The Washington Post's Paul Farhi takes his stab at explaining why most Americans had never heard of Jenni Rivera until the Mexican-American performer died in a plane crash — and why very few media in Southern California had ever done stories on the local girl who made good. Make that very good: 15 million records bought, sold-out shows year after year, a breakthrough on English-language television, and from a family with pretty great musical story to tell.
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 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.
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.”
He gets at least one observation wrong: Farhi makes the mistake of guessing that Rivera sang to her audiences only in Spanish. It sounds like all of Staples Center is singing along with her in English last year. And when she sang the national anthem at Dodger Stadium this season, and "God Bless America" on the field in 2010, it was in English of course.
Gustavo Arellano, editor of the OC Weekly, got the conversation started on the media's bewilderment about Rivera. His piece on Monday seemed a bit emotional and put the onus on the Los Angeles Times, Rivera's hometown newspaper.
The media requests for me to opine on the death of Mexican regional superstar (and Long Beach) gal Jenni Rivera are already coming in, and I expect them to only increase as the American media trips over themselves to cover the story. After all, I'm America's Mexican, right? I'm more than happy to take them, if only to help the MSM correct their pathetic record on reporting on a mega-superstar that 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.
No media outlet is the bigger sinner, however, than the Los Angeles Times, the perpetual pendejos when covering Latinos in Southern California. A look through the Proquest archives show that they never did a single full profile on Rivera--not once. The only full stories on her were two--one was a story on a reality show involving her youngest daughter. Another--of all things!--was a real-estate story on Rivera purchasing a multimillion-dollar estate in Encino. Before her death, there were only two other shorter stories, both by freelancers: a concert review, and a record review.
Think about it. Southern California's paper of record had their real-estate writer and two freelancers cover one of the biggest Mexican stories in the United States of the past decade. Their music critics did NOTHING. As if to make up for lost time, the Times have published seven stories on Rivera since her yesterday, the epitome of too much, too little, too late. And even in their morning email blast, "Top of the Times," not a single link or mention of their Rivera coverage--SICK SICK SICK!
Arellano had profiled Rivera back in 2003.
If it all feels familiar, consider this. The same thing happened in 1959 when 17-year-old Ritchie Valens, like Rivera a Mexican-American resident of the San Fernando Valley, died on that plane with Buddy Holly. As I wrote in my book, "The San Fernando Valley: America's Suburb," and again here at LA Observed last year:
The news trickled out slowly, even in the Valley. This was before CNN and all news radio, and before most newspapers began treating rock stars as celebrities. Anyway, Pacoima was another world. A brief wire notice in the afternoon Valley Times of February 3 reported "Rock 'N' Roll Trio Killed in Plane Crash.'' It was on the front page, below stories about the widening of Moorpark Street and a Reseda man who was planning a boat trip across the Atlantic. Ritchie Valens’ age was given as 21—with no mention that he was a local boy.
Meanwhile, radio DJs announced the news as a major tragedy. Donna Ludwig, who had transferred to James Monroe High in Sepulveda, heard about it from a girlfriend with a transistor radio. "Donna''—her song—was the number three record in America, but school officials would not let the distraught senior leave campus.
While the Valenzuela family grieved, fans began appearing on Remington Street to mourn their loss. The Valley Times caught on the next afternoon that Ritchie was a local phenomenon, but relegated the follow up story to page two. When the Valley News and Green Sheet came out the following morning, finally there was a picture of Ritchie on the front page, and the headline became "Valley Singer, 3 Others Die.'' The Los Angeles Times, also late to the story, ran an interview that morning with Donna Ludwig. It wasn't often that a Chicano received this much attention, and anonymous callers to the Valenzuela home said they were glad he was dead.
It's been 53 years since the local media's Valens fail — a lot of changes have occurred in society and in the news media — but it's not like the local newsrooms have gotten that much smarter about coverage of Los Angeles diversity. The Times, of course, is much more clued in than it used to be and often likes to revel in this or that aspect of selected ethnic cultures here, especially when it has to do with food. But considering that it's been half a century, the Times newsroom still doesn't have many Latinos or much Latino cultural expertise. And it's not like the editors weren't warned (in 2006, and this year, and in internal committees and task forces going back decades.)
At the simplest level, the Los Angeles County population is overwhelmingly not white (27% white non-Hispanic) and 75% of the adults do not have even a college bachelor's degree. The Times newsroom is very white and almost all of the reporters and editors have degrees. The county's median household income is $56,266. Only the most junior journalists at the Times would make that little. And it goes from there. It's an issue for mainstream media everywhere, but maybe especially in LA.