Multi-American

How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

The homegrown appeal of singer Jenni Rivera

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51970 full

In the days since singer Jenni Rivera's death in a small plane crash in Mexico at age 43, many news stories have focused on the Long Beach-raised banda superstar's past and on her would-have-been future.

Indeed, her backstory had earned her the admiration of legions of fans - many of them female - who revered her for her toughness and her drive to succeed despite a teen pregnancy, an abusive relationship, failed marriages and the ability to juggle her career with rearing five children. On the flip side, people are writing plenty now about where her career was headed, with a recently-inked ABC sitcom deal and a forthcoming film debut alongside Edward James Olmos set for early next year.

But many have ignored another aspect of what set Rivera apart from other pop stars.  

She was a second-generation local girl, born to Mexican immigrant parents. Like many of her peers she occupied a unique place - able to move seamlessly between two worlds - on the generational spectrum. Rivera achieved fame singing in her parents' native language with such command that it was impossible to discern that she was really from Southern California.  

Yet the ways in which Rivera broke barriers in brassy banda, a traditional and heavily male-dominated Mexican music genre - not to mention as a businesswoman - originated in the American sensibilities of her own generation. As she told the OC Weekly's Gustavo Arellano in an interview nearly a decade ago, "I wanted to convey a message that women could be as bad-ass as men." Her fans got it.

A few stories have captured this facet of Rivera's legacy:

In an online piece for ABC/Univision, Angie Romero compares the cultural significance of Rivera to that of another Mexican American musical superstar, Selena, who was murdered in 1995 at age 23. Like Rivera, Selena Quintanilla Perez was born in the United States, a third-generation Texan. Also like Rivera, she achieved fame singing in Spanish, in the Tejano genre. But unlike imported Spanish-language pop stars, Romero writes, their backgrounds set them apart:

Onstage, they were larger-than-life, not unlike great Mexican singers of eras past. Offstage, they were accessible, Jennis From The Block, versions of your homegirl, your sister, your cousin.

Leila Cobo, executive director of Latin content and programming at Billboard tells me: "They [Jenni Rivera and Selena Quintanilla] were both Mexican Americans in a very unique position to appeal to people like them. When girls looked at them, they recognized themselves for the first time. All the other singers who came from Mexico looked very different from the girls raised here - they weren't raised in the 'hood. As famous as these singers became, they stayed grounded and they still thought of themselves as real people whose success depended on their connection with other real people."

The ABC/Univision piece refers to Arellano's OC Weekly interview, published in 2003 when Rivera was still a rising star, making her mark as an antidote to the male-oriented music put out by her father's record label. Even then, he nailed Rivera's cultural relevance as an iconoclast and the way her upbringing in the U.S. influenced that:

And therein lies Rivera's importance. She could easily have allowed the corrido movement popularized by her family to continue the discriminatory hubris of Mexican music. But growing up in the United States encouraged her to eradicate 400 years of entrenched female archetypes with brass-happy tunes. That it's a woman mothering such a fusion is apt. Rivera is the newest mother of Mexico, not defined by sexuality, but her way of liberation.

Lastly, a tribute to Rivera in TIME (albeit with a less-than-ideal headline) gives a nod to the way the "changing demographics of the U.S." can influence culture in more than one direction:

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.”

If you were a fan of Jenni Rivera's, feel free to post below about her musical and cultural appeal.

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