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This story first appeared in the Dec. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
I had met Jenni almost 10 years ago when I was producing a local show. At that time, she was in the shadow of her brother Lupillo Rivera, who was this enormously successful Mexican regional singer. It was interesting to me that she was American — she was born in Long Beach and went to Cal State Long Beach — yet for a long time nobody knew. She was very cool; she would reference 2Pac as much as she would another Mexican singer.
We then met in a restaurant and spoke for a couple of hours, but reality was not something she wanted to do. She loved reality, but didn’t want to be one.
We couldn’t get a follow-up until much later, when Jenni was interested in producing a series about her daughter working for her with her friend Raq-C. We met with Chiquis and saw something in her. In the middle of that project, Jenni Rivera Presents Chiquis & Raq-C [in 2010], Jenni got the bug. She gave Chiquis the day off and did the 5:30 wake-up call with the personal trainer and making the breakfast and getting the kids ready for school and so on. She realized what we all knew: She’s a natural. Her ability to come up with really quick soundbites was very real. And Jenni had no filters, so you got everything. [Her mun2 reality shows later included I Love Jenni and Chiquis ‘n Control.]
Jenni involved the family to give them a chance to do something together as a unit; if you’re creating a dynasty, you want nothing more than for your family to share in it. Creating opportunities for her family was very near and dear to her. They appreciated it; she never foisted it on them. They all jumped in and became these very larger-than-life characters but while keeping themselves very real and very grounded. Every time we ended a project, she’d say “I don’t like doing this,” and it would be the kids who said, “Let’s go back to work, Mom.” She could have had an extra few days off from work and touring, but the family enjoyed shooting the show — ‘We’re going to Hawaii!’ or ‘We’re going skiing!’ — it was a treat for the family. The way I saw it, this is what I would do if I had a successful family business and would want my entire family to be part of and to share in the wealth and prosperity. That was her.
We once got into an argument over a silly scheduling misunderstanding. I was being persistent enough about something for Jenni to get upset. But she cleared the air with several words. It took something as simple as: ‘Are we good? We’re good, you’re my homeboy.’ There was this sense of, this is a business, it’s television, but I was the guy from East L.A. and she was the girl from Long Beach and the business benefits were mutual, regarding providing her with an outlet on television, and for her to believe in me to create a home for that when she could have gone anywhere. We allowed her to tell her story about her and her family as they are. I don’t pretend to have hung out or gone drinking or partying with her. It was a very professional relationship because that’s what she deserved. So many times in the Latin industry, personal relationships get interspersed in business, but everyone at mun2 just wanted to amplify her stardom.
I think what a lot of people didn’t know about her was that she could really sing. There are not a lot of artists who can go out there and perform a 3 1/2-hour concert. The experience at Staples Center or the last sold-out show at Gibson Amphitheatre was this communal experience with her fans. It was a moment where the fans and family could really celebrate her and her independence. And I don’t know if a lot of people really understand the magnitude or impact that she had on the general market or entertainment industry. She was doing something a lot of people can’t do, and as a 43-year-old grandmother.
What I saw and heard were things that weren’t publicized: what she did for the fans who were ill, the anonymous cash donations for funerals. One time, we were walking and I made a comment about her earrings: ‘Dang, girl, where’d you get those?’ She said, ‘They are fake, dude.’ They were fake because wherever she went, a fan would say, ‘That one earring would probably pay my rent.’ She’d give away earrings and bracelets; it was uncontrollable. That’s what she was and what her family was taught — the grassroots way of doing things and giving back. That’s why you’re seeing the fan reaction you’re seeing; the fans knew who she was.
Jenni herself was very self-aware, and I always told her she represented the Mexican-American experience and the silent majority — women who could not have their voice heard. Latino or Mexican radio could have rejected her because she was born in the U.S. At the same time, the general market could have refused her because she sang in Spanish. It was an uphill battle, but she was always winning.
She was clearing a path for the acceptance of a new America that’s bilingual, with a West Coast perspective and a Mexican perspective. There isn’t anybody like her.
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