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Music

How a posthumous Jenni Rivera song of female empowerment resonates in this political moment

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The musical influence of Jenni Rivera hasn’t slowed yet — no way, mijos.

More than seven years after her small plane vanished on a dark winter night near Monterrey, Mexico, the voice of La Diva de Banda Musica is being heard on the recently released single “Engañémoslo” (Fool Him). It’s the second song to emerge from a cache of music tracks discovered on a hard drive a few years ago by the singer’s brother, Juan Rivera.

The mariachi power ballad, along with a banda version, is a female battle cry directed at the singer’s core Latina listeners, who stood by Rivera through the triumphs of her career and the tragedy of her death at age 43 in December 2012. The song, written by the popular Mexican singer-songwriter Espinoza Paz, has already racked up more than 4 million YouTube views since its Feb. 27 debut and is slated to appear on a forthcoming album that will include last year’s “Aparentemente Bien” (Apparently Well), the first posthumous song released by the Rivera family from the unearthed tracks.

On a recent sunny afternoon, several members of the singer’s family — including three of Rivera’s grown children, Jenicka, Jacqie and Johnny, as well as their aunt Rosie and their grandmother Doña Rosa — walked into a Sony Pictures Studios screening room in Culver City to introduce the music video made for “Engañémoslo.”

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Opening with a view of the same writing desk, notebook, lamp and framed photo collage seen in the “Aparentemente Bien” music video — and with a butterfly once again representing the spirit of Rivera — the “Engañémoslo” video tells the story of a woman in an abusive relationship who sneaks around her partner to get an education and gives a powerful graduation speech, sparking a movement. Red lipstick becomes a signal among women encouraging empowerment.

Though the song’s lyrics speak about its protagonist wanting revenge and fooling her partner as a way of teaching a lesson to the man who has cheated on her “a thousand times,” Rivera’s younger sister Rosie, 38, who sat down with The Times to talk about the latest single and its video, said, “We wanted this song to be deeper.”

The video’s approach to the song makes women the heroes of their own stories in a theme that challenges old-school thinking and machismo without bashing men, something the Rivera family was adamant about.

“The song is not about bringing anybody down,” Rosie said. “It’s meant to lift women and others along the way.”

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la-et-ms-jenni-rivera
A never-used promotional photo of Jenni Rivera shot for her line of jeans. “She wanted to have a different kind of photo session. Sexier, daring,” says Rivera’s sister, Rosie. “We knew that the session existed but we had not looked at all the photos until the photographer donated them to the children.”
(Robson Muzel)

Jenni, who had abusive and cheating partners during her lifetime, continually encouraged women with the pre-#MeToo message that they could make it on their own.

“Jenni Rivera was truly ahead of her time,” said Alex Gallardo, president of the late singer’s label, Sony Music U.S. Latin. “Jenni was speaking about empowerment long before today’s movements. She spoke about taking a strong position in life, and that is part of a message that many people identified with and will continue to see in her new music.”

Rosie Rivera, who is chief executive of Jenni Rivera Enterprises and the executor of her sister’s estate, credits her immigrant parents — Don Pedro and Doña Rosa — with instilling an inner strength in their offspring.

“Mom emphasized that we could have husbands, but we didn’t need to depend on them,” Rosie said as her mother looked on. “Dad never put any limitations on his children, even when I said I wanted to be an astronaut. He said he’d be happy to go with me anywhere I needed to be.”

At many turns, however, the American dream seemed elusive for Jenni — many people, Rosie said, called her sister unattractive, overweight and a no-talent. Yet Jenni, undeterred by the doubters, broke through the Latin music glass ceiling within a regional Mexican genre traditionally led by male recording acts and executives. A few pioneering female artists in Mexico, such as longtime star Paquita La Del Barrio, established legacy careers. But it was the California-born Rivera who is estimated to have sold some 25 million albums worldwide and successfully straddled a bicultural, bilingual career as she climbed the Billboard charts, became a touring force and expanded her reach with the reality show “I Love Jenni.”

She was about to venture further into the general market with a TV sitcom, a Las Vegas residency and an album in English before she died.

Knocking on doors

Rivera learned the music business through her father, who owned the small record label Cintas Acuario, based in Long Beach, where she grew up.

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Before the music video unveiling at Sony, the Rivera family showed attendees not only footage of Jenni Rivera’s last concert in Monterrey, Mexico, but of her very first concert in 2003 at the Ford Amphitheatre in Hollywood. Years before social media became the norm, her family, knowing much was at stake as the date of that first concert approached, sold tickets to anyone they knew. Rosie described how the family knocked on doors, calling friends, fans and encouraging attendance.

Pedro Zamora, a veteran promoter of Latin and regional Mexican music, remembers the early days when Rivera made several thousand dollars for shows on the weekends before she jumped to six figures.

“She defined the value of a woman, and women admired her for that. And no matter what she was confronted with, she took it on,” Zamora said.

Even as Rivera broke records and performed songs of her own and by others, such as “La Grand Señora” (The Grand Lady), “Ovarios” (Ovaries) and “Mariposa de Barrio” (Butterfly From the Barrio), many point to her Staples Center concert in 2011 as a milestone event that summed up her life in music.

“Jenni told about her life on that Staples stage,” said Julie “Jules” Vasquez, who was the singer’s executive assistant from 2007 until her death. “The camouflage suit she wore symbolized so much for us. She fought for her beliefs, for love, and that kind of strength is what moved us all to this day.” In 2018, in part to honor Rivera, Vasquez founded her own record label, Joyas Musicales, focusing on regional Mexican music and Latinas.

“That Staples concert showed Jenni in such an empowering way,” said Martin Rodriguez, 51, a maintenance technician and a longtime Rivera fan who paid more than $300 for a ticket to be near the stage. “Every time Jenni was on that stage, she owned it like the boss, the leader, and she did it with such humility. The day she died, I cried more than I have for anyone famous, even more than Selena.”

A political force

“Jenni’s transparency is what people loved about her,” said Paz, who worked with Rivera on several occasions and wrote “Engañémoslo” more than eight years ago as a way to call attention to sexist attitudes toward women. “Life has a way of putting people on your path and, by coincidence, I often saw Jenni on the road, and now we’re reunited in song and a message about self-value, respect and humanity — we all deserve to be treated equally.”

Yvonne Drazan, a longtime Latin music specialist who has worked with many female Latin recording acts, including the late Tejano star Selena, emphasized that Rivera’s ability to pick strong songs and present them in an authentic way was key to her success.

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“Jenni was raw and open with her life,” said Drazan, an executive with publisher Peermusic as vice president of its Latin division on the West Coast. “A female artist can be really successful when they have a female fan base that has a common ground with them. They have to be relatable. Jenni was brilliant in that way.”

Manny Prado, Sony Music‘s U.S. Latin senior director on the West Coast, has worked with some of regional Mexican’s most recognized voices and predicts that more women will enter the genre.

“It’s a matter of time,” Prado said. “We’re going to see it. It was hard to say ‘no’ to Jenni Rivera, and there’s no way to compare her to anyone else. But we will see new female voices in the genre.”

Already a new generation of female voices, including L.A.-born Ángela Aguilar, 16, who started her music career at age 9, the year Rivera died, is having a hand in shaping the direction of Latin music.

“Jenni really exemplified perseverance,” said Ingrid M. Duran, co-founder of PODER PAC, an organization that supports Latina candidates running for Congress. This year, nearly a dozen Latinas are running, hoping to affect immigration reform, women’s rights and more.

And Latina voters are key to that effort. Mark Hugo Lopez of Pew Research‘s director of global migration and demography research, said that 15.2 million Hispanic women are eligible to vote compared to about 14.7 million Hispanic men, according to data from the 2018 Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

“Despite any of the obstacles that we may face, we can pursue and persevere in our achievements and always bring other folks along the way with us,” Duran said. “That’s what Jenni continues to do through music.”

Duran, who with her PODER PAC co-founder Catherine Pino produced the HBO documentaries “The Latino List,” “The Trans List” and more, said the new Rivera song fits well with the country’s political and cultural climate. “It’s like Jenni is speaking from the grave. It’s a coronation that’s powerful. We still have the voices of those who have passed on, and what a way to honor Jenni and continue speaking with her.”

Or, as the promoter Zamora put it, “Jenni will live on forever.”


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