I didn’t know Jenni Rivera and had never heard any of her recordings until a few days ago, but the image of her last smile is going to haunt me for a long time.
It was an open smile that captured the moment like a quivering burst of sunrise, full of joy and anticipation, taken in the interior of an aging jet and transmitted by wire, the snapshot of a life about to end.
Not until much later did I realize the impact of her death beyond family and friends to a wider audience of those embraced by both her music and her persona.
“We lost a legend today,” actress Eva Longoria said, defining in simple terms what the Long Beach-born Mexican American star meant to the business of music as well as to its performance.
Because we are so incubated by our own cultural preferences, quality is often lost in translation of musical styles, as the grace of La Boheme might fall on deaf ears to those who favor rap.
But Rivera, just 43, was beyond music. Her charisma, the indefinable blend of drive and creative energy, placed her in a special category that is obvious today by those who mourn her death.
She died with the essence of her life still glowing.
Rivera isn’t the first celebrity to perish in a plane crash as they rushed between scheduled performances or flew homeward. There were Buddy Holly, Patsy Cline, Ritchie Valens, Otis Redding, Jim Croce, John Denver and, long before all of them, legendary band leader Glenn Miller.
I suppose I am more aware of them than others who have been killed in air disasters because music has always been a part of my life for reasons I could never explain. Melodies stream through my head like silver ribbons and lyrics can capture my attention with the power of poetry.
But never before have I been so moved by the death of a diva lost at her peak of glory. I am guessing it was that last photograph of Rivera’s face taken by her makeup artist minutes before the Learjet roared skyward that touched something deep inside of me, that said goodbye in the most profound kind of way.
“No man is an island,” the poet John Donne wrote. “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”