Artist and woman. Two words that in the case of Jenni Rivera are inseparable and best describes her personality. The art of Jenni Rivera was to be a woman and she sang to them. To every woman, to women like her, who she sought to empower, as she told in 2003 to Gustavo Arellano, editor of OC Weekly in Orange County, California.
"I didn't just want to be another pretty body on stage. 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," she said to Arellano. "They have to accept the fact that when I go 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."
She did, and by showing that she was like the rest, that she suffered like the rest, and fought like the rest, and by capturing that struggle in her songs, she gained popularity many pop stars would envy.
La Huella Digital collected the testimonies of three women who knew her well: Maria Antonieta Collins, the Univision reporter who had the misfortune of covering the details of her death; Liliana Escalante, the woman who brought Jenni to the TV program Sabado Gigante with Don Francisco at the beginning of her career; and Leila Cobo, director of programming and Latino content for Billboard and author of the book, Jenni Rivera: The Incredible Story of a Warrior Butterfly.
The three of them agree that Jenni Rivera was an artist who valued, above all, her identity as a woman, and that she spoke with intimate familiarity to the women with the same ethnic and economic background. Nothing illustrates that better than what she said to Maria Antonieta Collins when she was invited on her radio program at a network that did not promote her.
"I want the audience to know that I'm not here in favor or against any network. I am here because I'm supporting a woman, who, like me, is an immigrant, who like me is a mother to her daughters, and who like me she supports and works every day to provide them with an education and to pay the bills. That is why I am here, Mrs. Maria Antonieta Collins." (see video)
Like those women she sang to, Jenni Rivera did not have it at all easy--either in life or in her art. In her life, according to Liliana Escalante, "She had to deal with being a single mother, with repeated scandals on the sage, with amorous failures, and daily publication of private life." (see video) Not to mention the subject of the sexual abuses that cast a shadow over her family for years.
Contrary to what many believe, not even in art was her road was easy. "What many people don't know about Jenni Rivera is that her path toward stardom was very long and very slow. Everyone thinks Jenni Rivera suddenly exploded onto the scene. But the truth is that Jenni had spent many years working toward it. It was drop by drop. As an artist, she's had one of the most gradual rises to success I've ever seen," said Leila Cobo to La Huella Digital. (see video) And from her vantage point, there have been more than a few artists whose lives Leila has followed.
Jenni carved her own path to success with her tenacity and authenticity. Her voice may not have been the best, but her aspirations were many, and--above all--her vision. "She did things," according to Cobo, "that nobody did in the genre. First, she sang narcocorridos, which was very unusual for women. She was, in addition, a Mexican woman born in the U.S., bicultural and bilingual, and she spoke to people like her, whom no spoke to."
But the most important thing--and on this the women interviewed agreed--was that she was authentic. Most pop singers are beautiful and sexy. She was that, but in her own way. “Yo no he ganado coronas ni concuros de belleza / sin tener joyas muy finas, soy una dama divina. / No soy bombón suculento ni presumo de buen cuerpo / si te echas unos tequilas, soy una dama divina.” Thus begins her song "Dama Divina," in which she sets herself apart from artists like Shakira, Beyonce, Ninel Conde, Maribel, Thalia, and J-Lo. And that's how she identified with her audience and her audience identified with her.
Jenni Rivera was a woman of the streets, in the best sense of the phrase. She concerned herself with what was going on in her environment, not what was playing on the radio or on TV, according to Cobo. Like all the others, she sang about love. But not love in the abstract. She sang about nitty-gritty love, like the Hip-Hop she heard on the streets and learned so much from childhood, as Cobo writes in Rivera's biography.
And this is what, according to Collins and Cobo, often prompts fans to compare her to another icon of regional Mexican music: Selena. At the beginning, the public tends to compare them because of the tragic circumstances in which they died and how young they were when they lost their lives (Selena was even younger). But the connection between them goes even further.
"I think the true comparison between Jenni and Selena," says Cobo, "is that they were U.S. girls speaking to a Mexican population, or Mexican-Americans, and that can't be underestimated. When you turn the television on to any Spanish-language network, you see very beautiful people, and there are not many people like that physically. So, of course, it would seem very powerful to turn on the TV and see people who look like you. And that's what Selena was, and Jenni was."
That is why Jenni, like Selena, connected with their public. And she was ready to connect with another public--the English-language one--when she was struck down. If the accident had not happened, no one knows what heights she could have reached by now.