There are great performers, and then there are game-changers. Jenni Rivera, who died at age 43 in a plane crash outside of Monterrey, Mexico early Sunday morning, was that rare breed of artist who will be remembered not only for her success, but for all the rules she re-wrote.
As the undisputed queen of banda music, her professional achievements within a male-dominated genre run deep – among her many feats, La Diva de la Banda sold some 1.2 million albums in the United States alone and sold out arenas like the Staples Center in Los Angeles, something no other female regional Mexican artist had done before. But make no mistake: nothing was ever handed to this woman.
See Also: Jenni Rivera: 10 Career Highlights
Rivera was born in Long Beach, California on July 2, 1969, one of six siblings. The daughter of bartender-turned-music mogul Pedro Rivera, who launched his own record label, Cintas Acuario, in 1987 to produce the music of narcocorrido legend Chalino Sanchez, among others, and launch the career of his own son Lupillo, Jenni was a straight A student in high school. When she got pregnant with her first child as a sophomore, instead of dropping out, she earned her GED at a continuation school in 1987 - as the class valedictorian, no less - before going on to earn a college business degree in 1991.
"Usually, when a young girl is pregnant, she drops out of school and concentrates on being a mother," Rivera, who grew up in a gang-ridden barrio in Long Beach, Calif., told journalist and author Gustavo Arellano in 2003 for an excellent article titled "How Jenni Rivera Changed Mexican Culture Forever," in the OC Weekly. "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."
After high school, Rivera started selling real estate (her company, Divina Realty, is still a part of her multi-million business empire to this day). Soon, Pedro would ask her to help in the family-run business by writing legal contracts. But in 1994, a birthday present to her dad in the form of a corrido recording would change everything. One recording turned into several, and soon, local radio stations in Southern California were playing her music and people were paying to see her perform live.
"Though she was first taken as a novelty act, her snarling stage performance soon had men and women whooping for more," wrote Arellano in his article. "Rivera dressed like a Sergio Leone villainess imagined by Snoop Dogg. She varied her voice according to music type, dropping it a couple of octaves when backed by the accordion strains of conjunto norteño or shouting her freedom when backed by the thunderous brass of banda."
From the get-go, there was nothing traditional about Rivera's lyrics or her performance style. The self-penned "La Chacalosa" (The Jackal Woman), released in 1995, is the story of a drug trafficker's daughter who brags about the quality of "the merchandise" she hustles.
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. The very reasons she was disliked by some, were the same ones that conquered the hearts of her fans, a new generation of people who moved comfortably between the two worlds – Mexican and American.
"Jenni had a plan and she was going to get it," says Arellano, reflecting on Rivera's legacy after her passing. "Everything she said she was going to do, she did it - which is amazing. She said, 'I'm going to have a line of jeans for women like me,' and she did it. My mother's generation viewed her as arrogant, but it's not arrogant when you actually go out and get it. Rivera's life was cut short, but it was a full life."