By Catherine E. Shoichet and Rafael Romo, CNN
(CNN) — Thousands of mourners began to bid farewell Wednesday to Mexican-American singer Jenni Rivera, whose soulful ballads sold out concert halls and made her a household name.
As the memorial service started, a bright red casket with butterflies on it was placed center stage at Los Angeles’ Gibson amphitheater, which holds 6,100 people.
Photos showing Rivera with her family flashed in the background as music rang out in the packed auditorium.
Rivera’s plane crashed in a remote, mountainous area in northern Mexico on December 9.
It killed all six aboard, including her publicist, lawyer and makeup artists.
Rivera’s death left fans devastated.
Nicknamed “La Diva de la Banda” or The Diva of Banda Music, she was a musical powerhouse with her Spanish performances of regional Mexican corridos, or ballads.
She was reportedly on the verge of a crossover with a sitcom inspired by the success of “I Love Jenni,” a Spanish-language reality TV show on Telemundo’s mun2 network.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio described her as an American success story.
“She was a singer in a genre of music that’s largely dominated by males, and she brought a powerful voice to that genre where she sung frankly about her struggles to give her children a better life in this country,” Rubio said.
Rivera sold 15 million records, according to Billboard, and recently won two Billboard Music Awards, including favorite Mexican music female artist.
But she started out small.
In 2010, Rivera spoke about how she once sold cans for scrap metal and hawked music records at her family’s stand at a Los Angeles flea market.
“It is very flattering when they tell me that I’m a great artist, a great entertainer, that when I’m on stage I can get in the recording studio and come up with a great production,” she told CNN en Español. “But before all of that, I was a businesswoman. I’m primarily business-minded.”
Rivera eventually became the owner of several companies, including Jenni Rivera Enterprises, which produced and marketed her music, a fragrance brand, a jeans factory and a television production company.
She was nominated for Latin Grammy Awards in 2002, 2008 and 2011. In October, People en Español named her to its list of the 25 most powerful women.
Born in Long Beach, California, to Mexican immigrant parents, Rivera released her debut album in 1999, according to her website.
She followed that up with two more albums, including the 2003 album “Farewell to Selena” — a tribute to slain Tejano star Selena Quintanilla — that increased her popularity.
Tumultuous personal life
Famous for her music, she is also known for her tumultuous personal life. The singer was a single mom at the age of 15 and is the mother of five, her website said.
In 2009, she made headlines when she was detained at the Mexico City airport with tens of thousands of dollars in cash.
A year later, she made headlines again with the marriage to former baseball pitcher Esteban Loaiza, who played for the New York Yankees and the Los Angeles Dodgers. They later divorced. It was her third marriage.
“Staying defeated, crying and suffering was not an option,” she said. “I had to get off my feet, dust myself off and press on. That’s what I want to teach my daughters.”
Her over-the-top lifestyle was chronicled in “I Love Jenni” on Telemundo. The show began airing on mun2 last year, and featured her life on the road, balancing the duties of motherhood and stardom as she toured Mexico and the United States.
Rivera performed at a concert in Monterrey on December 8 before boarding the Learjet early the next day. It lost contact with air traffic controllers about 60 miles into the trip.
Plane company investigation
The small Learjet plane was 43 years old, the state-run Notimex news agency reported, citing the Mexican director of civil aviation.
The Drug Enforcement Administration is investigating the company that owned the plane.
Court records revealed that the aviation company, Starwood Management, had two planes seized this year. The DEA declined to give further details, citing an ongoing investigation.
But it confirmed that the company was in a dispute with insurance firms over accusations of of falsehoods. Starwood and its representatives have not responded to repeated CNN requests for comments.
The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board said it is helping with the investigation.
U.S. records show the airplane was substantially damaged in 2005 when it struck a runway marker near Amarillo, Texas. At the time, the plane’s pilot reported losing the ability to steer.
– Journalist Victor Badillo, CNNMexico.com, Jim Barnett, Guillermo Arduino and Leslie Tripp contributed to this report.