Jenni Rivera: A Champion of Women On the Way to Becoming the "Latina Oprah"

Through revelations of her own tragic life, Rivera became an icon for Latina women and was finally on the verge of crossing over into mainstream American pop culture.

By Colin Bertram
|  Tuesday, Dec 11, 2012  |  Updated 7:23 AM PDT
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In Memoriam

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Singer and television personality Jenni Rivera

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Jenni Rivera was on the cusp of finally attaining her professional dream to become a well known name in the American entertainment industry. With a hugely successful recording career and reality television program behind her, the 43-year-old mother of five had just signed to star in her own comedy sitcom for ABC.

That dream ended Sunday when the plane Rivera was traveling in crashed in a mountainous region of Mexico. All on board were killed according to reports.

"She said to me: 'People don't really know me [in America], and that's going to change,'" said Lee Hernandez, deputy editor of Latina magazine, who interviewed Rivera earlier in 2012.

Born in Long Beach, Calif., to Mexican immigrant parents, Rivera sold more than 15 million albums worldwide throughout her career and was a household name in Mexico and to Spanish speaking communities throughout the United States.

Rivera was one of the biggest stars of banda, a brass-based, percussive form of Spanish-language pop music invented in northern Mexico but played heavily throughout the American Southwest. Banda traditionally was the domain of men, and Rivera's emergence and eventual dominance in the genre was groundbreaking.

"She was the number one woman in an industry controlled by men," Peter Castro, deputy managing editor of People magazine told "Access Hollywood Live," Monday. Castro went as far as to liken Rivera to British superstar singer Adele for her performances of songs that often explored the tragic aspects of her own life.

By the time Rivera was 16 she was married and had given birth to her first daughter. A victim herself of physical abuse during that marriage, her daughter was sexually abused by her first husband who was eventually sentenced to life in prison for the crime in 2007. Rivera went on to marry two more times, had four more children and was most recently wed to the former major-league pitcher Esteban Loaiza. The couple filed for divorce in the fall.

In 2010 she was named spokesperson for the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence and founded the Jenni Rivera Love Foundation, which offered support services to single mothers and victims of both domestic and sexual abuse.

There appeared to be nothing fake or phony about Jenni Rivera, who spoke openly about her life and recalled to CNN in 2010 that she once sold cans for scrap metal and helped at her family's flea market stand during her adolescence in Los Angeles.

"Staying defeated, crying and suffering was not an option," she said to CNN of her life's tragedies. "I had to get off my feet, dust myself off and press on. That's what I want to teach my daughters."

"I Love Jenni," a televised reality show on Telemundo's mun2 cable channel began airing in 2011 and followed Rivera as she took her life on the road and juggled the demands of stardom and everyday family life. She also was a judge on the TV show, "La Voz... Mexico" ("The Voice, Mexico"), to which she was en route to continue filming when the plane crash occurred.

"She told me she wanted to be the Latina Oprah," said Hernandez. "She wanted to have her own talk show. Becoming known to American audiences was the next big thing for her."

With the announcement of the sitcom in development at ABC, that dream was finally within reach. The family-based comedy was to star Rivera as a strong, single Latina woman struggling to deal with what life throws at her.

Hernandez says her loss cannot be underestimated, particularly to Latinas: "She was one of the biggest stars in the Latina community, our readers are so saddened by the news of her death. They are devastated. And the reason they are so sad is because she was a survivor already. Every single drama you could ever imagine she survived. So for her to go down in the plane crash after surviving everything she went through, and for empowering Latinas to look at their obstacles as something they can overcome is a big tragedy for her audience."

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