At the Wednesday public memorial service that celebrated her tragically short life, Jenni Rivera was hailed as “the eternal diva,” “la gran senora,” “mariposa de barrio” (butterfly of the barrio) and other terms of deep affection and respect. But there was another title that Rivera had aspired to and earned: the Latin American Oprah Winfrey. Like Winfrey before her, the Long Beach native, who died with six other people in a December 9 plane crash in northern Mexico, was more than simply a multitalented, multi-tasking woman of a certain age, ethnicity and oversize personality.
As a beloved and best-selling nortena and banda singer, actress, television producer, philanthropist and ubiquitous cultural presence, Rivera was an avatar of female success in male-dominated industries. She also had waged an intimate and painful struggle against male brutality: In 2007, her ex-husband Jose Trinidad Marin was sentenced to 31 years to life in prison for molesting his and Rivera’s eldest daughter and a sister-in-law. The 43 year old, thrice-divorced mother of three wore her life experiences proudly and carried her voluptuous figure confidently, whether in short, clingy dresses or soccer-mom casual wear. But Rivera’s stature as a walking, singing cultural signifier went beyond her gender.
As the child of poor Mexican immigrants who’d attained a middle-class life, she was also a symbol of how to succeed in a country where Spanish-speaking people historically have been told to always use the back door when approaching the executive suite or the manor house. In decades past, Winfrey, Bill Cosby and other African American entertainers embodied the hopes of a marginalised minority to be embraced by the mainstream majority. Rivera personified many of the same hopes and dreams for Mexican Americans and other US Latinos, the nation’s fastest-growing ethnic minority. The Wednesday morning, roughly two-hour celebration of Rivera’s life and career, which her family called ‘The Celestial Graduation,’ drew more than 6,000 people to the Gibson Amphitheatre at Universal City Walk. It was the same venue where, years earlier, Rivera had become the first female banda artist to sell out a concert. Tickets were sold out minutes after being made available earlier this week, and hundreds if not thousands more fans — some of whom had travelled long distances — stood outside holding signs, hugging each other and weeping. Although media were barred from the theatre, the event was live-streamed by NBCUniversal.
Inside the Gibson, along with thousands of fans, a who’s who of entertainers from throughout the United States, Mexico and the rest of the hemisphere gathered to pay tribute to Rivera in two languages with tearful eulogies and joyously defiant musical numbers by the likes of superstar Joan Sebastian.
Actor-director Edward James Olmos wore a sad, thoughtful expression when the camera caught his face. Singer Marco Antonio Solis looked desolate. Kate del Castillo, the Mexican star of Telemundo’s hit drama ‘La Reina del Sur,’ wept softly. In the middle of the stage rested Rivera’s cherry-red coffin engraved with white butterflies, with a lacquer-like sheen that suggested a sports car more than a sarcophagus. It was a fitting final vehicle for a woman who raced from success to success, selling more than 15 million total copies worldwide of her 20-odd studio albums (including a just-released compilation) and earning several Latin Grammy nominations. More recently she’d starred in the mun2 reality television series ‘I Love Jenni,’ which was entering its third season of production. Stirring and fervent words were spoken by Rivera’s children, her siblings and her parents. Most of her kinfolk dressed in white, not black. Her mother wore red.
“Your joy, your smile, your affection for the public, will never be forgotten,” her father, Pedro Rivera declared, summing up the feelings of many. Rivera was no saint. As her loved ones repeatedly noted, she was a passionate, flawed woman who battled to hold her personal life together and once doused a drunken concertgoer with beer while confronting him. But that fighting spirit, along with her artistry, was part of what endeared Rivera to her fans and her people. And, as one of her public mourners noted on Wednesday, it will live on through the women (and men) who will sing her songs and find inspiration in her singular example.