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Updated Wednesday, December 19, 2012 at 06:01 PM

Music, roses at singer Jenni Rivera's memorial

By E.J. TAMARA and SANDY COHEN
AP Entertainment Writers

Jenni Rivera's "celestial graduation" was marked by festive music, heartfelt speeches in Spanish and English and passionate chants of "Jen-ni! Jen-ni!"

Rivera's children and famed singers Olga Tanon and Joan Sebastian performed during the nearly 2 1/2-hour Christian-themed memorial service Wednesday at the Gibson Amphitheatre, where thousands of fans gathered to salute the "Diva de la Banda" who died in a plane crash Dec. 9.

One fan, Veronika Flores, drove nearly eight hours from her home in Woodland, Calif., near Sacramento, to be united with other fans at the service.

"I just came to say goodbye to a Latina woman, La Gran Senora," she said, invoking the name of one of Rivera's most beloved songs.

Mexican singers Marco Antonio Solis and Ana Gabriel and actors Lou Diamond Phillips and Kate del Castillo were also among the guests at Wednesday's service.

A red casket sat onstage amid a sea of white roses as images of Rivera played on three big screens. Family members embraced and kissed the casket at the conclusion of the service, and thousands of fans lined up to lay more white roses atop it.

While most of the speeches and songs were delivered in Spanish, Rivera's children spoke in English, often directly to their late mother.

"We're not here to mourn the death," said son Michael, 21. "We're here to celebrate the life and graduation of a singer, an entertainer, a diva, a fighter, an entrepreneur, a philanthropist, and more than anything, a mother - the best mother."

He then called for 27 seconds of silence for the victims of the massacre in Newtown, Conn.

Rivera's youngest child, 11-year-old Johnny, was heartbreakingly poised as he said, "The person that everyone's talking about is my mom."

"Mama, I've been crying so much these last few days. I miss you so much," said the little boy, wearing a red bow tie like many of his family members. "I hope you're taking care of my dad and I hope he's taking care of you, too."

Rivera's second husband, Juan Lopez, died in 2009. The couple divorced in 2003.

Rivera's brothers and sisters spoke lovingly of the singer, calling her "the queen of queens," "perfectly imperfect" and an "eternal diva." Her father said Rivera's "happiness, smile and care for the public will never be forgotten." He then performed a song he wrote about his daughter, a woman who rose from humble roots to become "la Diva de la Banda."

One of Rivera's brothers said his sister "made it OK for women to be who they are. Jenni also made it OK to be from nothing with the hopes of being something."

The family asked that Latin radio stations play Rivera's song "La Gran Senora" at noon Thursday in her honor.

The service was closed to most media, although a broadcast of the proceedings was made available. A reporter from The Associated Press obtained entry to the venue.

The burial will be private.

Rivera's last album before her death, "La Misma Gran Senora," topped the Latin albums chart this week, selling 27,000 copies - the best sales week for any Latin album this year. Rivera also holds three spots on the Billboard 200 albums chart.

Rivera and six other people died Dec. 9 in a northern Mexico plane crash that remains under investigation. Rivera, a mother of five children and grandmother of two, was 43.

Rivera sold more than 15 million copies of her 12 major-label albums. Her soulful singing style and honesty about her tumultuous personal life won her fans on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. She was also an actress and reality TV star.

Born in Los Angeles, Rivera launched her career by selling cassette tapes at flea markets. By the end of the 90s, she won a major-label contract and built a loyal following.

Many of her songs deal with themes of dignity in the face of heartbreak, which Rivera spoke of openly with her fans.

She had recently filed for divorce from her third husband, was once detained at a Mexico City airport with tens of thousands of dollars in cash, and publicly apologized after her brother assaulted a drunken fan who verbally attacked her in 2011.

"She was a fighter, a woman who can push boundaries," said Flores. "That's why I liked her, because I'm just like her."


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