Photo: Victor Chavez/WireImage.com
The Spirit Of Jenni Rivera Is Forever Unbreakable
It's been almost five years since Jenni Rivera performed a rapturous sold-out concert at the 16,000-capacity Arena Monterrey in Monterrey, Mexico, and then boarded the ill-fated flight that sadly resulted in her death at age 43.
Much has dramatically changed since then.
Streaming has become the top distribution platform for music, and Instagram is the favored social media app for stars eager to share their every move with their fans. Latinos in mainstream pop culture are now more prevalent than ever — even as the community seems to be politically targeted.
Of course, if she were alive today, it's easy to imagine Rivera being on the frontlines. She exposed her personal life with her "I Love Jenni" reality show; spurred the conversation on immigration rights, evidenced by her leading marches in Arizona in 2010; and was poised to star in her own TV show on a major English-language network at the time of her death.
Musically speaking, the Long Beach, Calif., native was a singer of banda, a form of "traditional" Mexican music in which tales of love, heartbreak, spite, infidelity, and adventure are set to brass instruments. It's unusual for a banda star to transcend beyond the genre, but Rivera did just that, venturing into mariachi, ballads and even pop — thanks to an uncanny ability to sense what would resonate with fans. This diversity, compounded with a unique degree of candor and openness, was a major contributing factor to her celebrity, and begins to explain why her star shines unabated five years after her passing.
Nearly half of Rivera's total U.S. album sales came after her Dec. 9, 2012, death, according to Nielsen Music. Rivera had a total of 18 charting albums on the Top Latin Albums chart; 12 of those went to the Top 10 and seven were No. 1. Six of those seven No. 1 albums were released after her death.
It's not just about music sales, however. Fascination with Rivera — the entertainer, the mother, the person — remains stronger than ever.
Her film acting debut, the independent production Filly Brown, also featuring Gina Rodriguez, Lou Diamond Phillips and Edward James Olmos, drew wide acclaim following its premiere in April 2013. Her reality show on Mun2 (now NBC Universo), "I Love Jenni," also continued in production after her death with a third and final season. And La Gran Señora, the GRAMMY Museum exhibit curated in conjunction with her family, proved to be a popular attraction from 2013 to 2014.
More recently, a hologram of Rivera, the first for a Latin star, made its debut at an October 2016 show in Los Angeles. It has since reappeared to lead various Rivera "performances," invariably inciting emotional responses from fans.
In late June, the premiere of the bio series "Jenni Rivera: Mariposa De Barrio" on Telemundo ranked as the No. 1 Spanish-language program among adults 18–49, according to Nielsen.
"I truly feel 'Mariposa De Barrio' has been our greatest successes," says Rosie Rivera, Jenni's younger sister, executor of her estate and president of Jenni Rivera Enterprises. The series "took Jenni as an artist to another level. She became part of an elite group of artists that have their own series."
In fact, Jenni Rivera is in a league all of her own, as the only artist in memory to have not one but two series based on her life and airing almost concurrently. Just months before, Univision produced "Su Nombre Era Dolores," a series based on the account by Rivera's former manager, Pete Salgado.
On its end, the Telemundo series is based on Rivera's own memoir, published posthumously. Inquebrantable (Unbreakable) was published by Atria Books in 2013 and went to No. 1 on Amazon's general sales list, an anomaly for a Spanish-language book, while the English version made The New York Times' bestselling list a week after publication.
"Jenni was a Latina who inspired other women to be strong," says Johanna Castillo, vice president and executive editor at Atria Books. "She was so resilient."
Resilient. Strong. Devoted. Loyal. Brave. Unbreakable.
Those are the adjectives that are used when remembering Rivera.
Another consistent one is "relatable." Rivera was a superstar who never lost contact with her fans. She loved to tweet, and never attempted to hide her roots, her truths and her feelings. He popular syndicated radio show, "Contacto Directo Con Jenni Rivera," offered yet another direct lifeline.
"I wasn't a fabricated artist," Rivera once said. "I was a real woman who sang about what I lived. And it turned out that those who heard me on the radio or who heard my albums lived the same things I lived, and that was the connection. That's why I remained a singer."
Rivera's connection with her fans was in full color during her unforgettable performance of "Por Que No le Calas /Ya lo Sé" on the 11th Latin GRAMMY Awards in 2010. And that sense of connection — her fans seeing themselves reflected in Rivera's music and persona — is what will continue to keep her legacy alive.
"Her origins as someone born here to immigrant parents has a lot of meaning to her career," said Victor González, president of Universal Music Latin Entertainment, in a Billboard interview. "The identity she created with her audience stemmed from that and it's a big part of her engagement with fans and media. She became not only a singer who evolved well, but also a personality and a celebrity."
Even today, so many years after her death, it's Rivera's family who has the reins on her image and her legacy, and who have resisted sugarcoating her colorful life. The Telemundo series, like the book, says Rosie Rivera, shows "the good, the bad and the ugly."
"I wasn't a fabricated artist. I was a real woman who sang about what I lived." — Jenni Rivera
"When we went through sexual abuse, Jenni was willing to speak out about it," adds Rosie Rivera, alluding to the very public scandal and trial surrounding her sister's first husband. "Everyone told her, 'Don't do it. This is career suicide.' Jenni said, 'Before I am an artist, I'm a mother. I'm a sister.'
"She was willing to be the voice for the voiceless. And I think this has to continue now with everything that she is. She may be gone and in heaven. She had purpose, she had her victory, but we want other men [and] other women to have the same thing."
(Leila Cobo is the executive director of Latin content and programming at Billboard. She's published two novels and three music-themed books for Penguin, including a biography of Jenni Rivera titled La Increible Historia De Una Mariposa Guerrera.)