Mainstream media’s ignorance of Jenni Rivera raises image of parallel Americas

December 11, 2012

The Chicago Sun-Times declared Jenni Rivera “a heroine” and quoted an entertainment executive who lauded her “extraordinary gifts.” The New York Times compared her to Diana Ross and Tina Turner. Numerous media accounts labeled her a superstar.

Chances are, this was news to you. Chances are, you’d never heard of Rivera until you learned that she died in a plane crash in Mexico on Sunday.

The American-born Rivera has sold at least 15 million records — more than many other successful and widely acclaimed singers in the United States. But she did not enjoy much attention from the English-language media. Although she was bilingual, Rivera sang only in Spanish. Her most ardent, record-buying fans reside primarily in the American Southwest and farther south, across Mexico.

Rivera’s life and death suggest once again that it’s possible to live in parallel Americas, with the larger part only dimly aware of the enormous things happening in the other one. For all our instant connectivity, it’s possible for someone to be hugely famous and perfectly obscure — all at the same time.

The American media certainly were interested in Rivera’s death, if not her long singing career. Of the 1,717 articles in the Nexis database that mention her name, nearly 30 percent were about the end of her life rather than the events of it. There’s a long list of singers who have died in plane crashes — all more famous because of how they died.

The Washington Post had never mentioned Rivera’s name until Sunday, nor had the news divisions at ABC, CBS, Fox or NBC, according to Nexis. Rivera’s hometown newspapers in California — she grew up in Long Beach — weren’t much more attentive. The Los Angeles Times name-checked her in about a dozen short pieces over the years; the paper’s most prominent treatment of her was a story about her purchase of an Encino estate. The Long Beach Press-Telegram profiled her once last year; most of its coverage concerned the trial and conviction of her ex-husband on charges that he molested their pre-pubescent daughter.

This degree of cluelessness elicited an acid-laced comment on Monday from the Orange County Weekly’s Gustavo Arellano, who writes the paper’s amusing and often thoughtful “Ask a Mexican” column. Arellano upbraided the mainstream news media for “their pathetic record on reporting on a mega-superstar [who] operated in plain sight under a media that, like usual, didn’t bother to pay attention while she was alive because she was a Mexican and popular mostly to Mexicans — and they never matter unless you can get a diversity grant to cover them.

“Now that she’s dead? Look everyone: we cover Mexicans!”

Actually, Rivera was an American who racked up huge record sales in the United States, but point taken. Added Arellano: “For all the racket that the [mainstream media] has made about diversity over the past 15 years, they continue to fail — as if we ever expected them to succeed in the first place?”

To be fair, Rivera’s popularity provides a glimpse of the even more complicated prism of American “diversity.” Rivera was closely identified with one subgroup in the larger Latino community. She recorded banda and norteña songs, traditional (and male-dominated) genres indigenous to, and most popular among, Mexicans and the Mexican diaspora in the United States. Other American Hispanics — those of, say, Puerto Rican, Colombian or Salvadoran background — might be aware of Rivera and be fans but were unlikely to buy her music.

Even so, Rivera drew fans from a populace that can no longer really be called a niche. Mexican Americans are the largest subgroup of Hispanics in this increasingly Hispanic nation — some 12 million in all, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Indeed, says Mark Hugo Lopez, the center’s associate director, Mexican-born immigrants to the United States constitute the largest group of immigrants in any nation.

This is, in part, what made Rivera such a potentially huge star, says Leila Cobo, Billboard magazine’s executive director of Latin content and programming. Rivera could not only count on a vast Latino fan base, Cobo says, but her American roots (and English fluency) enhanced her potential appeal to Anglos. Her compelling personal story — former teenage mom and abused spouse, single parent of five — added another universal element.

“There was no place for her to cross over to,” Cobo says. “She was raised here. She lived in a bilingual world. She was culturally an American. It would have been very organic for her [to find] an English-speaking audience.”

Rivera was the star of her own English-language reality show, “I Love Jenni,” carried on the NBC-owned Mun2 (“mun-dos” in Spanish, or “worlds”) cable channel and the Style channel. She was also developing a sitcom for ABC.

“She was really a very compelling, very charismatic person,” Cobo says. “She was a big presence. If that sitcom had gotten on, she could have been huge.”

We’ll never know now. What’s perplexing is that we really didn’t know much before, either.

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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