By Eliana Alcaraz Esparza
(Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared the Herald de Paris)
HOLLYWOOD – On this particular Tuesday morning, July 1, 2014, Mexican singer Lupillo Rivera felt happy as a “King.” It was on this day his much-anticipated single, “El Rey de los Borrachos” was to be released. He had been signing pre-sold CDs for days and today was the day they would officially ship out, solidifying Rivera’s rise as one of Mexico and Latin America’s most popular artists.
While at his Temecula, CA residence packing the dozens of CDs, Rivera ran out of envelopes. With his wife and 5-year old son in tow, he drove his pickup truck toward nearby Murrieta. The events that transpired next were coincidental but painfully revealing.
“I happened to be driving by at the precise moment the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) buses were trying to enter Murrieta. A bunch of people were blocking the street,” he recalled. Rivera had come upon a political protest on the street. He looked around and was suddenly confronted with something quite opposite of the warm welcomes the popular singer was accustomed to receiving.
Angry demonstrators stood in front of a DHS bus, screaming and holding up signs. Curious, Lupillo parked his truck and walked up to a nearby police officer to ask what was happening. The officer informed him it was an “immigration protest.” But simple words didn’t convey the complete meaning.
As Lupillo walked closer, he could read the hatred and rage written on the faces of the protestors. Then he read it on the signs they were carrying and it all slowly began to register: “Illegals Out!” “Return to Sender” “Illegals Today, Jihadist w/Nukes Tomorrow!” “Protect Your Kids From Disease” “Send Them Back w/Birth Control” “Go Back To Mexico” “We Don’t Want You”
What he stumbled upon was a small war. Anti-immigrant protestors were blocking passage of three DHS buses that were transporting 140 undocumented immigrants. The passengers were mostly Central American mothers and their children who had been apprehended at the Southwest border in Texas. The kids certainly knew nothing about the immigration crisis that has been going on in the U.S. for decades; let alone what they were fleeing or that they were seeking “asylum.”
The protestors managed to prevent the buses from entering Murrieta and the nearby USCIS Detention and Processing Center. Since he looked Latino, some of the protestors made a beeline towards him.
“Almost instantly,” said Rivera, “I was being yelled at with insults.” First came the ugly words and then a large Caucasian man spat at him. Lupillo quickly realized in modern America despite whatever status you achieve the color of your skin still defines you.
Although an American citizen, Rivera was accosted by protesters because, “According to them, we’re all illegal.” The beloved singer further explained, “It was like an out-of-body experience.” “When they spit on my face,” declared Rivera, “they spat in all of our faces.”
Now the award-winning singer finds himself on the news and at the center of a national border crisis controversy. Ironically, neither the Mayor of Murrieta, Alan Long nor the protestors who zeroed in on Rivera with verbal attacks, were aware of the Mexican singer’s celebrity whose fan base is in the hundreds of thousands.
Rather than offer a real apology, the mayor only seemed to stir the pot of controversy further when he decided to turn a humanitarian crisis into a political one, and then insulted the singer as a bonus.
Sitting with Lupillo Rivera as he recounted his horrific experience in Murrieta, I was profoundly affected by his relaxed and grounded, spiritual nature. While Rivera himself was too humble to accept any weighty comparisons, I could only identify his graciousness in the line of fire with other important names of the past — names like Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, all great men capable of seeing life and community beyond racial segregation.
EE: You found yourself in the middle of a protest that you really didn’t understand initially. Yet within a few minutes, you were being yelled at, spat upon, and shoved. What was going on in your mind?
LR: I felt undignified and violated. I was surprised that the Murrieta Police Department just stood by allowing these attacks. It is just one example of how the city of Murrieta failed its residents and innocent bystanders.
Some protestors defending the city say the protests are not an act of racism, but now I see that it is. I hesitate to use the word racism because of its negative meaning, but there is no doubt that it was the motivating factor behind Murrieta’s horrible attack against Latino immigrants, documented or undocumented—adult or child. If the bus had been transporting children from Russian, Europe, or Canada there would have been no protest.
EE: How were you able to restrain yourself while being attacked?
LR: [He sighed, with tears in his eyes] I have to admit, getting spit on, criticized… it hurt… it hurt a lot. But I’m a grown man and I can handle it. I can walk away. My children stopped me from fighting back. My five-year old little boy was a few feet away witnessing what was happening and I didn’t want him to see me as a violent person. I have to lead by example. After he witnessed the man spitting in my face, my son said, ‘That man should not be on the street. Call the police.’ My boy should have witnessed the police doing their job instead he saw them stand by as a stranger attacked his dad.
EE: How was your family affected?
LR: I was able to teach a valuable lesson to my son about being able to walk away from violence. My 9-year old daughter, on the other hand, that’s another thing! She watched the news coverage and saw me being attacked. My very girlie-girl told me I “should have kicked his ass.” I had never heard her speak this way before, which was indicative of how both my wife and daughter were upset. My wife who is from the Mexico wanted to get out of the car and come to my defense… but thankfully instead she got on my cell phone and started Tweeting what was going on. And that’s when all hell broke loose.
EE: Did you have any idea the power that Tweeting would have?
LR: Twitter is powerful. I mean I can tweet and gather 5,000 views in 30 minutes. That’s a huge responsibility and one I take very seriously. My wife knew that my fans would not abandon me.
EE: Mainstream media has made the Murrieta incident a “Ground Zero” for the national immigration issue. How have they treated you?
LR: I’ve given many interviews for English-language news companies. The Spanish networks focused more on the border crisis by talking about the children and why they flee their countries—more so than the English news.
EE: The English media seems more out of touch with what is really happening with regards to the crisis of children fleeing into our country. LR: Yes it appears that the English-language networks seem to report or sensationalize only on the negative. Still I’m grateful to have this opportunity to talk about what happened and perhaps change the negative way some Americans feel about undocumented immigrants.
EE: What did you do immediately after the protest?
LR: I called my attorney, manager and my pastor brother [Pedro Rivera Jr. / Primer Amor Church in Whittier, CA] for guidance. I’m a Christian man who believes in non-violence and a man who is against racism and bigotry. I knew my life in these few hours had forever changed and I wasn’t sure about anything or what would come next. I knew I had to surround myself with people who would provide me with wisdom and guidance to keep me grounded. Many of my fans continue to thank me for defending immigrants. That’s heavy and has profoundly touched me.
EE: A huge responsibility.
LR: Yes, it is. I saw people crying with joy because of my presence. Some said to me things like, ‘Someone is finally speaking for us… talking truth.’ Being a voice for immigrants has been a truly humbling experience. I want to do things right. I don’t want it to be a fiasco. I don’t want to mess it up.
EE: You live in nearby Temecula, has what happened to you in Murrieta soured you about continuing to live in the area?
LR: I had a very bad experience in Murrieta. However, I’ve lived for five years in Temecula and my community has always been great to us. Although we’re right next door to Murrieta, Temecula is nothing like what happened with the protestors. My kids attend Temecula Montessori and Rancho Christian School and the teachers and education system is one of the best in the nation. My own neighbors and other community residents have been nothing less than supportive. I can’t say that for Murrieta.
EE: You’re originally from Long Beach, CA, when did Temecula come into your radar?
LR: I first came to this area in the late 90’s when visiting the wineries and fell in love with this town. Murrieta had been my first option – I tried to buy a place there but the bank turned me down… [Laughing at the irony]. Temecula, on the other hand, accepted my offer and here we are.
EE: It must have come as a total surprise to the Murrieta’s officials when they found out who you were.
LR: They had no idea. I’m sure it ruined their day to read and hear in the news about who I am and what happened to me.
EE: Has the Mayor or any other Murrieta officials tried to contact you?
LR: The mayor tried to make peace with me. During his near apology, he said something about illegals breaking the law. I asked the mayor to take a good look around. I pointed to a black man, another who appeared to be Caucasian and then to some Latinos. How can he be so sure that only the Latinos are illegal? He can’t and shouldn’t make those assumptions. Look, I understand the mayor saying that residents have the right to exercise their constitutional rights. He says he’s proud of that. But with all the constitutional rights and freedom of speech we do have, it does not give them the right to shove people or spit on them.
EE: In your opinion, did the police department fail to do their job?
LR: Yes. The attacks were verbal and then there is the shoving and spitting, but what if someone had pulled a gun or knife? We were all in the middle of chaos and the police stood by and did nothing. We were not the ones standing carrying signs with racist messages. We did not provoke this incident. Yes, I believe the mayor is responsible for his police officers standing by and do nothing.
EE: What do you think is at the heart of all this Murrieta controversy?
LR: The most important thing is to understand the welfare of the children and how ugly this incident looked to the world. The protestors and Murrieta officials offered only hateful and racist messages as reasons for stopping the immigration buses. It should be our human instinct not to abuse or neglect children and here they were [the anti-immigrant protestors] doing it live on TV for everyone to witness!
EE: Has President Obama let us down with regard to lack of immigration reform?
LR: I will never criticize the president. It can’t be easy to work with a whole bunch of people who are against you. I was taught to show respect. Mr. Obama was elected and I would never disrespect the office of the Presidency no matter who was sitting in the Oval office. But from day one he’s been attacked to make him look like a failure. One thing that I will say is that he’s a minority, a black man as I am a brown man and sometimes that’s all it takes for people to be against you.
EE: Have you had any threats?
LR: Yes. Things like “We know where your family lives.” People have said nasty, awful things. I don’t take these threats lightly. I am worried about my family.
EE: Have you contacted the police or FBI?
LR: No, but I’m being extra careful. They know who I am but I really don’t know who they are. I do worry about my wife and kids. But it comes with the territory.
EE: You find yourself in a place you never ever thought you’d be as a leader of a controversial immigrant cause. Have you come to terms with that?
LR: I’m not sure what being a “leader” means. I’m not a politician. I was never an activist. I’m this guy who is an American citizen and who happens to love to sing in Spanish. I try to be a humble person, who speaks the truth, and who freely expresses his feelings.
EE: Have you written a song about Murrieta?
LR: No and I’m not sure I will go that route. Right now, for me, it’s all about securing the safety and future of the children being deported.
EE: Do you know where this anti-immigration turmoil will take you?
LR: I don’t. And, I don’t know if the worse is over or only just begun. There are a lot of hateful groups in surrounding areas who use freedom of speech as a license to be disrespectful.
EE: Congratulations, your new CD is climbing fast on the Billboard charts. You’re also touring Mexico as well as the U.S. What other projects are you working on?
LR: I’m really excited about my new upcoming radio show, ‘De Farra con Lupillo Rivera,’ which will be broadcast throughout the major U.S. markets on both AM and FM and people will be able to stream it online and download a mobile app. I’ll let everyone know when we’re on the airwaves via Tweeter!
Also, I’m working on a couple of video games that I can’t really talk about yet but they will help and inspire children, especially those suffering with terminal diseases.
EE: What do you want the world to remember about this past week?
LR: I didn’t ask for this, but here I am. I’m still not really sure what I’ve been drawn into. People are congratulating me and I’m saying to myself, ‘For doing the right thing?’ I have been humbled and reminded of so much work that needs to be done with immigration reform. I’m going to let the chips fall where they may. If I’m needed, I’m there.
A friend told me it’s not about the disrespect toward me… it’s about the children.
EE: Thank you, Lupillo Rivera for rising above the turmoil and showing the world that all people of all ethnicities matter in America.
Murrieta’s border crisis is not going to go away any time soon. As for Lupillo Rivera, he continues to say he is in it for the long haul, ready to defend and ensure that undocumented immigrant children are shielded from the shameful and sickening anti-immigration sentiments.
We don’t know if his newfound role as a potential leader will have a lasting impact or will promote any positive change in immigration reform, but for now it’s enough.
Follow Lupillo Rivera on social media: Twitter: @Lupillo8 Facebook: Lupillo Rivera Official Instagram: lupilloriveraoficial
Lupillo Rivera is the younger brother of the late singing superstar Jenni Rivera who died in a tragic plane crash on December 9, 2012. He was born in Jalisco, Mexico in 1972, and was raised in Long Beach, CA. He is a naturalized American citizen. His father, singer Pedro Rivera, owner of the independent label Cintas Acuario, helped launch Lupillo’s first single, “El Moreno,” and soon he was signed up to Sony Discos.
Vanessa Verduga and Randy Vasquez contributed to this article