[A photograph of Chavela Vargas in later years]
The name Chavela Vargas is an instantly recognizable one across much of Latin America and amongst admirers of the ranchera genre of music most commonly associated with México. Born Isabel Vargas Lizano in Costa Rica in 1919, Chavela Vargas left her home country at the age of fourteen to live in México, her adopted home where she stayed for the next eight decades of her life.
To those who do not know much about rancheras, a woman singing them might not stick out as anything remarkable. Yet rancheras are a genre that is traditionally supposed to be sung only by men, for an audience of mostly other men. These songs are spaces where men were customarily allowed to express themselves emotionally, albeit so long as they were confined to particular patriarchal rules of behaviour with an assumed heterosexuality. Therefore to have a woman, and moreover a lesbian woman, sing these songs was a radical and subversive act.
Chavela Vargas was known the world over for not only her singing talents, but also for her affairs with women (including the likes of Frida Kahlo, María Félix, and Lola Beltrán) and her alcohol-fueled partying. She often dressed in “men’s” clothing, smoked cigars (a supposedly “masculine” past time), and partied harder than you can imagine. For a period of fifteen years, Vargas disappeared almost completely, leading some to believe she had even died. She was, however, recovering from alcoholism. Although many people knew she was a lesbian, she did not publicly affirm this until the age of 81 in her autobiography Y si quieres saber de mi pasado (2002).
Vargas continues to be a treasured cultural icon across the Americas, and is a key figure in queer Mexican and Central American history. She is important in broader queer history as often queer people of colour, and especially queer people of colour from outside of Canada and the United States, are marginalized or entirely erased from the broader study of queer history. Chavela Vargas passed away at the age of 93 in 2012. Her last words were “I leave with México in my heart.”
Garsd, Jasmine. “Chavela Vargas, Legendary Ranchera Singer, Dies.” NPR, August 5, 2012. Accessed on November 12, 2015. http://www.npr.org/sections/therecord/2012/08/06/158166344/chavela-vargas-legendary-ranchera-singer-has-died
Moser, Benjamin. “Postscript: Mexico’s Majestic Lesbian Chanteuse, Chavela Vargas.” The New Yorker, August 17, 2012. Accessed on November 12, 2015. http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/postscript-mexicos-majestic-lesbian-chanteuse-chavela-vargas
Vargas, Chavela. Y si quieres saber de mi pasado. Madrid: Aguilar, 2002.