- The J/Jota in Jenni
Jenni Rivera was to banda music as banda music was to the cultural imaginary of 1990s Los Angeles, Mexico.1 Born Dolores Janney Rivera Saavedra on July 2, 1969, in Long Beach, California, to Pedro and Rosa—undocumented immigrants from Sonora and Jalisco, Mexico—Jenni was the eldest of six children.2 As her career unfolded, Jenni was anointed by her fans and the music press alike as "la diva de la banda," and at the time of her passing in December 2012, she was arguably one of the most powerful music icons in Mexican banda, narcocorrido, and ranchera music. In the years before her untimely death, Jenni was gaining recognition by an even wider Spanish-language viewing public through producing and appearing on the television shows I Love Jenni and La Voz, Mexico's version of The Voice.
Jenni Rivera had an especially strong fan base among mexicanas across Mexico and Mexican ranchera and narcocorrido music fan bases in cities across the [End Page 26] United States, including Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and Phoenix.3 Mexicanas seemed especially drawn to Rivera's way of openly and assertively recounting the challenges in her life conveyed in her musical and personal narratives. Songs such as "Escándalo" (Scandal), "Las traficantes" (Drug traffickers), and "Mi vida loca" (My crazy life) represented her disregard for following the rules of mujeres decentes, or decent women; rather, she seemed to approach her cultural work in the manner she had worked during her entire life, churning out, cranking out, and calling out. Her approach to making music conveyed struggle and an unrelenting exertion of labor that symbolized a notable Latina welfare-class immigrant tenacity. Her fans adored Jenni for the ways her journey to stardom was flawed and unrefined and for the manner in which she seemed always messy, the vernacular for a life in disorder and chaos. As the outpouring of public grief demonstrated at the time of her death, Jenni had amassed a devoted following, a fandom whose characteristics (mostly Mexican immigrant and working/welfare-class mexicanas) connected with gendered representations produced in Jenni's musical performances, especially the irreverent figures produced in songs like "La Chacalosa" and "Las Malandrinas." These two songs, in particular, emblematized a mexicana subjectivity fashioned through indecent, graceless, and brusque performances of femininity. In fact, Jenni's media representation—produced through her own life narratives in interviews as well as in song—was consistently shaped by suspect discourses.
While the 1980s and 1990s especially have been explored in terms of remarkable queer musical sound analysis—ranging from music by Prince, Madonna, and Wham, not to mention the house music that fuels queer clubs and PRIDE festivals—this essay contributes a focus on Spanish-language Mexican musical genres to such studies that overwhelmingly distinguish non-English-language music as other to the discursive construction of US pop music. Here, I consider the potential of queer cultural politics in relationship to popular music by paying particular attention to the ways neoliberalism and Mexican immigration created the context for the emergence of "la diva de la banda" and her aberrant mexicana [End Page 27] femininity. Given the twenty-year anniversary of Cathy Cohen's prominent essay "Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?" I return to Cohen's remarkable theorization of "queer" to consider non-normative mexicana gender and sexuality, made possible by Jenni's music performances, which, drawing from Cohen, we may recognize as "some of whom may fit in the category heterosexual … [yet] are not perceived as normal, moral, or worthy."4 Moreover, constructions of normativity within dominant same-sex civil rights agendas have required us to think of queer sites, performances, vernaculars, and cultural politics in spaces and sites not always marked by same-sex identity categories.5 This essay, then, is a queer gesture to symbolically add the uncompliant femininities of malandrinas, indecentes, and maleducadas to Cohen's queer worlds of punks, bulldaggers, and welfare queens.
Rivera, whose irreverent popular cultural representation was shaped as much by song lyrics about shameless women as by personal life dramas (including verbal fights with record industry people and...