Chavela Vargas, 93, dies in Mexico

WASHINGTON, AUGUST 7, 2012 - Chavela Vargas, at the age of 93, transcended this life, as befits a person regarded by many as a Shaman.  

Vargas was widely known for her songs.  A plaintive, scratchy voice comes through the speakers and seems to cling to the air as Chavela belts out an old ranchera, “Noches de bodas.”

You can hear the passion in her nostalgic, lamenting voice. She sounds sad and her voice strains as she hits a high note.

I like the older Chavela, where you can hear the weight of years, tequila, cigars, and experience in her voice. Accompanied by a lone guitar, her rough voice is absolutely beautiful.

Chavela Vargas was born Isabel Vargas Lizano in Costa Rica (1919-2012), but the popular singer is closely identified with Mexico and Mexican music. She was unlike anyone else, a rebel and a pioneer: a woman in a genre almost exclusively dominated by men; had famous friends like Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Federico García Lorca, Agustín Lara, and Juan Rulfo; dressed like a man and drank tequila from the bottle on stage; and after coming out of the closet at age 81, was unpopular with the Mexican Catholic Church.

Chavela Vargas was born in San Joaquín de Flores, Costa Rica. In her autobiography, You Want To Know About My Past, she confesses that her relationship with her parents was never close. She immigrated to Mexico in her teens, looking for greater opportunity and ways to advance in the music industry.

During her first years in Mexico, she did odd jobs and sang on the streets and in dive bars. During this time, Vargas honed her persona, dressing as a man, carrying a gun, smoking cigars, and drinking heavily. She began wearing a red jorongo, a kind of poncho, which she continued to wear during performances throughout her life.

Well into her thirties, Vargas began gaining recognition as well as influential friends and fans both in Mexico and abroad. She performed at Elizabeth Taylor’s wedding to her third husband, Michael Todd, in 1957.

With the support of iconic ranchera singer songwriter Jose Alfredo Jiménez, Vargas’s first album, “Noches de Bohemia,” was released in 1961, when she was 42 years old. She went on to record over 80 albums during her professional career and enjoy great fame, becoming a ranchera icon in her own right.

Her battle with alcoholism forced her to retire from the spotlight in the mid 1970’s. In her autobiography, Vargas tells how she was taken in by an Indian family who did not know who she was and nursed back to health. Her 1991 performances at “El Hábito,” a Mexico City nightclub, marked her return to public life.

She was re-discovered and newly discovered by new generations of Latin and Spanish youths through the films of Pedro Almodóvar, one of her biggest fans and supporters. In 2002 she appeared in the film Frida, performing her song, “La Llorona.”

She debuted in Carnegie Hall in 2003, and in 2007 received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Latin Recording Academy, among numerous other awards and honors.

Last year, in 2011, Vargas released and album of her friend Federico García Lorca’s poems. She performed them on stage while in a wheelchair to standing ovations.

Chavela Vargas (1919-2012)

Chavela Vargas (1919-2012)

Vargas publicly declared her homosexuality at the age of 81, but it was always an open secret. She dressed like a man, drank and smoked like a man, and refused to change the pronouns of songs written about women when she performed them.

In a 2000 interview with the Spanish newspaper, El País, Vargas admitted that she had never been with a man, and that she had “nothing to be ashamed of.”

“Homosexuality doesn’t hurt,” she said. “What hurts is when you’re treated like you have the plague because of it.”

There will never be another Chavela Vargas. She died last Sunday, August 5, in Cuernavaca, Mexico of heart and respiratory complications. Crowds have gathered in several places around the Spanish-speaking world to remember and celebrate “la voz áspera de la ternura,” the rough voice of tenderness.

She was outspoken, rebellious, and broke every mold. So here’s to Chavela, Ojalá que le vaya bonito…

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Laura Sesana

Laura Sesana is a writer and DC, Maryland attorney, joining the Communities in 2012.  She is the author of Colombia: Natural Parks, and has also written several articles on literary criticism.  She writes about food, health, nutrition, women’s legal issues, and the environment.  

In addition to writing for the Communities, Laura also works as an attorney and legal content writer.


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