Betsy Hernandez, 6, is comforted by her grandmother Soledad Hernandez… (Robert Gauthier, Los Angeles…)
Jenni Rivera was remembered in death the same way she was celebrated in life: on an illuminated stage, with thousands of fans chanting her name.
The singer, who was killed in a plane crash earlier this month, was honored Wednesday with what her family called a "celestial graduation," a musical memorial that packed the Gibson Amphitheatre with 6,100 people and drew hundreds more outside.
The more than two-hour farewell could have been mistaken for a concert, if not for the crowd's tears and the ruby-red casket on stage. In front of it was a cluster of white roses, the type of flower Rivera's family asked fans to bring. Behind it was a single microphone, left unused.
Family members — clad head-to-toe in white — praised Rivera as a "perfectly imperfect" mother and a guerrera, Spanish for "female warrior." Her father, Pedro Rivera, a noted singer of the Mexican ballads known as corridos, said goodbye by performing a song he wrote about her, "La Diva de la Banda."
Rivera's 11-year-old son, Johnny Lopez, addressed the sea of mourners in a white suit and red bow tie. His father died a few years ago.
"Mama, I've been crying so much these last few days. I miss you so much," he said, his voice breaking. "I hope you're taking care of my dad and I hope he's taking care of you, too."
He added: "I want to thank everyone for loving my mom."
Rivera, a Long Beach native, first gained fame via her banda music, a Mexican regional style heavy on machismo and brass instruments. A rare woman in the genre, Rivera often sang — in Spanish and English — about her chaotic personal life: three husbands, five children and struggles with her weight and domestic violence.
Rivera sold more than 20 million albums and, in recent years, had started to expand her business empire. She had a weekly radio program, clothing and cosmetics lines and a hand in several reality shows, including "I Love Jenni."
She and six others were killed Dec. 9 when a private jet that had departed Monterrey, Mexico, nose-dived 28,000 feet in 30 seconds and smashed into mountainous terrain. Rivera was 43.
"My sister, Jenni, died in a plane accident, but it was not an accident," Pedro Rivera Jr., a pastor and Rivera's brother, told the crowd in Spanish. "God has a purpose for all of us and God let us borrow her for 43 years and enjoy her."
It was clear how deeply Rivera had touched her legion of fans.
At the memorial, several well-known Latino singers performed, including Ana Gabriel, Olga Tanon and Joan Sebastian.
Outside, her fan base arrived early, blasting her music from cars decorated with tributes: "Jenni, we love you" and "We are going to miss you." They wore Jenni Rivera T-shirts and Jenni Rivera pins and waved handmade posters. One woman said Rivera was now performing "in a concert with God."
Lidia Farrias and her husband, Jose, drove three hours from Santa Maria. They didn't have tickets — the event sold out within minutes — so they shivered outside, eyes fixed on two jumbo screens streaming the memorial. Farrias said Rivera's frank lyrics had encouraged her to be a stronger woman.
"Whenever I listened to her songs, I felt like I could tackle anything," she said.
Denise Montalvo, 15, had left San Diego at 1 a.m. with her mother, aunt and two family friends. She admired Rivera for striving to obtain a better life, just like Denise's family. The teenager said Rivera wanted her funeral to be a celebration, reflecting her song "Cuando Muere una Dama" — "When a Lady Dies."
"We're trying not to be sad," she said.
That was hard for fans, particularly as the memorial wound down. One by one, each of Rivera's family members placed a white rose on her casket. Some whispered to it. Some kissed it. Then they walked away.
Times staff writer Ashley Powers contributed to this report.