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Jenni Rivera's musical family helped popularize Mexican narco-ballads

December 10, 2012 |  1:37 pm

PHOTOS: Jenni Rivera dies in plane crash

Jenni Rivera, the Mexican American pop music singer who died in an airplane crash this weekend, came from a family that wielded an enormous influence on Mexican popular culture in Los Angeles.

Her father, Pedro Rivera, is a pioneering entrepreneur among the business class that grew from, and grew strong in, the Mexican immigrant consumer market in the cities of southeast Los Angeles County.

Among his achievements, Pedro Rivera was among the first to release the records of Chalino Sanchez, a skinny young immigrant from Paramount, who, in death, would become the godfather of the Mexican narcocorrido or narco-ballad.

PHOTOS: Jenni Rivera dies in plane crash

Jenni Rivera was killed Sunday in a plane crash in Mexico's mountainous terrain, along with six others. Jenni Rivera, a native of Long Beach, was 43 and lived in Encino.

Pedro Rivera formed Cintas Acuario from a Long Beach storefront. The company rode the immense narcocorrido wave that followed Sanchez’s slaying in 1992 with a series of anthology cassettes -- Corridos Perrones -- with bands and singers posing with AK-47s, flashy cars and songs suggesting the musicians’ drug-mob connections.

In the early 1980s, Pedro Rivera, an immigrant born in Jalisco and raised in Sonora, was a plastics-factory worker in southeast Los Angeles County. The area's cities had been losing their white populations as manufacturing jobs left along with companies such as Firestone, GM, Bethlehem Steel and Chrysler. The cities' houses were purchased by Mexican immigrants moving from South L.A. and downtown.

PHOTOS: Jenni Rivera - Reactions to the tragic crash

  They were immigrants from lawless villages -- known as ranchos -- in the Mexican states of Sinaloa, Durango, Zacatecas, Chihuahua and Jalisco. In these villages, people were poor, gunfights and family feuds were common and many knew folks who lived and died smuggling drugs. In the early 1980s, Rivera said he began singing before lunch crowds at East Los Angeles Market, which charged amateur singers for the opportunity to sing with a house band.

He would sing “tragedias” -- village stories of gunfighters and shootouts, in which brave but outgunned men died. The response, he remembered, was overwhelming.

“They wanted to hear stories of their villages -- true stories of what happened back in Mexico. The first people I’d met had come because they’d killed someone, or the government was looking for them, or they were very poor,” he said. “The U.S. was their refuge. We were poor people just like them.”

An Appreciation: Jenni Rivera was a rare voice

In 1984, with $14,000 he made selling buttons for the Los Angeles Olympics that year, he put out his first record, a mariachi record that sold poorly. Then in 1989, with a pen Jenni Rivera gave him as a gift, Pedro Rivera wrote his first corrido -- about Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega.

“La Caida de Noriega” ("The Fall of Noriega") sold 7,000 copies in two weeks. The song taught him that Mexican immigrants never tired of hearing stories put to song. In 1992, he recorded “Corrido de los Disturbios” ("Ballad of the Disturbances") in response to the 1992 riots that erupted after four police officers were acquitted of the beating of Rodney King. It sold 200,000 cassettes in two weeks.

Two years later, he sold a similar amount when he released “Muerte de Colosio” -- about the death of Mexican presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio in Tijuana. But it was Chalino Sanchez who gave both Rivera and Cintas Acuario a boost, while turning Los Angeles into a center of Mexican culture.

Sanchez, an undocumented migrant from a Sinaloan village, came to Pedro Rivera in 1988 with songs already recorded. Pedro Rivera put them out. Sanchez sold them himself on racks at Mexican bakeries, butcher shops, car washes and especially in the Paramount and Alameda Strip swap meets that served the swelling southeast Mexican immigrant consumer market.

Sanchez went on to record many more records and develop a huge underground following from his shows at the clubs then emerging around the southeast part of the county: El Farallon in Lynwood and El Parral in South Gate, both of which have since been torn down to make way for schools.

“There wasn't a lot of people doing this,” Pedro Rivera once told a reporter. “There were people who wanted to hear their names in corridos. They knew him and they'd say, write me a corrido and I'll pay you. The demand for this began growing. He began writing more and more corridos. He invented this business.”

Sanchez’s popularity skyrocketed after his still-unsolved murder in 1992 after a show in Culiacan, Sinaloa. In an interview with a reporter, Lupillo Rivera, Jenni Rivera’s brother, also a popular crossover singer, remembers selling cassettes at the Paramount Swap Meet the Sunday that news of Sanchez’s death broke.

"This lady walked up and said 'Do you have any cassettes by Chalino? I want one of each. I just found out this morning that he was shot,' " he told a reporter. "Then radio stations started announcing it. Pretty soon people just started buying his cassettes like crazy."

Through the 1990s, numerous youths, many of whom were born in Southern California, cultivated careers as Mexican singers with corridos from the ranchos their parents had grown up in -- each trying hard to look and sound like Sanchez. They became known as Chalinillos or Little Chalinos.

Through the 1990s, Pedro Rivera’s singing career was launched, along with those of his children: Jenni, Lupillo and Gustavo. Jenni and Lupillo Rivera were careful to distance themselves from the incessant narco themes of Chalinillos, preferring instead to record good-time, party music.

For years, the family ran Musica del Pueblo, a record store on the Pacific Avenue retail strip in Huntington Park, selling mostly narcocorridos. In recent years, Cintas Acuario has fallen on hard times as the Internet has demolished independent record stores and labels.

“In those years, everything worked because there was less entertainment,” Pedro Rivera said. “People were eager to go the clubs and spend their money because there was less entertainment.”


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Photo: Fan Fabiola Sandoval leaves flowers at a makeshift memorial Monday outside singer Jenni Rivera's home in Encino. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times