The Low Road to Success

Agustin Gurza is a Times staff writer

Something's up with the young Mexican singer, the one with the fashionably shaved head and the $1,800 ostrich-skin shoes. He's trying to act natural, but he can't completely contain his excitement.

He's sitting in a low-budget, second-story recording studio in Long Beach, where he grew up a short immigrant kid with outsized dreams of playing pro baseball. He's barely 29 now, the father of four girls, having married straight out of high school while working swing shift at a Taco Bell in Seal Beach.

Somebody pinch him. He thinks he's still dreaming.

Finally, he blurts out the news he's been holding back. The recording artist has just signed a new three-year deal with his manager, earning him a $500,000 signing bonus, he says. At this very moment, he announces, his representative is at the Bentley dealer in Beverly Hills closing a deal for a late model of the British luxury car.

"It's black, dude. A convertible," the singer says to the studio engineer.

The singer then pops out of his chair, flips open his cell phone and dials his manager like a boy who can't wait for his latest toy--one costing more than $300,000.

"He's gotta have two Bentleys," somebody jokes. "One's not enough."

That's right. The singer's other elite vehicle is pictured on the cover of his latest CD, "Despreciado" (Disdained), which has sold more than 500,000 copies since its February release on Sony Discos. The artist is shown standing in front of his trophy-on-wheels, western hat in one hand, big fat stogie in the other.

Above is his name in gold: Lupillo Rivera.

Rivera is the first Mexican American recording star to rise so high from the backwater of the Latin record business of corridos pesados, heavy tales of drug smuggling, violence and quick riches. It's an underground market catering mostly to blue-collar immigrants via word-of-mouth, disseminated on cheap cassettes and promoted in live performances in barrio bars from Huntington Park to Lynwood.

Rivera was bred in that gritty subculture, where life tragically imitated art nine years ago. That's when somebody put two bullets in the back of the head of Chalino Sanchez, a fellow corrido singer signed to Cintas Acuario, the small Long Beach label owned by Rivera's father, Pedro. The unsolved murder in Sinaloa, Mexico, was a personal blow to the Rivera family but a boon for sales of corridos by Sanchez, a notoriously bad singer whose death added to his notoriety as a valiente, or brave one.

Undaunted, the young Rivera has carried the mantle of corrido recordings, which became increasingly popular in the '90s. His own career started by accident when a singer for another band on his father's label failed to show up for a recording session. Since the studio tab was running anyway, Rivera decided to sing, and another Acuario star was born.

"I just started yelling," remembers Rivera, whose only previous experience was singing for his glee club at Stephens Middle School.

Musical quality is far from essential in this street-grown genre, which sells immigrant stories spiced with colorful--and unprintable--Mexican slang. The style is considered too vulgar for commercial airplay and too marginal for mainstream record deals. Now, to the astonishment of industry observers, Rivera is among Sony's top-selling acts, propelled more by his charisma than his modest talent.

At a private party thrown by the label earlier this month, Rivera was honored for cumulative sales of 1 million records. The label's top executives were on hand to honor the performer, who as a kid sold counterfeit Michael Jackson and Culture Club cassettes at the Paramount Swap Meet.

The party was held at the Palace nightclub. The Hollywood setting seemed far removed from Rivera's roots but fitting for his new rock-star success, complete with adoring female fans from Mexican American neighborhoods such as El Sereno and Montebello.

"I didn't listen to this type of music until he came in," said Sheila Bueno, 17, a junior at Schurr High School in Montebello and president of his fan club. "I would always listen to English music like R&B; and rap."

Bicultural fans like Bueno--who sports a punk-like tongue piercing--are the key to Rivera's unusual success in a business in which stars are usually made in Mexico, not on this side of the border. The bilingual youngsters feel that El Toro (the Bull) is one of them--and he is.

"For the first time in the history of the Mexican music industry, we've paid attention to the youth market in the United States," says Abel De Luna, Sony's regional Mexican market manager. "We're giving new heroes to those people who were ignored in the past ....This is the artist we've been looking for."

Rivera was born in La Barca, Jalisco, and christened Guadalupe, a Mexican name used for both boys and girls. His odd stage name, Lupillo, was suggested by his father, who wanted audiences to know for sure that his son was a man. (Unlike "Lupe," the normal nickname, "Lupillo" ends in the masculine "o.")

A smart move in the rough-and-tumble world of narco-corridos , where manliness is a marketing asset. It's no accident that Sanchez, the murdered singer, always appeared on his CD covers with a pistol tucked in his waistband.

Pedro Rivera, the patriarch and now head of a small family conglomerate of musical enterprises still in Long Beach, is an unlikely leader in this tough business. He is small with a friendly smile, a neat mustache and a bookish look.

Back in Mexico, the elder Rivera eked out a living selling lottery tickets on the streets of Hermosillo, Sonora, wife Rosa's hometown. He had little to his name when he decided to bring his growing family to California. Lupillo was just a boy then; all he remembers of the border crossing is "the big hills."

Lupillo was the fourth of what would eventually be six children, all grown now. The family settled on the west side of Long Beach, living in the shadow of the Long Beach Freeway. He attended public schools, graduating from Polytechnic High School in 1990, and remembers a "nice childhood," collecting Hot Wheels and playing Little League baseball--when he wasn't working.

Like many immigrant kids, Lupillo had to work hard for his family. On weekends, he was up at 5 a.m. to help his parents set up their spot at the swap meet, where they peddled cookies, cassettes and medicines from Mexico.

One day, the elder Rivera came home to find that his wife had spent their week's wages on family portraits taken by a door-to-door salesman. Rosa had ordered a whole set of her and her kids for $129. She just couldn't resist, they were all so cute.

Pedro Rivera was furious. But he also saw a sales opportunity. In his outrage, he went out and bought a 35-millimeter Minolta and started taking pictures at baptisms to sell to proud parents. When the priests shooed him away, he started working the Mexican bars where he also sang as an amateur. He soon switched to a Polaroid, providing instant gratification for the drunks pictured with their mistresses or dollar-a-dance dates.

"My dad's always thinking how to make a buck," said Lupillo during an interview at his spacious suburban home near the country club in Lakewood, where his father and brother also bought homes.

Both father and son laugh when they recall the family's free-market escapades.

There was the time the elder Rivera bought that carload of defective buttons for the 1984 Olympics. When he got home, he spread the Olympic pins on the floor and set Lupillo and his siblings to painstakingly trim excess edges with razor blades, one by one. They then sold the buttons for $1 apiece outside the Coliseum, where good ones were going for a lot more.

The Riveras made $14,000 in three days. "And that's where I got the money to make my first record," said a smiling Pedro Rivera during an interview at the Main Street offices of Cintas Acuario, (Aquarius Tapes), the label he founded in 1988 with the discarded tape of a group that had flopped on a Mexican label.

The label's first hit came the following year on a CD by Los Rayantes del Valle. It was titled "Misa de Cuerpo Presente," a bizarre story about the open-coffin funeral of a drug dealer whose bereaved mother beats the corpse, which mysteriously sheds tears for ignoring the woman's warnings while alive.

Major record labels wouldn't touch the stuff. Radio programmers told the Riveras they'd be fired if they played it.

Of course, there was always the swap meet as an outlet.

One day, a man stopped at the Riveras' spot, where Lupillo had been playing underground corridos for customers all day. The stranger wanted to know who was singing.

That's Chalino Sanchez, Lupillo answered before recognizing the man from the cheap, two-color cassette covers. It was Sanchez, en persona.

The encounter marked the beginning of a fruitful association between the Riveras and the troubled singer, who had been financing his own recordings. He became the star of Cintas Acuario, composing corridos on demand for drug dealers who wanted to brag about their exploits.

Sanchez was recording in Los Angeles the week before he was killed. His beeper and cell phone were constantly ringing, the Riveras remember. Constant death threats. Don't go to Sinaloa, anonymous voices warned. You won't come back alive.

The singer went anyway, lured by the promise of big money. According to the Riveras and published reports, after a show, Sanchez was kidnapped by men in police uniforms. His body was found the next day along the highway outside Culiacan, the state capital.

Lupillo Rivera says he's not afraid of following in his fellow singer's footsteps. Sanchez, he explains, made the mistake of naming names and places in his corridos , annoying rival camps of dealers. Besides, Sanchez had led a shadowy life and made enemies.

Still, Rivera has avoided performing in Sinaloa, where he's in great demand. He's just got a funny feeling about it, said his father. Perhaps he's traumatized, said his mother.

On his compositions, Rivera makes the narco-stories more generic. As in "Perros Bajadores," about a dealer who endures torture rather than turn over his shipment to rivals. Or "El Pelotero," about a dealer nicknamed "the ballplayer" because he pitches balls of crack and coke, calling a kilo a home run.

In the middle of the song, Rivera calls out to the "pura raza pelotera de Playa Larga, si senor." Going out, in other words, to all the "ball-playing raza "--a slang term for fellow Mexicans--of Long Beach.

Rivera cleaned up his act, in some respects, on his latest Sony release. The drug ballads are gone, replaced by Mexican standards accompanied by banda sinaloense, the traditional town band with tuba and clarinets. But he kept his happy drunk shtick, singing many songs as if he were plastered.

"It only perpetuates the negative images of the Mexican population and the Mexican culture," said Leticia Quezada, a former Los Angeles Unified School District board member who now heads the nonprofit Instituto Cultural Mexicano in Los Angeles. "It can do nothing good for our youth."

Rivera is more pragmatic. The debate over narco-corridos was good for his career, he said. All publicity is good if it's free. And though he and his family say they have always been law-abiding, he considers drug smuggling just a job. "A person who dares to do those things, well, he should be respected," said the singer, sitting on his sunny backyard patio near his swimming pool and rose garden.

But does he worry about the influence on his own children?

"If my children started doing drugs," he said, "that's because I didn't watch my own kids. Then that would be my own fault."

Rivera's father also justifies the reliance on the drug culture to sell records. He even smiles when he points out the marijuana leaves that adorn the logo of Pelotero Records, another family label belonging to his son Juan.

"Since we didn't have the opportunity to get ahead on the high road, we had to stay on the low road with this type of corrido ," said the senior Rivera, who still controls the recordings of his children, including those by Lupillo that are licensed to Sony.

Pedro Rivera once tried to challenge a man who was selling pirated cassettes of his company's music in front of a Long Beach market. The next day, he woke to find all the windows of his car broken. So it's better to let the counterfeiters be, he concluded. Nobody can stop them.

"We're now suffering what before we did to others," he said.

The counterfeiters don't bother Lupillo Rivera. He even sticks up for those ripping off his recordings:

"These guys are only trying to survive. Know what I mean? Why should I hold 'em back?"

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