Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Chavela Vargas, b. April 17 1919, d. August 5 2012

I first read about Chavela Vargas in the wonderful zine series “The Life and Times of Butch Dykes", created by Eloisa Aquino of Montreal-based micropublisher, B&D Press. [1]

I was instantly attracted to this Costa-Rican born singer, who defied expected gender roles throughout her life, in her music, in her fashion and performance, and in her unapologetic love of other women.

While much has been written about these elements of her public persona, an excerpt from her obituary in the Telegraph documents it well:

Vargas’ career began in the late 1940s, when she performed highly-emotional “ranchera” [2] torch songs, accompanying herself on guitar, in small Acapulco bars of questionable repute … Chavela Vargas shocked Roman Catholic Mexico by appearing on stage dressed as a man, toting a gun or brandishing a bullwhip, and drawing on a fat cigar or swigging from a bottle of hooch.

At a time when homosexuality was taboo, Chavela Vargas refused to change the pronouns in love songs about women as decorum required, and long before it became permissible to express erotic love for one’s own sex, she embraced it in her songs. The libretto of Macorina, a song she recorded in 1956, includes the words: “Your breasts like pineapple flesh,/your mouth like a sweet blessing,/of ripe guanabana juice/just like your fine waist ...” Despite the disapproval of the more conservative elements of Mexican society (in the 1950s, when she performed on Mexican television, she was shown from the waist up so that her trousers could not be seen), Chavela Vargas became hugely popular in the Spanish-speaking world — “the Edith Piaf of Latin music”, as she was once described...

In the 1970s Chavela Vargas’s raunchier numbers were adopted as anthems by the fledgling Mexican lesbian and gay movement.

Watching her perform "Macorina", it's clear how this became one of her most famous songs in this regard: 

As Marvette Perez, curator of Latin-American Culture and Music for the Smithsonian Museum of American History noted,  
“I don’t think there could be a more queer song for a woman to sing. The song says, 'Ponme la mano aqui, Macorina.' Put your hand right here, Macorina. And whenever she sang the song, she put such sexuality, desire and kind of sensuality into it that you knew why she was singing, why she was singing and to who she was singing it. She was singing it to a woman."  
Another fun fact—and a tribute to how magnificent femmes often run in tight circles and influence one another—Vargas was a great friend, inspiration and love of Frida Kahlo, whom she lived with in Mexico for a few years.  

Frida Kahlo and Chavela Vargas

Despite being known as a lover of women throughout her life, Vargas only took on the label of lesbian when she was 81 years old and published her autobiography Y Si Quieres Saber de Mi Pasado (If You Want to Know About My Past). To Vargas, it was a move of solidarity, given LGBT movements' struggles for recognition, yet as she recounted in an interview,

“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
Apart from being ahead of her time in expressing the fluidity of gender and sexual orientations, Vargas' musical career was prolific and masterful. She recorded her first album at age 42 in 1961, and went on to record more than 80 albums throughout her life. 

Vargas did take a long pause between the 1970s and 1990s to recover from an addiction to alcohol, but she returned to the world stage in top form. 

(The Life and Times of Butch Dykes: Chavela Vargas, B&D Press)

Vargas moved crowds with her music until age 92, when she released her final album and received standing ovations while performing on stage in a wheelchair. She passed away at age 93, on August 5, 2012.  

(Wall of Femmes: Chavela Vargas, color poster)

[1] The Chavela Vargas zine from B&D press can be read online here if you’re in Montreal, I highly recommend stopping by Gallerie Monastiraki (5478 Boulevard Saint-Laurent) or Librarie Drawn & Quarterly (211 Bernard O.) to pick up a copy, and browse the other titles in the series while you're at it! If you’re not in Montreal, you can buy any of the series titles online from B&D Press' Etsy site

[2] 'Ranchera' literally means 'music of the ranches', based on traditional Mexican folk music.