December 24, 2012 12:00 PM

During her concert at Arena Monterrey in Monterrey, Mexico, on Dec. 8, 43-year-old Latin music star Jenni Rivera paused from performing to be presented with one gold and two platinum albums. As 15,000 fans cheered, the singer was overcome with emotion. “Thank you to my public,” she told the crowd in Spanish, “to all of you…who are with me, who love me just like I am.”

It was a triumphant moment for the singer-and one of her last. Hours later the Learjet carrying Rivera and at least seven others crashed minutes after taking off en route to Toluca, Mexico; all are presumed dead. “It’s very painful,” her mom, Rosa, told reporters on Dec. 10 outside her Lakewood, Calif., home, where fans were holding vigil. “[But] I know she is singing to my God.”

Dubbed the Diva of Banda music, a popular genre of Mexican folk, Rivera, a mother of five and grandmother of two, sold more than 15 million albums worldwide and amassed legions of female fans who were inspired by her fierce independence. “She had gone through hell and always came out great,” says Raul de Molina, host of Univision’s El Gordo y La Flaca. Adds actor pal Lou Diamond Phillips: “She had a constant smile that would light up the room.” Rivera, who starred in and produced two reality shows on the network mun2 and was a judge on Mexico’s version of The Voice, also oversaw a fashion and cosmetics line. And just this month ABC signed a deal with her for a sitcom loosely based on her life, which packed all the surreal glamour, pathos and melodrama of a Mexican telenovela. As her friend actor Edward James Olmos says, “She was larger than life and yet always herself.”

Raised by Mexican immigrants in Long Beach, Calif., the teen mom was in her mid-20s when she scored her first hit in 1995 with “Las Malandrinas” (about hard-partying girls). Stardom and heartbreak arrived in lockstep. Her first husband, Jose Trinidad Marin, 48, was convicted of sexually abusing their oldest daughter, Janney (“Chiquis”), now 27, and Rivera’s sister Rosie, now 31; her second husband, Juan Lopez, was convicted of drug trafficking in 2007 and died in jail in 2009. In October she filed for divorce from former big league pitcher Esteban Loaiza, 40, prompting rumors from fans that Chiquis had an affair with Loaiza. (Rivera never commented on the allegations; Chiquis and Loaiza denied them.) Yet there was an upside to her turmoil, says Molina: “All these things helped fans identify with her better.”

And they certainly would have related to her dream for a future she’ll never see. “The main goal in my life is to be sitting in the living room at my house [at 90 years old],” she told PEOPLE EN ESPANOL in ’09, “and watching the reruns of all the shows I was on, having each one of my kids walk in, good citizens, successful people, and be able to say, ‘I did that on my own.'”

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