A sea of candles floods Monterrey’s Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in remembrance of the life and tragic death of Jenni Rivera, the Mexican-American superstar known to fans as “la Diva de la Banda.”
In Monterrey, where Jenni had just performed what was to be her final concert, fans processed the streets carrying candles and images of her, just as in the religious processions that have occurred throughout Latin America since the arrival of the Spanish over five hundred years ago. From Mexico to California, shrines in her honor have surfaced in neighborhoods and lawns.
But as millions mourn her death, a question that I have heard repeatedly from my Anglo friends is, “Who was Jenni Rivera?”
Jenni Rivera sold over fifteen million albums worldwide, rising to fame in the male-dominated world of banda—a traditional, drum-and-brass, mexican-folk-meets-polka music style that had a big resurgence in the late eighties and early nineties. Her reality show, I Love Jenni, was in its third season, and she was filming an independent film entitled Filly Brown at the time of her death. She was in talks to begin filming a sitcom on ABC about a hardworking single mother.
Born of Mexican parents in the United States, Rivera had a fan base that spanned the borders of this hemisphere. For many Latino/as she is the ultimate success story, having gained international acclaim while proudly maintaining her identity as a US-born Mexican. She was an advocate for victims of sexual abuse and the rights of single mothers. She spoke out against Arizona’s SB1070 as racist and unjust and was also an advocate for LGBT youth. Jenni Rivera did not just use her fame as a form of self-promotion, but as a platform for populations who are voiceless in the dominant discourse.
As news began to emerge about Rivera’s death and memorials began to sprout organically throughout Latino/a neighborhoods here and in Mexico, I could not help but be reminded of another Mexican-American singer who met an untimely death, Selena Quintanilla-Pérez. Like Rivera, Selena was on the verge of crossover stardom among English-speaking audiences. Both women were able to build bridges between Latino/a audiences and fans in Latin America. They both transcended the dominant US narrative of beauty. With both of their deaths, spontaneous, public memorials emerged among Mexicans and Mexican Americans. Time will tell if Rivera will be immortalized in the same manner as Selena in popular culture.
Mourning in Public
Tomen tequila y cerveza
que toquen fuerte las bandas
suelten por mi mariposas
apláudanme con sus palmas
por que así es como celebran
cuando se muere una dama
(From Rivera’s “Cuando Muera una Mujer”)
As Octavio Paz famously wrote in his monumental work on Mexican consciousness, The Labyrinth of Solitude, “A civilization that denies death ends by denying life.” With the public outpourings of remembrance, the candles in the streets, and the processions in honor of Rivera, we are reminded that for Mexicans and Mexican Americans mourning is not a private event in the home, but a public event experienced within the community. We do not mourn alone. And we cannot help but remember the spirituality that informs this worldview, one infused with a Spanish Medieval Catholicism that is a religion of the streets. Seen in religious processions, shrines to official and folk saints, and public altars, this Roman Catholic spirituality brings communities together to celebrate and mourn.
Mexico has had its share of daughters whose struggles have led them to be remembered more by tragedy than triumph. We remember La Malinche, Cortés translator and lover, who was forced into servitude like so many other indigenous women during the conquest and even today. We remember Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, an intellectual foremother who struggled to find a voice in a Church that silenced her intellectual pursuits. We remember Frida Kahlo, whose pain was passionately expressed through her artwork.
Yet while we must tell these women’s stories in light of the tragic, we must also celebrate their accomplishments; the manner in which they challenged and triumphed over the power structures of their day. Jenni Rivera must be remembered for her advocacy for the disenfranchised, her ability to cross borders, and her passionate voice that touched millions.