In the mid 1930´s, Isabela Vargas Lizano, an adolescent from Costa Rica, fled to Mexico to escape a hostile family. She took on various occupations to make a living, including being a maid, selling clothes, and singing on the streets. Blessed with a husky, beautiful voice and a way of making every song her own, she moved up to singing in various joints of dubious reputation, and then on to professional venues. Just a few decades after arriving as a penniless fourteen-year old in Mexico City, nicknamed simply “la Chavela” by her many admirers, Isabela Vargas Lizano became a star.
By the fities she was one of Mexico´s most beloved interpreters of rancheras, recording dozens of albums focused on this rural traditional Mexican genre. Vargas ´voice and phrasing were beautifully suited to the ranchera´s songs of despair, lust and heartbeak, and her interpretations of some of these are simply definitive. In this period, Vargas dressed as a man, smoked cigars, drank heavily and carried a gun.
Wearing her characteristic red poncho, in performances Vargas sang songs intended for men to woo women, directing them quite directly at women. One of her most famous, which sings to a woman named “Macorina”, says: “Place your hand right here, Macorina, place your hand on me” – which got her blacklisted from some venues for “obscene” conduct.
Nevertheless, she was a superstar, singing at Elizabeth Taylor´s weddings (the one to Mike Todd), hanging out with Hollywood´s finest: Rock Hudson, Grace Kelly, Ava Gardner, and counting as friends celebrities within Mexico´s artistic and literary elite- including Frida Kahlo, to whom she was particularly close – Vargas affirms that they had an affair, and Kahlo was the love of her life.
In the seventies Vargas disappeared from the public eye, fighting a fifteen year-long battle with alcoholism. However, during this period, she would perform occasionally at cabarets, and had built up a following among gay men. She was lost to the world in more ways than one, and admits “drinking everything she ever had.”
Vargas reclaimed the ranchera diva throne she had twenty years earlier when in 1991, filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar, a long-time fan, asked her to record for his film “Tacones Lejanos”, a professional resurrection which led to moving to Spain and a series of highly successful studio recordings and concerts.
In the year 2000, at the age of 81, the vocalist who five decades earlier had dared to sing romance to women in public, finally spoke publicly about being a lesbian. That same year, the singer with “the rough voice of tenderness” was awarded Spain’s Great Cross of Isabel la Católica, (only one of two women to ever be awarded this honor), and the country’s highest honor for artistic production.
Chavela Vargas’ extraordinary life, marked by strength and braveness in repeatedly overcoming adversity, and her fierce and unmistakeably honest renditions of Mexican song have inspired countless musicians, including Lila Downs and Concha Buika. Both of these artists spoke to me of Vargas as a friend and model. Buika quoted Vargas saying she had learned from her that: “we women have nothing to fear from solitude, because this is precisely the space where we can construct ourselves without others’ ideas”.
Buika and Lila Downs´Tribute to Chavela Vargas will take place October 15.