For Jenni Rivera, and Arlene Mejorado Vargas, both of whom I loved much too late.
“The mujeres in the audience (including me) were always left inspired, stronger and with a little less emotional pain to carry back home–this wasn’t exactly what we think of as ‘feminism’ but it was something that each of us felt as empowerment, and damn even therapy.” – Felicia Montes
My friend Arlene texted me on a Sunday afternoon last December, asking if I heard what happened to La Gran Senora, Jenni Rivera. I scanned the mainstream news, but there wasn’t a whisper yet in the US media. So I left este lado and stepped into el otro lado.
Around 3 am on December 9, 2012, Jenni Rivera departed Monterrey, Mexico post performance, and the Mexican regional superstar’s privately-owned jet nosedived 28,000 feet and crashed on its way to Toluca. All seven passengers were confirmed dead.
This week marks a year since the tragic death of Rivera. And for those of us who walk in these two cultures, La Diva de la Banda was inolvidable, like her song. Jenni was a Cali girl, like Arlene. Arlene introduced me to Jenni’s life, to her wild, fiery spirit, and her take-no-bullshit attitude. Rivera is often referred to as “chingona” and a “down ass chick.” We spent many nights watching YouTube videos of Jenni. Her songs. Her interviews. Her television show. I fell in love with Rivera. She didn’t give a fuck about borders or rules. Sometimes she wore fancy dresses and sometimes she wore mechanic’s overalls. She cursed like Pancho Villa and sang so beautifully that it silenced people.
One year later, there is still only speculation as to why the plane failed to remain in the air. In the days after the crash, major media outlets like the Washington Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CNN, and the Huffington Post attempted to report on the story, scrambling to flesh out who she was – because outside of Latino/a la banda lovers, no one in white America recognized how big of a superstar Jenni Rivera was, partly because those from el otro lado who live on este lado still fly under the radar.
Born to a Mexican immigrant and a Tejano, I am Donnie Darko: I can see another dimension. I can see the parallel Americas: the Unites States of America (Gringolandia, I sometimes call it), the earth I was born on, and Mexico, a universe I belong to. As Chicano/as, we cross all of these borders, sin problema. On both sides, we mourned Jenni Rivera’s tragic ending in public and in private. In este lado, there was only a passing obituary in the New York Times on December 10, summing up her career but failing to convey Jenni River as a cultural icon:
“Fully bilingual, Ms. Rivera, who lived in the Encino section of Los Angeles, was one of the biggest stars of the banda genre, a brassy, percussive style of pop music invented in northern Mexico and enriched in the American Southwest. She sold more than 15 million records, was nominated three times for the Latin Grammy Award, and developed a reputation for hard-hitting lyrics that addressed relationships between the sexes with a frankness reminiscent of American country music; one of her albums, released in 2007, was titled ‘My Crazy Life.’”
Rivera was laid to rest on December 31, 2012 in a private ceremony at All Soul’s Cemetery in Long Beach, California, the city where she was born and raised. The day before, the New York Times ran a section called “The Lives They Lived”, dedicated to “issues [meant] to be a celebration of life, not an expression of grief.” Gringolandia’s most reputable newspapers ran poetic obituaries of well-known deaths from 2012 that reverberated through our collective consciousness. Except, Jenni Rivera didn’t make the list.
A ghost in white America, Rivera’s public memorial drew thousands of Latino/a fans who stood in line for hours to pay their respects at her public memorial. An artist who sold out arenas everywhere, the tickets to her memorial sold out in less than an hour. She is no ghost to us.
In the book “Borderlands/La Frontera”, South Texas writer Gloria Anzaldua captured the duality of that existence – being both Mexican and from the US: “Deep in our hearts we believe that being Mexican has nothing to do with which country one lives in. Being Mexican is a state of soul – not one of mind, not one of citizenship. Neither eagle nor serpent, but both. And like the ocean, neither animal respects borders.”
Jenni toed that line the way we toe the border between Mexico and the US. While she lived and breathed, she struggled and she soared. She brought attention to issues like domestic violence and sexual abuse because she experienced them, and did not remain silent about the damage they do to us.
“I can’t get caught up in the negative because that destroys you. Perhaps trying to move away from my problems and focus on the positive is the best I can do. I am a woman like any other and ugly things happen to me like any other woman,” she said in an interview. “The number of times I have fallen down is the number of times I have gotten up.”
And she got up. Time and time again. When there were no women in banda music, she torched the genre with her narcocorridos, tossing matches into the licking flames, collecting accolades and fans along the way. She caught on, a fire burning the fields of the Panhandle of Texas, where I’m from and blazed a path across the country, reaching girls like my friend Arlene, who grew up in El Ley, touching all of us with stories that went beyond tragedies. We all identified with and loved Jenni Rivera. We are all like Jenni Rivera. With a body born here. With a soul born there. She wasn’t just a homegirl. She was your mother. She was your sister. She was breaking all the rules, sin verguenza. She was showing us all we could do it.
Quedate in Paz, Jenni.
-Mónica Teresa Ortiz