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Jenni Rivera, public and private, seen at the Grammy Museum

An exhibit of personal items, including performance gowns and her take-everywhere Bible, provide an intimate view of the singer-songwriter-entrepreneur.

May 11, 2013|By Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times
  • Athena Jaharis, left, and Nwaka Onwusa add dresses and other artifacts and momentos from the life of Jenni Rivera.
Athena Jaharis, left, and Nwaka Onwusa add dresses and other artifacts… (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles…)

The high-heeled ostrich-skin boots belonged to an ambitious and gifted young singer, one of many similar pairs she owned in the days before she could afford designer labels.

The silky couture evening gown was a totem of that same woman's meteoric rise to success as a multi-platforming artist. She wore it during a sold-out performance at Staples Center in 2011.

And the Spanish-language Bible was a Christmas gift from her parents, Pedro and Ramona, who inscribed it with these words: "Make sure you carry this Bible with you everywhere you go. The Lord will bless you ...."

PHOTOS: Jenni Rivera - Reactions to the tragic crash

Jenni Rivera normally took it with her always, said Athena Jaharis, assistant registrar at the Grammy Museum, which on Sunday will open "Jenni Rivera: La Gran Señora," a new exhibition dedicated to the Mexican American singer-songwriter, actor and entertainment entrepreneur.

"Her assistant had related to us that she took it with her when she traveled. Religiously," Jaharis said. "And coincidentally she left it at home that day. It was on her desk in her home office."

"That day," as her millions of fans surely need no reminding, was Dec. 9, 2012. Touring in Mexico, Rivera and her companions were killed when their Learjet crashed near Iturbide. She was 43.

Yet it is not Rivera's tragic fate but rather her extraordinary life that is the focus of the Grammy Museum's exhibition — the first major public testimonial to Rivera since her memorial service last year at Universal CityWalk, and the very first exhibition that the museum has devoted entirely to a Latino or Latin American artist.

An appreciation: Jenni Rivera was a rare voice

Through displays of personal artifacts, fan memorabilia and audio and visual clips, "La Gran Señora" is intended to celebrate Rivera's rise as a norteña and banda singer who would go on to sell more than 20 million albums worldwide — as well as her later emergence as the star of her own mun2 network reality TV show, "I Love Jenni," and as a coach on "La Voz ... México," the Mexican edition of "The Voice" talent-show franchise.

Toward the end of her life, Rivera added another sheaf to her résumé by appearing in her first feature film role, portraying an incarcerated woman in the well-reviewed hip-hop drama "Filly Brown."

The exhibition also is designed to recount an inspirational tale of how the child of poor migrants overcame numerous career impediments and repeated personal stumbles.

"She really did the classic American success story," said Robert Santelli, the museum's executive director, "from marrying at a very early age and facing obstacles early on, an early pregnancy, and a situation that did not allow her even to finish high school."

Like many non-Latinos, Santelli acknowledged, he initially was caught off-guard by "the outpouring of grief and sadness at Jenni Rivera's death," which he compared to the reaction to Whitney Houston's untimely demise.

PHOTOS: Jenni Rivera dies in plane crash

"I think the love and respect for Jenni Rivera in the Latino community in Greater L.A. and Southern California is a lot deeper than I imagined," he said.

"However, the Latinos on my staff were quick to remind us that she had been a local hero to them, and doing an exhibit on her was not only the right thing to do because of her popularity, but also to let people outside of the Latino community know of her, know she was a tremendous talent."

Nwaka Onwusa, an assistant curator at the museum, said the exhibition couldn't have come together without the cooperation of Rivera's family, who supplied virtually all of the artifacts that will be shown through May 2014 on the museum's third floor.

"We'd been wanting to work with Jenni," Onwusa said. "We had scheduled for her to be here for our public programs in our Clive Davis Theater. So we wanted Jenni here for a long time."

Conceptually, the exhibition is divided into three main sections: "La Diva de la Banda," addressing Rivera's music career; "Mi Vida Loca," treating her personal life, which will include her wedding dress and replicas of her wedding rings; and "Simplemente La Mejor," focusing on her career beyond music, her role as a TV show executive producer, and so on. Informational text will be in both English and Spanish.

The museum began reaching out to Rivera's family at the end of last year to broach the idea of an exhibition. Jacqie Marín-Campos, one of Rivera's daughters, said that by supporting the museum's exhibition the family "wanted to not only share the artist that she was but also the person, the mother, the friend."

"This is a very hard thing to deal with," she said. "But we had enough time to be sad and cry about it, and then we picked it up and said, 'What would've mom wanted us to do?' And we really did this to carry on her legacy and to make her proud."

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