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Remembering Banda Diva Jenni Rivera

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To listen to Mandalit del Barco's appreciation of Jenni Rivera's life and career, as heard on All Things Considered, click the audio link.

Mexican-American singer Jenni Rivera died Sunday in an airplane that crashed in the early hours of the morning in Toluca, west of Mexico's capital. The legendary musician, household name and feminist presence in the Latin music scene was 43.

In her song "The Ovaries," Rivera ends with the phrase, "The ovaries I carry ... they are big ones!" It might sound crass, but in a culture in which we continue to grapple with sexism, where the pathology of machismo permeates the very language (insults in Spanish often involve comparisons to or violence against women; braggadocio orbits around huevos — a man's genitalia), Rivera was a lyrical guerrilla fighter.

In a phone call, Latin culture writer Ernesto Lechner told me Rivera was subversive to the core, pointing to her song "De Contrabando." "She refuses to be the subservient lover," Lechner said. "She's hitting on the guy. She's the player; she's making the moves." Sample lyrics: "Sorry if I'm too forward, but I've liked you for a while now, and even though I know you are with someone, we could be discreet and see each other once in a while."

Latin music has lost a powerful vocalist; Latin women lost a powerful feminist icon, a survivor and advocate. Rivera became pregnant with her first child at 15 and suffered brutal domestic violence at the hands of her teenage sweetheart, Trinidad Marin. In an interlude on her 2007 album, Mi Vida Loca, Rivera says: "I lived it. I suffered it. I endured it. And I got tired of it. In the end, I sent him to jail." (In 2007 Marin was sentenced to 31 years in prison for the molestation of Rivera's at-the-time-underage daughter and sister.) The experience led her to become a spokeswoman for the National Coalition Against Battered Women and Domestic Violence in Los Angeles. And while she is certainly not the first female or Latin musician to reappropriate sexist idioms and take a stance against female oppression, she was an unparalleled female star in the male dominated banda universe.

No doubt comparisons will be drawn to another female Mexican music icon gone before her time — Selena. But I see as many, if not more, parallels with legendary Mexican singer Paquita la del Barrio, who also emerged from teen pregnancy and abuse with songs about survival, empowerment and, yes, romantic love. And in a world in which female entertainers are oversexualized to sell records, Rivera never stopped being pure class: She embraced her curvaceous body but always remained "La Diva de la Banda." Fans adored her.

Mandalit del Barco reported Monday that fans in Los Angeles have been paying tribute (hear her story at the audio link). Vernice Cornejo, 26, was among those who stopped to pay their respects and sing their favorite Jenni Rivera songs. Cornejo said besides celebrating hard-drinking women who are loud and proud, Rivera was a role model for Latinas in other ways. "We go through a lot of physical abuse, mental abuse, and she said she herself went through it," Cornejo told del Barco. "She tried hard to make us look good."

The daughter of Mexican immigrants who created a musical dynasty from scratch, Rivera achieved fame as a banda musician (a regional Mexican style with brass instrumentation as a centerpiece). She was enormously successful: According to Billboard she sold 15 million records, and she had multiple Latin Grammy nominations, proving that female banda fans yearned for a woman's perspective.

Rivera was also a boundary pusher — she not only explored themes of empowered women but also successfully delved into pop, narco-corridos (Mexican drug ballads) and love songs. She recently crossed over into new audiences with her reality show I Love Jenni on Mun2, which portrayed her life as a music star, a mother and a grandmother. She was also a judge on Mexico's version of The Voice and had recently signed a deal with ABC to star in her own scripted television show.

Rivera's "Cuando Muere Una Dama" ("When A Lady Dies"), released years ago, eerily requests that her fans, friends and family celebrate, rather than mourn, her death — because, she clarifies, she had a very good life: "I was a strong guerrilla fighter, who for her children fought. ... The people's daughter is gone, the woman with the big balls. ... Don't miss me bosses, your rebel daughter lives on forever."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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