I may not have the fancy language that many educated women can use when writing academic papers on race and ethnic relations, so the best I can do is say these things in as simple a language as possible.
A few weeks ago, I was watching television with my mom and caught an episode of “I Love Jenni” on the cable network Mun2. It’s a reality show about Jenni Rivera, a Mexican-American banda singer who was born in Long Beach, CA and is now living in a beautiful home in Encino, CA with her husband (a major league baseball player, Esteban Loaiza) and five kids named Janney (better known as “Chiquis”), Jacquie, Michael, Jenicka, and the youngest and most timid, Johnny.
Her story isn’t easy to listen to because it involves a very emotionally painful incident. The father of her first three children is currently in prison for sexually abusing his own daughter as well as Jenni’s little sister. Aside from this horrible incident, he was an abusive husband. It was after she left him that she learned about the abuse. She also divorced a second husband because he cheated on her.
There’s no easy way to say this, but a major portion of Jenni Rivera’s life seems stereotypical of what some people expect of Mexican American women. I don’t say this loosely, but I mention it because I remember my mom sharing with me that some of our own family members expected the worst of me just because my parents were divorced. I’ve also had friends explain that their moms didn’t feel comfortable with them hanging out with me because I had a single mom. So there are certain things people expect of you that aren’t necessarily uplifting or encouraging, and especially with Mexican-American women, the stereotypes can be all too discouraging.
Jenni became pregnant while she was still a sophomore in high school. She was probably expected to drop out, but she didn’t. She finished high school and also attended community college.
Though her brother, Lupillo Rivera, became very famous in the banda music scene, she had not initially intended to also become involved in music. However, she has turned her struggles into music that is relatable and powerful. This woman sells out venues in southern California and the southwest. For example, the Nokia Theater in downtown Los Angeles.
I have briefly introduced her to you because there was one particular episode of her show that really touched me. She was recently in the film Filly Brown (starring Edward James Olmos and Lou Diamond Phillips) and she had to travel to the Sundance Film Festival for its premier. One detail near the beginning of the episode which I found endearing was Jenni explaining to her family that it wasn’t the kind of festival that they were familiar with, such as a fair with games and rides, but something related to the arts. She told them they would all be going with her. A lot happened before and during the trip that caused me to feel anger, excitement, and some sadness.
As she searched for the perfect snow gear, Chiquis was in charge and went into a sports shop. She and her sister Jacquie admitted to never having visited a place where there is snow, and this reminded me of the fact that many young kids in my community (a primarily Hispanic community in southeastern Los Angeles) have never been in the snow either. Some haven’t even been able to visit the beach yet and most of the time it’s because their parents are too busy working and they don’t yet have access to people who can take them out to visit new places.
While Chiquis shopped for snow boots and jackets, the salesman was quite sleazy and inappropriate with her and her sister. He admitted to having a “weakness for Latinas” and wasted no time in treating them more like objects than customers. When Chiquis mentioned that they generally prefer warm weather and hanging out drinking Micheladas, the salesman then threw out a comment about how they like hanging out at the park making out with their boyfriends.
Chiquis was very graceful despite his inappropriate behavior and jokes that leaned too much on old stereotypes. When she brought home all their new gear, Jenni wasn’t too thrilled that Chiquis spent so much money but then asked her to work it off by being her assistant during the festival. Jenni’s assistant would have gone, except that she’d recently gotten her boobs done and had heard too many stories about implants exploding while women traveled in flight.
Once in Park City, Utah, I saw a side of Jenni here that really drew me closer to her character. Though I may never get to meet this woman in person, I very much felt a connection to how she described her visit there and how outspoken she was about the fact that she needed to seek out other Mexicans in the area. This reminded me of the time I visited a long distance boyfriend who lived in Kentucky. We ate at a Mexican restaurant in Hazard and there, the waiter was instantly charmed when I ordered “carnitas” without an accent. He asked if I could send him a Virgin Mary medallion because he couldn’t find one anywhere and he seemed almost relieved to be able to have a conversation in Spanish with a stranger.
Similarly, Jenni goes out looking for a Mexican restaurant just for the sake of finding “her people.” She makes a joke with the host of the restaurant and says that there are too many gringos, and they banter for a minutes as the cooks call each other “bueyes.” Buey literally means donkey, but verges more on ass. Whether she did it for the sake of the show doesn’t matter to me because it’s a relatable moment. She’s a Mexican-American woman who was feeling out of her element and she went looking for something familiar and acknowledged it.
Jenni reflects on this significance of her participation in the film as well as how deeply important it was for her to work with Edward James Olmos. I agree that there are events in life which you never imagine will happen, but somehow they do as a result of what you fight for having, so I felt a certain yearning in my heart when Jenni was at a swag party and was testing out a television that plays music on demand. The woman demonstrating the unit for her probably didn’t know who she was, but her album cover appeared on the screen and I thought, Man that’s awesome.
At the end of the episode, she is having dinner with her family and they share a deeply personal moment. They talk about the movie and her role as a prisoner in it and some of the kids connected that to the fact that their father is still in prison. They talk about forgiveness and pain, but they are very much aware of the blessings they have received and the hard work that still lies ahead.
This episode meant a lot to me because I’ve grown up with mixed ideas and feelings about what it means, or what it’s supposed to mean, to be a Mexican-American woman. I don’t want to be a trophy or a sex object for a man with a fetish. I don’t want to be barefoot and pregnant like the jokes I heard all of the time when I was little. I never did become the “chola” or pregnant teen like many people expected, and I certainly didn’t grow up bad just because my parents got a divorce and I lived with a single mom.
I understand that perhaps there’s a certain accent in my voice. My best friend has it and as much as I try to be conscious of how I pronounce things, there’s no use fighting it. I would be doing a great disservice to my community and to myself to act as if I don’t sound like Jenni or Chiquis when I get excited about something or when I’m yelling every time I become passionate over an idea or plan.
If Jenni and her daughters are going to be setting an example for Mexican-American women by being on television and sharing their lives with us, I’m all for it. Some of the things they do are not particularly standard behavior for those in my neighborhood, but we absolutely relate to the slang, the attitude, the jokes, and the family values. We love in a relaxed fashion but we do our hair and makeup like we’ve got somewhere important to be. We walk with a heavy sway in our hips and we carry the weight of the burdens of our past, but we continue to move forward with a steady stride.
Featured Image: LOS ANGELES – MAY 12: Janney “Chiquis” Marin, Jenni Rivera at The Cable Show 2010 “An Evening with NBC Universal” held at Universal Studios Hollywood in Los Angeles, California on May 12, 2010 via ShutterShock.