La Gran Señora. La Diva de la Banda. Jenni Rivera collected some pretty grandiose nicknames over the course of her career. And by the time that career was tragically cut short on Sunday, she had more than earned them all. The Latin-pop and Regional Mexican star was travelling from Monterrey to Toluca, Mexico, when the private plane carrying Rivera, her publicist, her attorney and her makeup artist crashed, killing everyone on board. Rivera was just 43 years old, a beloved, Grammy-nominated icon and a trailblazer for women in regional music, with 12 wildly successful studio albums under her belt and a side gig as a judge on La Voz … Mexico (Mexico's branch of The Voice). By an awful coincidence, her first greatest-hits album, La Misma Gran Señora, is out this week.
That legendary career almost didn't happen, despite a strong family background in music. Rivera grew up in Long Beach, California, the daughter and sister of musicians who made their living playing and producing banda, norteño and other Regional Mexican styles. Her brother is singer Lupillo Rivera, and her father, Pedro Rivera, even owned a record label (Cintas Acuario), but Jenni originally pursued a career in business and real estate. In the mid-'90s, however, she finally took her place in the family's musical dynasty, first working at her dad's label before signing with CapitolEMI and releasing her debut, Chacalosa, in 1995. The album sold over a million copies on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border and set Rivera on her rightful path to stardom.
Several platinum albums and multiple Top 10 hits later, it's difficult to imagine the Regional Mexican landscape without the Diva de la Banda's voice. But Rivera had to overcome more than just her own initial reluctance to ascend to her throne. Much of regional music is a boys' club, and banda in particular has historically seen very few female stars. Rivera helped change the face of banda and other regional genres. In the process of carving out a place for women with her own unprecedented superstardom, she also helped introduce regional genres to a wider audience. A charismatic performer who wasn't afraid of a pop hook or a crossover-leaning tune, Rivera extended her stardom beyond banda, racking up hits, earning her spot on La Voz, and helping to break down the historically strict borders between regional and pop.
Warm and accessible, fiery and flamboyant, Rivera was a tough-talking, sometimes brutally honest lady who cultivated a reputation for speaking her mind, an image as a high diva and a history of scandal (like her 2008 arrest for hitting a fan with a microphone when the fan allegedly threw a beer can at her). That kind of controversy and her generally theatrical personality made her a natural pick for her own reality show (mun2's I Love Jenni, for which Rivera also served as a producer). But her tempestuousness was also rooted in her own personal struggles: The thrice-divorced Rivera fought her way out of an abusive first marriage and went on to become an advocate for survivors of domestic violence. That toughness also helped Rivera keep pace with the baddest banda cowboys, slinging the kinds of brazen, sometimes hard-living, always grittily heartfelt stories that make Regional Mexican music so compelling -- and made La Gran Señora one of its most cherished, most fascinating, most fabulous ambassadors. She will be greatly missed.