Jenni Rivera Is One Of Mexico’s Biggest Stars. Why Hasn’t She Taken Over The World?
The late singer Jenni Rivera was a national icon before her death. Afterwards, what happened?
Jenni Rivera, the reigning force of the brassy Mexican banda music, has a life story that seems conjured in the overactive imagination of a Hollywood scriptwriter. It wasn’t. The daughter of two Mexican immigrants, Jenni Rivera grew up in Long Beach, California, in a household where she wasn’t allowed to listen to English-language music. Her brothers and father, who owned the record label Cintas Acuario, played banda, norteño, and ranchero music, which would have a massive influence on her sound. At age 15 she became pregnant with her first child, going on to receive her GED and graduate as valedictorian. She had three children with her first husband, later divorcing him following domestic violence issues (her former husband was later convicted for sexually abusing their daughter, Chiquis, as well as Jenni’s sister Rosie). And those were just the early years.
If Rivera’s lifetime was full of strife (and it was), it proved to be instrumental to her songwriting. Her songs, plucked from the pain of real life, would resonate with a national audience of millions of listeners. Rivera was prolific, recording 20 albums and selling more than 15 million records throughout her career—despite the fact that she didn’t release her first album until her mid-20s. Through her music and acerbic personality, she would become known as “la Diva de la Banda,” and as a performer, she would shatter every expectation of women in the cockslinging music industry.
Yet outside of her cult fanbase, mention of Jenni Rivera’s name often draws a blank. Why doesn’t it strike a chord outside of Mexican-American communities the way that, say, Selena’s does? And why is there just now an interest to document Rivera’s incredibly storied and triumphant life?
At first glance, the two women could occupy the same space in Latin American pop culture: Selena and Jenni Rivera are both Mexican-American pop stars, and memorialized as divas. They're also psychically connected in several ways. Both elevated women from props—as they traditionally have been in musical genres like narcocorridos and Tejana—into people through their progressive performances and potent songwriting. They were down-to-earth, self-made women, despite being famous. As ABC notes, they both found mentors in their fathers, who encouraged them to pursue music. Eerily, at the time of both of their respective deaths, both Selena and Rivera were working on their own crossover English-language albums.
But there are some key differences between Selena and Rivera, too. They grew up in vastly different places—Jenni in California, and Selena in south Texas—and specialized in alternate musical sensibilities. Selena was a third-generation Mexican-American, and primarily spoke English (though not in song); Jenni Rivera, who was first-generation, spoke both languages fluently, and sung predominantly in Spanish. They careers didn’t overlap, either. Selena died in 1995, the same year that Rivera released her first album, La Chacalosa.
And while Selena was something of a child star (her father pulled her out school in the eighth grade because of her blossoming musical career), Jenni came into music professionally much later on in life. Rivera recorded music, mostly as a hobby, throughout the ‘90s as she worked as a real estate agent; she’d received a degree in business administration in 1991. It wasn’t until the end of the ‘90s that Rivera started taking singing seriously, as she revealed in an expansive 2011 interview with Billboard (although her father had urged her to do it long before then).
Getting her career off the ground was an uphill battle, but the obstacles only seemed to spur her. Her breakout single “Las Malandrinas” was banned from radio airplay in the U.S. and Mexico, and once, a broadcaster threw Rivera’s C.D. in her face. It all failed to faze her. “When I started getting so many haters and closed doors, I decided to prove that it could be done,” she told Billboard.
Later on, Rivera became bent on proving something else: That she could break out as a star outside of Mexico. She was well on her way, too. By 2012, she was by far the most popular artist on the regional Mexican charts. A judge on The Voice Mexico and subject of her popular reality TV show I Love Jenni, she was also set to star in her own ABC sitcom. Her future aspirations included expanding her commercial empire, which already included cosmetics and jeans, by releasing her own line of tequila, and performing a residency at one of Las Vegas’s MGM properties.
But in 2012, while on a plane headed from Monterrey to Toluca, Rivera and six others perished when it crashed near Iturbide, Nuevo Leon. She was 43. It’s hard to overstate how impactful Rivera’s death was for fans.
Yet macabre as it is, the matter of how the two died might factor into the differences in their legacy. Rivera died in a plane crash, a tragedy propelled by chance. Infamously, Selena was murdered by her friend, former confidante and president of her fanclub, Yolanda Saldívar. Crimes of passion and mysterious deaths have historically had a strange way of making fallen musicians martyrs in the public consciousness. The likes of, say, Kurt Cobain, Notorious B.I.G., and Janis Joplin have had their legacies looming far larger in death than they did in life.
While the Quintanillas are protective of how Selena is portrayed, they’re still taking every opportunity to have her memorialized beyond the grave. In 2015, the Quintanillas announced their plans to crowdfund a Selena hologram that would “release new songs and videos,” as well as “collaborate with current hit artists” for a tour projected to launch in 2018. Over the summer, Madame Tussauds of Hollywood unveiled a Selena wax figure, rhinestones and all, following a fan petition pleading for her to be included (the family also released a posthumous Selena cut, which hadn’t been professionally recorded, in the name of fan demand).
Meanwhile, Rivera’s family has opted to continue her multiple business ventures, opened a boutique in her name, a women’s refuge named Jenni’s Refuge, and have a biopic reportedly in the works (Rivera also got the hologram treatment at a Day of the Dead celebration at Los Angeles’s Hollywood Forever Cemetery in 2016). Telemundo and NBC are among the networks plotting tributes to Rivera’s life, though Univision’s bio-series Su Nombre Era Dolores, La Jenn Que Yo Conocí, which premiered on January 15, will be the first to air. Based on a book written by Rivera’s friend and business associate Pete Salgado (who’s also an executive producer on the show), the series tackles the side of Jenni (whose full name is Jenny Dolores Rivera Saavedra) that rarely made the headlines, and digs further into the adversity that she faced while trying to break into the industry.
The series has been the subject of dispute, however. Salgado was sued by the Riveras in the fall of 2016, accused of spilling some information in his “tell-all” book, as well as the series, about Rivera’s life protected by a non-disclosure agreement he had previously signed. In December, a California judge ruled that the show can indeed go on, but Salgado can’t reveal any personal information about Rivera until February, according to the Hollywood Reporter.
Yet Luz Ramos, who plays Jenni in the series, told TrackRecord that the show isn’t so much salacious as it is an opportunity for fans to “know Jenni’s human side, and they’ll get to know more about her, they’ll have fun and cry.” There’s much in there for people who aren’t familiar with Jenni, as well. “And for the ones who didn’t know her, you have the opportunity to get to know the person who broke standards, made music history, and helped a lot of people,” said Ramos.
Her description is reminiscent of something that Jenni Rivera once said to Billboard when asked about being labeled as a diva. “To many people, diva means you're hard to please,” she said. “To me a diva is someone that works hard to be at the top of her game.”