Chavela Vargas: Singer adored in the Hispanic world


It could not have been easy being a cigar-smoking, tequila-swigging, gun-toting lesbian who sang cowboy songs in macho Mexico through much of the 20th century. But in a career that lasted for most of her 93 years, Chavela Vargas gradually made inroads into male chauvinist, homophobic and Catholic church prejudices.

She became a monument of Mexican culture, indeed of the Spanish-speaking world, a singer whose "rough voice of tenderness" – the words of the Spanish film-maker Pedro Almodovar – could tear the heart out of anyone who spoke her native tongue. Indeed, like Brel, Piaf, Dylan or the great bluesmen, her 80 albums transcended her own language, transposing Spanish lyrics into the universal language of love, loss, pain and ultimately hope. In her own words, she was "una rareza," a rarity, a one-off.

When she appeared on stage in the 1950s with a bullwhip and a pistol, the audience was never sure whether the gun was loaded. But they knew she was, the bottle of tequila by her side replaced as swiftly as it was drained. With her male hairstyle and wearing trousers beneath her jorongo (poncho), no one knew who she really was. While a similar image has since become common among gay female performers, Vargas was an outlaw. Being gay was against the laws of the land, and of the church, and she formally "came out" only in an autobiography when she was 80. "What hurt was not being homosexual, but what they threw in my face, as if I had the plague," she wrote.

When she sang ranchera, or cowboy, songs, traditionally sung by men, she never did what most women singers tend to do – change the pronouns from "she" to "he." Male artists assumed she was being faithful to the original lyrics. Gay people got the message.

Vargas might never have sung her way into the Mexican and Latin psyche had she not been taken under the wings of many of the great artists of the mid-20th century, including the Mexican writer Juan Rulfo, the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca and the great bolero songwriter Agustin Lara whose works she later performed. After the painters Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo took her into their home in Coyoacan, the artistic hub of Mexico City, the bisexual Kahlo and Vargas became close. Kahlo's diaries suggest love unrequited by Vargas but the singer refused throughout her life to speak of those days.

A Vargas-Kahlo relationship, however, was brilliantly fictionalised in the Oscar-winning movie Frida (2002), in which the real Vargas, then aged 81, appears as a figure of Death to the young Frida, played by Salma Hayek, Vargas hauntingly singing one of her most famous songs, "La Llorona" (the Woman who Weeps). The film's soundtrack also features a younger Vargas singing her classic "Paloma Negra" (Black Dove) in the stunning sequence in which Frida chops off her hair while demolishing a bottle of tequila in Vargas style.

Almodovar, one of Vargas's greatest champions, had already used her in his own movies, bringing her work to a new generation and inspiring gay men and women throughout the Spanish-speaking world, not least in communist Cuba, after she had gone through what she called "15 years of alcoholic hell." The director featured her, or her songs, in several of his films, including La Flor de mi Secreto (The Flower of my Secret, 1995) and it was he who brought her to the Carnegie Hall in New York in 2003, at the age of 83, for a memorable concert which produced one of her finest live albums. On it, spicing up her classic song "Hacia la Vida", she sang: "Today, I'm going towards life. Before, I was going towards la pinche muerte [goddam death]."

She was 86 when she gave a rousing open-air concert in Madrid's Plaza de España in 2006 and she was back in Spain only a few months ago to perform, from a wheelchair, a new album of Lorca's poems. After her death, Almodovar said: "I don't think there is a stage big enough in this world for Chavela."

Isabel Vargas Lozano was born in the Central American nation of Costa Rica in 1919 and suffered from polio from an early age. She would later attribute her recovery to the shamans, or spiritual guides, she consulted, something she would continue for the rest of her life. After her parents divorced, she was brought up by several uncles whose treatment of her one can imagine from her later words: "May they burn in Hell!" At the age of 14 she hit the Pan-American Highway, hitchhiking north towards the promised land that was the United States. Passing through Mexico City, she busked with mariachis on the zocalo, the grand main square, where she was spotted by Rivera and Kahlo. "They invited me to a party at their house, then to stay with them," she recalled. "I learned every secret of Frida and Diego, secrets I shall never reveal. We were happy, we lived day to day, without a cent, sometimes with nothing to eat, but dying of laughter." She found herself performing in the swanky hotels of Acapulco, at the time vying with Rio and Havana as the magnet for Hollywood celebrities. She sang at the Acapulco wedding of Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Todd in 1957.

A few months ago, Vargas said: "I do not fear death. I don't owe life anything and vice-versa. We're quits." She spent her latter years in the picturesque nahuatl Indian town of Tepoztlan, 45 miles south of Mexico City, where she continued to consult her shamans. She died in hospital in nearby Cuernavaca.

Phil Davison

Isabel "Chavela" Vargas Lizano, singer: born San Joaquin de Flores, Costa Rica 17 April 1919; died Cuernavaca, Mexico 5 August 2012.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Glazier

£16500 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This specialist historic buildi...

Recruitment Genius: Office and Customer Services Manager

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small but very busy (and f...

Recruitment Genius: Portfolio Administrator

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company has become known a...

Recruitment Genius: Mechanical and Electrical Engineer - Midlands

£35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of refrig...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot