She was a living legend to her fans and yet just when she was on the cusp of crossing over into the mainstream, Latina superstar, Jenni Rivera’s life was cut short. For me, her death was especially painful. I had just been introduced to her and instantly formed a bond and kinship through her reality television show in which Rivera openly shared her life and family with the world. She sang in Spanish, but she was very much American and I only wish that the world had been given the opportunity to embrace her like many of her fans had.
That’s why when I was told about the new unauthorized biography, We Love Jenni I was both intrigued and horrified. How would they treat her death and more importantly her life in the book? Would they give her the just respect she deserved or would it be a quick flash in the pan biography, hell-bent on making a buck while she was still in the news?
These questions and more I had the opportunity to ask its writers, New York Times bestselling author, Marc Shapiro and Charlie Vazquez.
When you hear the name, Jenni Rivera, who was she to you?
Marc: Jenni Rivera was a Mexican American singer who was considered a superstar in much of the Spanish music world. During her lifetime she sold more than 15 million albums worldwide. Sadly, outside of the Mexican and Spanish music world she was a complete unknown due to a surprising lack of interest on the part of English language media in covering her despite the fact that she was Mexican American and born in California.
Charlie: Jenni Rivera was a Mexican American singer, entrepreneur and actress, but she was also many other things to many people—a mother, an idol, a voice that broke machista traditions. What fascinated me most during our research on her life and career was that she embodied, whether people saw it or not, the American Dream realized. The daughter of Mexican immigrants from very humble roots in Long Beach, California, she had to fight and work hard for everything, and that hunger helped to shape an artistic legacy that was unfortunately cut off too short.
Why is it you think that her fans were so very much passionate about her both in life and in death?
Marc: They were passionate about her because, through her music, her attitudes and, yes, all the drama and scandal that played out in her life, she came across as one of them, a hard working and living woman who was not afraid to go up against the male dominated Latin culture and who waved the flag for female empowerment.
Charlie: Considering that her preferred musical genres of norteño music are traditionally sung by men, she gave a voice, and from experience, to many Mexican and Chicana women who walked in her very shoes. She was an icebreaker and a rebel—a Latina feminist. A grade-A student and a complex person. Her fans, especially her female fans, knew exactly what she was singing about.
What was it about her life and music that was so magical to you and to her fans?
Marc: Her life was reflected in her music. All the hard knocks, disappointments and betrayals she experienced would inevitably find a place in her songs. Jenni’s life was full of scandal and controversy right up until the very end and, right up until the very end, she was not shy about going public and facing the drama in her life. People loved her because she was real. She could not have been a Diva if she tried.
Charlie: Everything Marc has mentioned and more. Her generosity of spirit and focus…her fearlessness.
You did quite a bit of research while writing this book. What was it about Rivera’s life that surprised you or that seemed to come out of left field?
Marc: I knew about her music. But a constant surprise was her outgoing and giving personality, her strength in the face of adversity and her determination to be all she could be in a professional and personal world. She was like a mother lion when it came to her children. She was quick to defend them but also quick to admonish them when they messed up. Emotionally she was quick to give her heart, hence the three husbands. Unfortunately when it came to love, she always seemed to choose the wrong men and, as was the case with her first husband, a truly evil man. It all goes back to her basic humanity. Sometimes Jenni was strong. Sometimes she made mistakes.
Charlie: At first I only knew that she was a musical icon in the Mexican and Chicano communities. I had no idea that she had been such a devoted and ambitious student as a young girl—the things that celebrity-oriented media never focuses on. That she was a Grade A student that snuck off to school behind her first husband’s back, then a real estate broker and the receptionist at her father’s record company, which turned out to be her launching pad into the music industry. Her childhood stories paint a very different picture from the glamorous concerts and Spanish-language celebrity television interviews, the Encino mansion and awards shows and expensive jewelry. Hers was a rags to riches story. Celebrity media likes to focus on the “riches,” but as a writer from working-class Puerto Rican and Cuban roots, I completely identified with the “rags” part of Jenni’s story.
Since you wrote this book as a team, how did the two of you connect on this project?
Marc: Charlie came to the attention of my publisher around the time the deal for the book came together. From the beginning we knew that since most of Jenni’s life was chronicled in the Spanish language media, it would be important to have an assistant who could research and then translate articles and interviews into English for me to use in writing the book. And since it was always intended for the book to be released in both English and Spanish language versions, he would ultimately handle the translation of the manuscript into Spanish. For my money, Charlie was the ideal research assistant. He would feed me information in a timely manner, he was well aware of deadline considerations, and he was always digging for every scrap of information. He was a pro all the way through the process.
Charlie: Marc and Lori have worked together for a long time. I had been helping another biographer, Juan Moreno Velázquez, with developing English translations for his biographies on the Cuban singers Celia Cruz and La Lupe last year. I had contacted Lori about this after seeing Marc’s biography on Hector LaVoe at La Casa Azul Bookstore in Spanish Harlem and the rest just fell into place. Lori contacted me about this project and I thought about it overnight, as there was a lot to take into consideration.
As the best of Jenni’s TV and print interviews exist in Spanish, it was a real honor for me to translate these for the team and to make the writing of her story possible. I transcribed every video interview I could find, along with Spanish-language newspaper and magazine articles, because we really wanted to tell the story through her words. I would send the translations to Marc as he was fleshing out the manuscript. I have worked hard to give Latinas a voice in publishing, both with commercial projects such as this one and by working with writers and poets from the New York City Latina Writers Group on self-publishing ventures. This was an extension of that in many ways.
Given the potential backlash for writing a book like this on the heels of her death, was there a part of you that thought about turning it down?
Marc: No. I knew from the beginning there was a classic story to be told here. A story that would inspire people, entertain people and, yes, bring people to tears. Stories this dramatic and oh so real don’t come along every day; especially in a celebrity world that, so often, is built on smoke and mirrors. It was the sheer reality and humanity of Jenni’s story that I immediately said yes to.
Charlie: A little part of me, yes. Because I already knew that her life had been riddled with scandal and controversy and that people often use that to create sensational material with which to sell lots of copies of books to cash in. But we were all clear from the beginning that we wanted to produce a quality account of her fascinating life. As an underground-leaning writer myself, I often steer clear of celebrity anything, but as this was a story about a fierce Latina, and that I could put my translation and language skills to work, it was also a one-of-a-kind opportunity.
What do you say to critics and her fans that may question your intentions and say that you are only trying to profit from her death?
Marc: I address the issue in the opening section of the book. Pop culture moves at light speed. Celebrities race into the public consciousness, have their moment, and then it’s on to the next big thing. In the case of Jenni, the irony was that despite her long standing celebrity, it took her death to bring her to the attention of an audience she had been pursuing for years. The book was intended not to exploit although I’m not going to bullshit you. If the book does well I will do well. It is to tell the story of somebody who many people did not know and to reinforce the memories of those who were there from the beginning. Much in the way her record company put out a greatest hits collection two days after her death, radio stations went all Jenni all the time and, to be perfectly honest, Jenni’s own family landed a book deal for her own unfinished memoir and found a publisher who jumped at the opportunity. You walk a fine line with a book like this. To many it feels like exploitation. To others it feels like telling the story and keeping her memory alive.
Charlie: Profiting in publishing? I suppose that could happen, but I’ve yet to see that. This book project, as I mentioned, fell right into my trajectory as a bilingual writer and editor in the Latino/a community in New York and now San Juan, Puerto Rico—the only difference being that I didn’t know Jenni and that she was famous and poised to explode in the US English-language market when she died. If I felt that this book painted an unfair portrait just to sell copies, based on my relentless research and investigation, I would’ve backed out in a heartbeat. Money has never been my primary motivation, especially if bad ethics come into play—yet we all need it. People are unforgiving toward writers if money comes into play, but why isn’t that the case with other professions? This story paints a great portrait of her life and that’s what counts.
Have you heard anything from Jenni’s family?
Marc: No I have not. My guess is they will have some comment at some point.
Charlie: The family was in such a state of public grieving when we began this that I never approached them—for me this was out of respect. Jenni was an extremely candid person as it was and much of what we needed was already in the public domain. People in the media who knew her were contacted however, but the response was minimal to say the least. It’s one thing to request an interview during emotional catastrophes and another to be an inconsiderate pest. The Rivera family’s trials and tribulations are the same as any other family’s, the only difference being that they are in the public eye.
What do you think their reaction will be?
Marc: I would hope they would appreciate the way I told the story. Unauthorized biographies carry a certain stigma. But what people don’t realize is that an unauthorized book ultimately opens up the subject to a different perspective. My guess is that other Jenni books will arrive soon enough. True fans will buy them all and compare and contrast what the books have to say. All I can hope for is that Jenni’s family will see that, quite simply, I told a straightforward story of a sensational life and, most importantly, I told the truth.
Charlie: I hope that they would agree that we told a fair and accurate story about an incredible woman. Jenni Rivera was one-of-a kind.