Viva Chavela Vargas!

August 7, 2012

Tuesday is a second day of mourning in Mexico. Chavela Vargas, one of the greatest singers of Mexican traditional music, died Sunday at age 93. While Monday tens of thousands of Mexicans of all ages and economic and social strata gathered spontaneously in Garibaldi Plaza in Mexico City — the very heart, the pulse and epicenter of Mexican music and culture —to sing and cry in the heat and thunderous rain until deep in the night, Tuesday's farewell at the Palacio de Bellas Artes will be formal and, perhaps most ironically given her history, official. No other Mexican cultural figure — not Cantinflas or Pedro Infante — has had such a prolonged farewell.

Vargas' death had been coming for weeks, after she got ill while performing in Spain from her latest album,  La Luna Grande, a tribute to Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca. When she came back to Mexico, intuiting that death was near, hundreds of fans gathered outside the hospital to serenade her nightly.

Who was Chavela Vargas? A rough and tumble Costa Rican street performer who grew up to be a butchy, pistol-wearing, cigar-smoking, tequila-downing, woman-loving icon for generations of Mexicans. How did a country as macho as Mexico, in a musical genre as manly as ranchera music, fall in love with such a creature?

Perhaps because no one had ever stripped ranchera music down to the vein quite like her, made it so intense and intimate. Deleting the trumpets and sentimental extravaganzas, Chavela Vargas gave ranchera music gravitas and punch. No one — but particularly no woman — had ever owned the genre quite like she did, worn it like a second skin. No one could deny the personal power of Chavela Vargas — la Chamana — and this made her a mightily seductive figure.

“Today I met Chavela Vargas,” said the painter Frida Kahlo, with whom Vargas lived for several years, in a letter about the then young street singer. “Extraordinary, a lesbian. She’s so erotic, I wanted her. I don’t know if she felt like I did, but I think she’s the kind of liberal-minded woman that if she asked, I wouldn’t hesitate to disrobe for even a second. How many times do you get it in your head that you just want to sleep with somebody and that’s that? Like I said, she’s erotic. Perhaps she’s a gift that heaven has sent to me.”

A gift, though, that Kahlo shared with the world: Chavela Vargas’ fierce and tender voice, a deep and worn heart cry talked of love, and of something else, a word that’s hard to say in English: desamor, the absence — not the mere loss — of love. She sang the ghostly, like “La Llorona,” but also the desolate, like “Piensa en mi,” and the poignant, like “Toda la Vida.” And she sang in that very particular Mexican way of embracing pain, daring desamor, laughing with death.

“Chavela Vargas made of abandonment and desolation a cathedral in which we all found a place,” said the Oscar-winning Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar, who featured her music in several films.

Success came late to Chavela Vargas, who was banned from Mexican TV and official performance spaces until the last 20 years. (By 2009, though, the Mexican government had given her an official tribute and named her a distinguished citizen.) She recorded her first album in 1961, at age 42, then went on to make more than 80 of them. Singing at tourist spots in Acapulco and in small clubs in Mexico City, she became a cult figure (among her fans: Ava Gardner, Jeanne Moreau). It wasn’t until the '90s, when she came out of isolation (she dropped from sight in her 70s, going to the mountains to live with an indigenous family who saved her from a lifetime of alcoholism), that she was discovered by a new generation of artists such as Lila Down, Julieta Venegas, Salma Hayek (who featured her in the Kahlo biopic Frida) and, of course, Almodóvar.

Chavela Vargas came out at 81, in an interview in Colombia.

“I don’t have to hide or be ashamed of anything. I’ve never been in or out of the closet. I was simply where I had to be, in my place: on the street, in front of everyone, free and comfortable,” she said.

In other words, she didn’t change: The world caught up with her, who had always been so ahead of her time.

“I didn’t study to be a lesbian. I wasn’t taught to be a lesbian. I was born this way. I’ve been like this since the day I opened my eyes to he world. I’ve never even slept with a gentleman. Imagine the purity. I have nothing to be ashamed of. My gods made me this way,” she added.

And indeed they did.

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