Mexican-American Singer Jenni Rivera’s Death a Loss for Women’s, Immigrant Rights Movements

Ernesto Aguilar

Fans hold a candlelight vigil for singer Jenni Rivera on December 10 in Long Beach, California (Photo by Earl Gibson III/Getty Images)

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While family members are still holding out hope that she may still be alive, fans worldwide are mourning the loss of singer Jenni Rivera, killed over the weekend in a plane crash. Rivera is remembered not just as la Diva de la Banda,” but as an outspoken advocate for women and immigrants.

Rivera will also be mourned, therefore, by the movements she used her star power to advance. The news of her death has restarted an old conversation: whether celebrity patronage can catalyze grassroots change.

Like Selena Quintanilla before her, many non-Latinos are learning of the Mexican-American superstar only through her untimely passing. Rivera, a California native, made her name in a style of Mexican regional music called banda. The sound relies heavily on brass instruments for its polka-influenced churn, and, in the last generation, has been associated with the narco-corrido subgenre, which chronicles the cartels, violence and poverty that impact life in Mexico. Although Rivera’s music seldom explored the drug underworld, she often sang about the personal and social struggles affecting her life and those of other Latinas on both sides of the border. She was wildly popular, selling 15 million records, starring in several reality television programs for Telemundo and the mun2 network, and appearing as a coach on Mexico’s edition of The Voice.

Offstage, Rivera devoted her time to a range of social issues. She served as spokesperson for the National Coalition Against Battered Women and Domestic Violence in Los Angeles, a likely result of her own experiences with abuse. A supporter of Latino participation in the voting process, Rivera has also been memorialized by Voto Latino for her efforts to catalyze youth activism.

As Colorlines’ Jorge Rivas noted Sunday, Rivera was also one of the first, and most ardent, celebrity supporters of the campaign against SB 1070. She famously ended up in an emergency room after marching five miles in the Arizona heat with demonstrators in 2010.

Anti-immigrant measures in the U.S. have stoked activism from a constellation of popular Latin music artists, including Rivera, Calle 13 and Tego Calderon. The groundswell of opposition to SB 1070, including Rivera’s prominent involvement, resulted in Supreme Court consideration that eventually struck down three out of four provisions of the Arizona statute.

Rivera’s passion on this issue far surpassed the usual levels of celebrity involvement. (Consider, by contrast, Chris Brown’s contribution to ending the violence in Syria: a tweet in May that read #HoulaMassacre OMG!!!!! Not cool!) But it’s also unclear whether the surge of high-profile engagement around immigrant justice has produced the lasting shifts needed.

Following the smackdown Latino voters delivered to Republicans in the 2012 elections, GOP lawmakers are introducing a series of bills aimed at softening the party’s long-held hard line on immigration. Yet other immigrant justice initiatives like the DREAM Act remain stalled in Congress. A lawsuit considered this week, aimed at halting the filibusters used to kill past DREAM Act introductions, may aid in moving the DREAM Act through the process. But for nearly every state that moved forward on immigrant justice in the 2012 elections, another took a leap backward.

Writing for Al Jazeera English, anthropologist Sarah Kendzior points out that celebrity activism often creates short-term empathy absent long-term change. Too often, the author notes, the public believes awareness itself is the same as action on behalf of an issue. Having trended, they become trends, divorced from the conditions that produced them, isolated from the anonymous activists fighting the same fight,” Kendzior remarks.

Rivera’s presence as one of Mexican music’s most prominent stars will surely be missed by the movements that enjoyed her support. The question that remains is whether 2013 will prove to be a year in which the matters Jenni Rivera took to heart finally gain the needed traction.

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Ernesto Aguilar is a writer and media professional based in Houston, Texas.
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