Just saw the news that Jenni Rivera, the Mexican-American singer from Los Angeles, is missing after her plane lost contact with air traffic controllers in Mexico. (The latest news is that wreckage of the plane was found, and there were no survivors. This is really sad news.)
A decade ago, when we were writing for a newspaper in LA that doesn’t exist anymore, New Times LA, we had the privilege of getting to know the Rivera family, in particular Jenni, who was already a huge star among the Latino population there but completely unknown by the mainstream media.
We wanted to share with you the wonderful young woman we got to know at the end of 2001.
We’re putting up the final portion of a longer cover story about the Rivera family and how they became a musical dynasty through the rise of the narcocorrido.
From “Viva Los Outlaws!” published January 10, 2002 in New Times Los Angeles
…Today, Lupillo Rivera is the most popular member of the family, a Chalinito who draws huge crowds on either side of the border. Juan and Gustavo each have gained ground on him in the past few years.
But the most interesting, and most surprising Rivera singer, is their genre-busting sister.
Jenni Rivera says it’s a hard thing to do, but she has to turn down the many requests she gets from the teenage daughters of drug dealers to play their quinceañeras. “I get letters every day: ‘My daddy can pay anything for you to play for us,’ they’ll say. I try to be as nice as possible. But I tell them I’m just too busy. I don’t want to offend them,” says Rivera, 32. She and her brothers have a strict policy: They only play on stage, and not at private parties, where things might get sketchy.
On the other hand, it was a drug trafficker who ended up introducing Jenni, if indirectly, to her husband. She had been at a concert in 1995 at a club in Lynwood — someone else’s concert, she was only standing in the audience — when a local gangster began saying he would pay anything to see Jenni sing her signature hit, “La Chacalosa.” She says she told him to keep his money, she’d do it for free. When she got onstage, another fan named Juan Lopez jumped up to take his picture with her. They ended up getting married and today live with their five children — three from her previous marriage — in a house in Corona.
It’s a long way from a childhood growing up in west Long Beach, where her father worked in a factory and money was tight. Jenni’s dad dreamed of being a musician, not a gangster. He tried to interest her in singing as well. At 11, she remembers, her father, Pedro, took her to a competition. “I forgot the song in the middle and ran out crying.” (Later, as a sort of revenge, she ended up recording that very tune.)
Pedro was having trouble finding publishers for his music, so he decided to start his own label. And he financed it with a unique scheme in 1984.
“Somebody sold my dad this huge bag of defective Olympic pins,” Jenni remembers. “He fixed them and had each one of us at different corners at the Coliseum and the Sports Arena. We sold a lot of them, at a dollar apiece. That’s how he raised the money for the label.”
The Cintas Acuario label was born. But Jenni would not have much to do with it for quite a while. After getting pregnant while attending Poly High School, she dropped out and finished at a continuation school. “I was married and tied down to one of those macho men,” she says. But she was determined to do something for herself, and began a career in real estate. Her first marriage ended in 1992. The next year, she began to record occasionally with her father’s label. Her brother Lupillo had already started putting out records, and she saw it as a part-time thing to do, a hobby to supplement her real estate job.
But then, the Chalino Sanchez phenomenon hit the label. “Chalino was selling like crazy,” she says. “Lupillo was looking for new talent. My dad asked me to work full time for the label.”
So she did, helping with the business end of things. But, being the savvy American careerist that she is, she took a long look at the emerging Chalinito narcocorrido craze and brainstormed a way to make a real impact on the scene. She decided to record a corrido, something that was simply not being done by other women.
“I was a businesswoman,” she says. “I knew you had to have something unique to market. And writing was my best subject in school. So I wrote a corrido. It took me 30 minutes. I recorded it the next day.”
“La Chacalosa” was an instant hit. Soon, she was being called the First Lady of Corrido. “The song is about a girl, a daughter of a drug dealer, and how she’s on the run. It’s a Thelma and Louise thing. She’s the ‘bad one,’” Rivera says, which is a loose translation of “Chacalosa,” a word that literally means the “jackal-woman.”
Los amigos de mi padre me enseñaron a tirar/
Me querian bien preparada, soy primera al disparar/
Las cachas de mi pistola de vuelo han de brillar
(My father’s friends taught me how to shoot/
They wanted me well prepared, I’m the first to shoot/
The bullets from my gun shine as they fly)
“The reaction was like, “Wow.’ The CD was selling even without radio play,” she says. Until 1999, she points out, radio stations seemed to want nothing to do with the narcocorrido boom. Then, La K-Buena 105.5 FM began playing Chalino, the Riveras and El As de la Sierra. Today, it’s the fourth most popular Spanish-language station in L.A.
Rivera says the reaction to her songs was amazement: “How could a female have the guts to do that?” Soon, she had carved out a niche all for herself: the feminist narcocorrido. She began recording songs about uppity women who were determined to show that they could pull off drug deals and win gunfights just like the men.
But she says there’s been a downside to her success. Now that she’s known for busting the male grip on the corrido, she’s afraid that’s all her fans want her to do. “It’s been hard to convince other people that I can do something other than the corrido.”
As more Chalinitos appear on the scene to cash in on the boom, the Riveras say they’re beginning to get away from the narcocorrido.
Jenni Rivera says that on her latest album, which will be hitting stores soon, she doesn’t have a single corrido. Instead, she is trying to break even more boundaries. Now that young Mexican-Americans have found the music of their parents and made it their own, Rivera says, she’s experimenting with bringing to that ranchera style the music they listened to while growing up. On her latest album, Dejate Amar, for example, there’s a banda rendition of Freddie Fender’s “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights.” She says it’s gone over huge with her fans. More startling cross-cultural pairings will appear on upcoming records, she promises.
She agrees with Wald that the real appeal of the ranchera and narcocorrido has been the music’s ability to make young Mexican-American fans feel truly Mexican. She acknowledges, however, that some people are uncomfortable with the drug themes. But she claims that it’s a harmless subject for songs that speak more to feelings of belonging and rootedness.
Author Elijah Wald agrees: “This is not dope-smoking music. There’s nothing menacing about the sound of an accordion polka. The music is really saying that this is down-home.
“The reality of L.A. is that it’s becoming a Mexican city,” Wald says. “And this is the music of a Mexican city that isn’t pretending to be anything else. It’s a fascinating world. Forty years ago people would say “I’m not Mexican, I’m Spanish.’ Thirty years ago they said “I’m not Mexican, I’m Chicano.’ And today, if you read the L.A. Times, you would think that young people are going around saying “I’m not Mexican, I’m Latino.’ But they’re not. They’re saying, “I’m Mexican.’”