showed her flashing the hand signal for "West side" behind her back as she walked down the red carpet—the real Jenni from the block.
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I'll end this obit with the conclusion of my 2003 story, with the parting words Rivera spoke when I asked how society would remember her, words that in retrospect not only sound prophetic, but also prove Rivera had a plan for life even then that wouldn't be stopped:
"They're going to think of a woman who's real. 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. And people have a problem with women who do that. They have a problem when we're no longer as passive and submissive as, say, their mothers were growing up. Too bad. I say what I say, and I do what I do. I'm me."
This article appeared in print as "Los Ovarios of Steel: The ballsy, brash, brilliant, too-short life of Mexican regional music queen and Long Beach girl Jenni Rivera."