Why Chavela Vargas was the most kick-ass Mexican singer that ever lived
A woman with pantalones in every sense of the word: prolific, independent, unique, and happy.
Chavela Vargas died on Sunday from multi-organ failure after a week-long struggle in a hospital in Cuernavaca, Mexico at the age of 93. The legendary singer recorded over 80 albums of impassioned rancheras, boleros, and corridos including “Macorina,” “Un Mundo Raro,” and “La Llorona” .
Vargas was a revered performer in Mexico and Latin America, known for a strong, anguished singing style once described by Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar as “the rough voice of tenderness.” She sang love songs to female love interests and flouted traditional gender norms back in the 1930’s and 40’s. Chavela Vargas had an indomitable will to live on her own terms. She grappled with homophobia, gender oppression, and alcoholism in her lifetime but also found a deeply human voice that moved generations.
She pursued her dreams - even if it meant defying her family
Fashion icon too: Chavela with her trademark sarape shawl and huarache sandals.
Isabel Vargas Lizano was born in Costa Rica on April 17, 1919. She first moved to Mexico in her early teens (where she would eventually naturalize), to pursue dreams of becoming a singer, as she explained in her Spanish-language autobiography, Y Si Quieres Saber De Mi Pasado ( If You Want to Know About My Past):
“I wanted to be me. There was Chavela — the queer, the crazy one — in the middle of the coffee fields, crossing jungles on horse back and on foot, talking with shamans next to lagoons and rivers. The most humble girl in the world, the poorest girl in the world, one who sang alone. In my family, no one sang. I, on the other hand, wished to be a singer and when I went to the countryside, I’d walk and walk and sing and sing. ‘You’re going to sing when you’re older,’ I’d tell myself. ‘I’m going to sing like the Mexicans.’”
The musical great also fled an unloving family that she felt rejected her homosexuality.
“I think they realized that I was homosexual earlier on. Among other reasons because I always chased after the cook’s daughter. And my parents, siblings, family, acquaintances used “queer” to discuss my homosexuality. I was a queer being, a weird person.[…] It doesn’t hurt to be homosexual; what hurts is when it’s thrown in your face as if it were the plague.”
Chavela couldn’t care less about machismo or gay prejudice
Born in Costa Rica, Chavela came of age in her beloved Mexico, where she broke gender norms.
Vargas began performing in Mexico City; eventually rising to fame in the late 1950s and 60’s singing songs about love, heartache and drinking. She was friends with leading intellectuals, musicians, artists, and musicians of the era including Juan Rulfo, Carlos Fuentes, Carlos Monsivais, Jose Alfredo Jimenez, Agustin Lara, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, who was reportedly also one of her lovers.
Though Vargas did not officially come out as a lesbian until the release of her memoir in 2000 at the age of 81, throughout her life and career she embraced her queerness and rejected traditional gender roles. She often wore men’s clothing, she smoked cigars, drank, and she would carry a pistol.
Vargas would also refuse to change the pronouns in her ballads and would sing love songs to women. One of her most famous songs, “Macorina,” contains the suggestively sapphic refrain: “Pon la mano aqui, Macorina” (“Put your hand here, Macorina”). In this video, her friend Pedro Almodovar introduces her at a concert:
But the emotional weight of Vargas’ music is what resonated universally. As the late Mexican writer and thinker Carlos Monsivais once put it (in Spanish):
“Chavela is the abandonment and sadness of the Mexican song. But she reclaims all of it in order to give her singing a unique depth. So that there’s singularity, so that we know that she’s talking to us, it’s necessary for her to assume that abandonment in order for it to become the art of the abandoned.”
She overcame addiction and got her groove back - with a little help from Almodovar
Chavela with Pedro Almodovar and fashion designer Elena Berranoch, this past July on her last trip to Madrid.
By the late 70s, an alcohol addiction forced her career into retirement. She regained her health and sobriety by the late 80s and her career’s second act soon followed. Her friend Almodovar aided her comeback in the early 90s by including her and her music in his films, which served to introduce her to a new, younger audience.
In Spain, she became very good friends with Miguel Bosé and Joaquin Sabina, who just wrote a moving letter after hearing of her passing saying “who could laugh like she cries.”
Vargas also appeared in the 2002 film Frida — where she sings “La Llorona” and shares a drink with her old flame, played by Salma Hayek. The following year, at age 83, she made her Carnegie Hall debut. And in 2007, she received a Latin Grammy lifetime achievement award.
A model for generations of musicians to come
She inspires musicians to be fearless.
Subsequent generations of musicians have also paid homage to Vargas and her influence. For Vargas’s 90th birthday in 2009, renowned Cuban pianist Chucho Valdes and Spanish singer Concha Buika released a tribute album covering many of her most well-known songs called El Último Trago.
More recently, bands such as Madame Ur y Sus Hombres, Tio Pedro and Las Acevedo are among the artists participating in a forthcoming compilation album titled La Chamana: Un Tributo a Chavela Vargas, set to be released on August 20th and concert planned for September 1st in Tepoztlan, Mexico—the city were Vargas lived. Its organizers have since tweeted that the concert will go on as a posthumous tribute.
There will also be a tribute concert at Carnegie Hall on November 27. The show—featuring Mexican singers Ely Guerra, Eugenia Leon, and Tania Libertad—was planned prior to her passing, as part of the annual Mexico Now festival and the Carnegie Hall’s “Voices from Latin America” series.