“Look at that dress,” I exclaimed as she sashayed across the stage, feet hidden beneath its many ruffles.
The floor-length purple gown was embellished with swirling golden details offset by a flowing scarf of the same color. The “Diva de la Banda” waved the scarf as she positioned herself in front of a semi-circle of brass musicians and offered a low, soulful sound unlike anything I had heard before.
It was the summer of 2010. Sarah McLachlan had revived Lilith Fair, and I was witnessing the tour’s first Mexican-American headliner.
Jenni Rivera’s sound was a far cry from the gentle melodies and folksy guitars that made the festival famous, but she proved herself worthy of McLachlan’s “celebration of women in music.”
Sadly, Rivera died Sunday in a plane crash outside Monterrey, Mexico. She was only 43.
Shocked by her untimely death, I was reminded of that day in July. And with the outpouring of media condolences, I realized I’m not the only one who found Rivera truly remarkable.
Radio stations resisted her music at first, in part because banda was dominated by all-male ensembles, but she persevered and broke through with a song called ‘Las Malandrinas,’ about women who like to party and drink and won’t allow men to exploit them.
Rivera shattered a glass ceiling, sold 20 million records, created a cosmetic line, her own fragrance and jeans designed to flatter a woman’s curves. But that’s not all. She founded a real estate firm, as well as a television production company.
The “Latina Oprah” had three reality TV shows, was judging the Mexican equivalent of The Voice, and planned to cross over into American television. A planned ABC sitcom would have stared Rivera as a strong, single, middle-class Latina woman juggling a business and family.
Born to Mexican immigrants in Long Beach, CA, Rivera was bilingual. Her songs resonated with fans on both sides of the border. Focused on this duality, the Los Angeles Times said it best:
In a witty and sometimes baffling stew of Spanish and English, she sang about her three husbands, about drug traffickers, in tribute to her father, in tribute to her gynecologist.
She spoke to women, for women, about women. And she took shots of tequila on stage, between songs. As Angie Romero opined for ABC News Univision, Rivera was a rule breaker from the very beginning:
In these early recordings, Rivera manifested herself as neither La Malinche (the whore) nor La Virgen de Guadalupe (the virgin)–the two main cultural archetypes for Mexican women. She was just Jenni. And although male artists had been singing corridos since the early 1900s, no woman had ever been as fearless in her lyrics and delivery.
Romero lovingly compared Rivera’s life to a telenovela–with good reason. She divorced three times, most recently from former major league pitcher Esteban Loaiza.
But the singer’s most tragic relationship was her first.
By 16, Rivera was married, a mother, and all too familiar with domestic violence. Rivera was open about her relationship with José Trinidad Marín. As CNN explained:
Rivera spoke about how Marín physically abused her because while she wanted to attend college he wanted her to quit school and be at home ‘cooking and cleaning.’ She said she grew up with four brothers so she knew how to fight back.
Their marriage ended in 1992. The couple divorced when Rivera discovered Marín molested their daughter and Rivera’s younger sister. Her ex-husband is serving a 30-year sentence.
In 2010, she launched the Jenni Rivera Love Foundation, dedicated to assisting women who experienced the abuse she had known. That same year, Rivera became a spokesperson for the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. The Los Angeles City Council even named August 6 “Jenni Rivera Day” in appreciation for her community involvement and charity work.
Her list of accomplishments go on. Rivera received high praise at Sundance for her performance in the independent film Filly Brown. She was recently featured as one of People en Espanol’s 25 most powerful women and 50 most beautiful people. Of course she was frequently nominated for Latin Grammys.
Rivera played her last show Saturday night. At a press conference, only hours before boarding the plane, she shared the secret of her success in Spanish. Here’s the translation:
I can’t focus on the negative. Because that will defeat you. That will destroy you. … The number of times I have fallen down is the number of times I have gotten up.
Not only did she get up, she pushed back. She challenged machismo in her personal and professional life. And she was just as People en Espagnol saw her: both powerful and beautiful.
Jenni Rivera has been described as a diva, a queen, but most importantly, an influential feminist. And that’s exactly how she should be remembered.
Photo by Kate Noftsinger