The Death of an Independent Latina: Jenni Rivera (1969-2012)

On the verge of cross-over success, the charismatic grupera singer embodied cultural fusion, business savvy and the powers of womanhood

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Victoria Will / AP

Jenni Rivera poses for a portrait during the 2012 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, Jan. 22, 2012.

Jenni Rivera was many things: a charismatic entertainer; a canny show businesswoman; the embodiment of the fusion of Mexican and U.S. culture; a social activist; a Latina who had grown wise and strong through travail. All of those components of her life became even more pronounced at the news of her sudden death on Sunday when the Learjet carrying her from a concert in Monterrey to Toluca, Mexico crashed in a mountainous area of Nuevo Leon state. She was 43 and on the verge of becoming the kind of magnetic, cross-cultural public personality that her biography promised. That unfulfilled potential led to mourning from Southern California to Mexico.

Everyone from the rapper Pitbull to the Los Angeles Dodgers lamented her passing on their Twitter accounts. “She was a great lady, and did a lot for the Latino community,” actress Eva Longoria said. “We lost a legend today.”

(MORE: Jenni Rivera Remembered: Everything You Need to Know About the Mexican-American Singer)

La Diva de la Banda,” as she was known, rose to iconic status in the Mexican genre of grupera, a mix of ranchera, norteño and cumbia styles. From the very beginning of her career, Rivera broke with tradition. While most budding artists have their sights set on fame from an early age, Rivera endured a lifetime of hardships before even getting started. She endured a high school pregnancy and divorced a man who was eventually convicted of molesting her daughter and sister-in-law. When she followed her family’s musical tradition and started performing live in the 1990s, Rivera stood out for one obvious reason: she was a woman in a genre dominated by men. With her lyrics, she offered a rare woman’s perspective, finally offering female fans a voice that could counter the multitude of verses sung by men. Her twitter account proclaimed her a “singer-songwriter, mother, grandmother, businesswoman and producer.” Rivera was the full package, and she showed Latina women that they could be too. “I wanted to convey a message that women could be as bad-ass as men,” Rivera said in a 2003 interview with the orange County Weekly. “Mexican women no longer just sit there expecting men to support us.”

The honesty of her lyrics helped her connect with her audience. Rather than sugarcoating the music by separating it from the trials of her life, she used her art as a vehicle to recount real experiences, including tales of domestic violence. Indeed, many aspects of her personal life were messy:  she was in the middle of a stormy divorce from the baseball player Esteban Loaiza when she died. Her own financial practices were a little suspect: she was taken into custody and then released for carrying tens of thousands of dollars in cash through the Mexico City airport.

Nevertheless, her real-life lyrics resonated with fans, and she went on to participate in philanthropy and advocacy. Rivera became a spokeswoman for the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence and founded the Jenni Rivera Love Foundation, which provides support to single mothers and victims of domestic abuse.

(LIST: Top 10 Songs of 2012)

All the while, Rivera was winning tremendous success as an artist. She packed major arenas such as the Staples Center and Nokia theater in L.A., sold 1.2 million albums in the U.S. and landed eight albums on top of Billboard’s regional Mexican albums chart. She had nearly 1.8 million followers on twitter when she died. Furthermore, Rivera knew how to turn her fame into a smart business model by venturing into television. She starred in the reality show “I Love Jenni,” and two more reality shows centering on her children aired on Telemundo’s sister network. ABC was developing a family comedy starring Rivera.

Rivera’s career in itself was an example of  the changing demographics of the U.S.: she sang traditional Mexican music, but grew up in Long Beach, California. She sang in Spanish, but spoke fluent English. The fact that she was able to have such success in the U.S. singing traditional Mexican music was a testament to the growing power of the Latino market on the northern side of the border, as well as Latino artists’ growing willingness to move away from American forms of music. “It’s becoming more bicultural, more binational. She represented that,” says Steven Loza, professor of ethnomusicology at UCLA. “She was creating her own way, sort of like what Madonna or Lady Gaga. They start defining their own genre.”

Her appeal was born of struggle and a tremendous part of her success came from her ability to battle through adversity. That is certainly how Rivera wanted to be remembered. In her song “Cuando Muere Una Dama” (“When a Lady Dies”), she called herself a warrior and asks for one last celebration at her funeral. “I was a strong guerrillera / Who fought hard for her children / Remember very well that in life / Your mother didn’t break / With my head held very high / Say goodbye with honor.” That’s what much of the Latino world is doing.

MORE: NTSB Confirms Singer Jenni Rivera, 43, Dead in Mexico Plane Crash