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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Arts and Entertainment
Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Metz - 23 May 2012
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
Ronahi Serhat, a PKK fighter, in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan
Arts and Entertainment
Poet’s corner: Philip Larkin at the venetian window of his home in 1958
booksOr caring, playful man who lived for others? A new book has the answer
Matthew McConaughey and his son Levi at the game between the Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros at Fenway Park on August 17, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts.
advertisingOscar-winner’s Lincoln deal is latest in a lucrative ad production line
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Support, Help desk)

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Learning, SQL, Brokerage)

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Lea...

UNIX Application Support Analyst- Support, UNIX, London

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: UNIX Application Support Analyst-...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed