LOS ANGELES – Jenni Rivera launched her career hawking cassette recordings of her songs at flea markets, but a powerful voice, soulful singing style and frank discussion of personal troubles powered her to the heights of a male-dominated industry, transforming her into the one of the biggest stars of the genre known as grupero.
Her life was cut short at its peak Sunday by an airplane crash in northern Mexico that also killed six friends and co-workers.
The 43-year-old mother of five and grandmother of two became a symbol of resilience for millions of fans on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border. Her fame grew as she branched out into acting, appearing in independent film, reality TV and the televised singing competition “La Voz Mexico.”
She recently filed for divorce from her third husband, was once detained at a Mexico City airport with tens of thousands of dollars in cash, and publicly apologized after her brother assaulted a drunken fan who verbally attacked her in 2011.
“I am the same as the public, as my fans,” she told The Associated Press in an interview last March.
Rivera sold more than 15 million copies of her 12 major-label albums and won a string of Latin music awards. Her shows filled both the Staples Center in Los Angeles and Mexico’s National Auditorium, a feat few male singers in her industry achieved.
Many of her songs dealt with themes of dignity in the face of heartbreak, and her shows were known for their festive atmosphere and her intimate interactions with her fans. She would fill song requests from fans who had suffered heartbreak and setbacks, and would often pull women and girls on stage to personally tell them to keep moving forward.
Rivera’s plane was taking her and aides to the central Mexican city of Toluca after a Saturday night concert before thousands in the northern city of Monterrey. After the concert, she gave a news conference during which she spoke of her emotional state after her recent move to divorce former Major League Baseball pitcher Esteban Loaiza, who played for teams including the New York Yankees and Chicago White Sox.
Rivera announced in October that she was divorcing Loaiza after two years of marriage.
“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 Saturday night. “The number of times I have fallen down is the number of times I have gotten up.”
Rivera’s parents migrated from Mexico to California and founded the label that also propelled two of her five brothers, Lupillo and Juan Rivera, to careers as well-known singers of grupero music.
Born on July 2, 1969 in Westwood, California, Janney Dolores Rivera Savedra studied business administration and often said with pride that she started her singing career in flea markets in the Los Angeles area, selling cassette tapes to fans.
She formally debuted on the music scene in 1995 with the release of her album “Chacalosa”.
That successful album was followed with two other independent albums, one a tribute to slain Mexican-American singer Selena that helped Rivera expand her following. By the end of the 90s, she won a major-label contract, and built a loyal following that knew her as the “Diva de la Banda.”
At the end of the 1990s, Rivera was signed by Sony Music and released two more albums, “If You Want to See Me Crying,” and “Queen of Queens.”
In 2002, she received her first Latin Grammy nomination, for best album in the band music category.
Even more widespread success came when she joined Fonovisa and released her 2005 album titled “Partier, Rebellious and Daring,” which positioned her as one of the most renowed grupero singers and songwriters.
She was also nominated for Latin Grammys in 2008 and 2011.
She was also an actress, appearing in the indie film “Filly Brown,” which was shown at the Sundance Film Festival, as the incarcerated mother of character Filly Brown.
Her most recent album, “Joyas Prestadas,” or “Borrowed Jewels,” won widespread praise and awards and helped cement her status as one of the brightest stars of Mexican-American music.
She was also filming the third season of “I Love Jenni,” which followed her as she interacted with her family and toured through Mexico and the United States. She also played a key role in the reality shows: “Jenni Rivera Presents: Chiquis and Raq-C” and her daughter’s “Chiquis ‘n Control.”
In 2009, she was detained at the Mexico City airport when she declared $20,000 in cash but was really carrying $52,167. She was taken into custody. She said it was an innocent mistake and authorities gave her the benefit of the doubt and released her.
In 2011, her brother Juan assaulted a drunken fan at a popular fair in Guanajuato. In the face of heavy criticism among her fans and on social networks, Rivera publicly apologized for the incident during a concert in Mexico City, telling her fans: “Thank you for accepting me as I am, with my virtues and defects.”