Voices: RIP Chavela Vargas (1919-2012)

By Arturo R. García

They came to lay Chavela Vargas to rest at Plaza Garibaldi Monday night. And that was just in person. When word spread of the Costa Rican native’s passing this past Sunday, they mourned not only in her adopted home country of Mexico, but in Spain, in Cuba, and anywhere they still feel ranchera music.

In nearly a century, she was an LGBT trailblazer; a gender role provocateur; a friend to artists like Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera and a muse to others like Federico García Lorca and Pedro Almodóvar; she performed at Elizabeth Taylor’s wedding and at Carnegie Hall; she recorded 80 albums and came out at the age of 81. She beat addiction to become an institution. And they raised their glasses to her Monday night.

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.”
- Monica Fabian, Univision News

Crowd at Chavela Vargas’ memorial service in Mexico City. Courtesy: @bbc_delosreyes (Ignacio De Los Reyes/BBC).

Along the way, she mingled with the cream of Mexico’s artistic and intellectual set, including writer Juan Rulfo, composer Agustin Lara, and the painters Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.

It was long rumored that the bisexual Kahlo and Vargas engaged in a romantic affair. In 2009, the Los Angeles Times reported that a diary purportedly belonging to Kahlo described the painter’s intense — but unrequited — attraction to the singer.

Vargas recorded her first record, “Noche de Bohemia,” in 1961 and went on to record more than 80 others. Her versions of songs like “La Llorona” (The Weeping Woman) and “Piensa en Mi” (Think of Me) are considered definitive.

By 1976, a life lived as hard as she had described in her songs had caught up with her, and she largely disappeared from public life until the 1990s, when she was rediscovered by a new generation of fans. In 2002, she appeared in the biographical Kahlo film “Frida,” in which she sang “La Llorona.” In 2007, she was awarded a Latin Grammy for a career of musical excellence.
- Richard Fausset, Los Angeles Times

Courtesy Excelsior.

In 2011, Vargas was still at work, releasing a new album of Garcia Lorca’s poems and basking in standing ovations from a wheelchair on stage while wearing her emblematic neckerchief. In interviews she said she was at “peace with life and could not ask for more,” saying that at death, she would “go with pleasure.”

“Each of you remembers me as you like, each one say what they feel and what they lived with me,” she said. “I ask God that wherever I am going someday, you will come to greet me, and I will greet all of you.”
- The Associated Press

A tribute album for Vargas, “La Chamana: Un Tributo A Chavela Vargas,” is scheduled to be released on August 20. A memorial show is also planned for Sept. 1 in Tepoztlan, Morelos, where she lived.