Queer folk have a tendency to bestow idol-hood on personas with bombastic glamour who are prone to antics; characters living out loud in a way that perhaps we wish we could. However, you won’t hear Mexican folk singer Chavela Vargas’ name listed alongside Cher or George Michael. Yet during the same time Liberace was wearing ruffles on national TV, Vargas was the first female celebrity to wear pants publicly in Mexico and sing love songs to women.
The new documentary about her life, Chavela, doesn’t try and offer a linear account of Vargas’ career, but rather presents her life through events, relationships, and the words she sung. Relying mostly on a series of filmed interviews with the late singer during the 1990s, directors Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi intertwine more current interviews with everyone from her musical peers to friends/ex lovers (the two labels often overlapped for Vargas). The result is something intimate—a film depicting not only her life in terms but perhaps a bit of her soul, too. Which, according to several eyewitnesses, was the true source of her music’s power. “She always sounded like she’d be torn apart,” says a cabaret owner in the film, “as if she’d been born with the wounds of life and death.”
Chavela Vargas built a reputation in the 50s and 60s for her husky voice, masculine style, and her deeply emotional interpretations of folk music popular at the time. Born in Costa Rica, her childhood was unhappy. She possessed a kind of otherness that once prompted a priest to deny her entry into a church when she was only seven years old. Her family, ashamed of their daughter who dressed like a boy, hid her when they had guests. She moved to Mexico when she was only 14, where she began singing on the street, in bars, anywhere that would have her. At first her unorthodox style—her rejection of the traditional notion that a Mexican ranchera singer should be delicate and feminine—confused many. But the emotional clarity with which she performed soon overrode the audience’s initial doubt.
She would sing a phrase that translates to, “I woke up weeping with joy,” quaking her voice dramatically on the latter sentiment to invoke the impression of actual weeping. Her voice had a profound pain to it, but it was also full and strong. Less of a belt and more a roar, the listener gets the impression that this expression is how she copes—copes with pain of being a societal outlier, her mother’s rejection, her personal heartbreak. There is a type of deep seeded anguish only queer people capable of accessing in their art.
If we’re going to celebrate being unapologetically flamboyant, it’s only right we do the same for being unapologetically butch. She often spoke of embracing macho culture, wore a pancho, was a notorious drunk, and refused to change the pronouns of the songs she was singing. It was a open secret that she was a lesbian, and at the height of her career she conducted affairs with wives of government officials, Hollywood starlets vacationing in Acapulco, and Frida Kahlo (decades later she would be featured in Salma Hayek’s Frida). While she didn’t publicly announce her orientation until the 1990s, she never pretended to be something she wasn’t. A move even more radical then than it is now. “I have opened doors and paths, but I have suffered a lot,” Vargas said of her queer legacy.
Towards the end of her life, Chavela would say she wanted to die on stage, but on the contrary, it has granted her immortality. A tremendous artist and a queer woman of color who loved with intensity and channeled all the subsequent joy and heartbreak into her music: Chavela Vargas is an icon, and you should know her name.