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:
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."
"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."
In a sense, resentment against Rivera represents progress for Mexican women. No longer are they beholden to creation myths—but now they're attacked for breaking out of them and evolving into humans.
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Rivera continues to expand her female-empowerment empire. She will soon reopen her real-estate business in Corona and Long Beach, specifically geared toward helping immigrants purchase their first homes. A beauty-product line is launching in early 2004, as is a beauty-salon franchise managed by her 18-year-old daughter, the child born during Jenni's high school days. A new album is also in the works—a hip-hop effort that Jenni's label, Fonovisa, "is kind of scared about," she admits. "But to me, I'm not changing; I'm adding. It's a business move. There's a market out there for a Latina hip-hop singer."
And therein lies Rivera's importance. She could easily have allowed the corrido movement popularized by her family to continue the discriminatory hubris of Mexican music. But growing up in the United States encouraged her to eradicate 400 years of entrenched female archetypes with brass-happy tunes. That it's a woman mothering such a fusion is apt—Rivera is the newest mother of Mexico, not defined by sexuality, but her way of liberation.
"They're going to think of a woman who's real," Rivera says when asked how she will 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. 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."
Jenni Rivera performs with Joan Sebastian at the Arrowhead Pond, 2695 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim, (714) 704-2500, Sat. $35-$125. All Ages.