A couple of weeks ago, Jenni Rivera died in a plane crash. If you are at all like me, you wondered who is Jenni Rivera. Then, you may have moved, like me, to a better question: how could I not know of Jenni Rivera?
It’s not age, but certainly there are a slew of boy bands and other pop culture icons who have just passed me by. This one, Jenni Rivera, had to do with our ethnic and racial, perhaps geographic bubbles we live in.
Jenni Rivera turns out to be a Mexican-American singer, and not just any singer, but one who sold upwards of 15 million albums. She started out singing banda and ranchera music, which, when I lived in Mexico, sounded like a form of Mexican country-western distinct from mariachi. She then moved on to greater popularity with her own reality show on Spanish-language cable television. She was due to break out with her own English-language TV series this coming year.
She was American, born, raised and resident in California, right in front of our eyes, but only if we looked in her direction. That direction includes Spanish language television, music, churches, radio, neighborhoods and schools.
It turns out her parents were immigrants, from Mexico. Her story sounds like it fits into the American immigrant pattern. It is a pattern which is not supposed to exist, which is supposed to have changed from the earliest Irish and German immigrants (not counting the early settlers as immigrants.)
Those patterns are changing: language and culture are held on to longer, because it is easier with bilingual education, mass media and telecommunications, and proximity to the border and the native land. School achievement is lower than for previous second generation immigrants, but not in comparison to the first generation of Mexicans who are coming here with barely a primary education. The Jenni Riveras could thrive on her side of the immigrant boundary, unknown to those of us on the other side, in the receiving mainstream.
These changing patterns have caused academics since at least the 1960s to re-think the “melting pot” and assimilation that we once thought characterized our nation of immigrants. Instead, they see segments of some immigrants assimilating and moving up the economic ladder, and others spiraling downwards. They see exclusion and separation, not inclusion and integration. They may be seeing, and trying to explain, the present, before it has a chance to become the past. We are still too close to the current immigrant wave to see it play out.
For example, the ethnic enclaves where Jenni Rivera thrived also existed before. The once dominant French, Polish and Italian churches hold special services in Spanish, Korean and even Khmer. Sports, culture and politics still remain avenues of economic mobility and acculturation; yesterday’s Joe DiMaggio and Jackie Robinson are today’s Alex Rodriguez and Pablo Sandovaal. The 2012 Presidential election saw, for the third straight time, the increasingly important Hispanic vote. And, of course, nativist reaction to immigrants still continues.
Despite the segmentation of our own cultural offerings, with hundreds of cable channels to allow us to stay in our own ethnic and political realms, Jenni Rivera made it, in death, on to both the front and op-ed pages of the New York Times.
Think I’ll go add Jenni Rivera to my playlist, and move the boundaries a little.