Chavela Vargas: A Colorful Character – Even by Mexican Standards!
Chavela Vargas: you may be familiar or completely unaware of the name or the person. Her character remains one of the most colourful ever to have taken residence in Mexico. This is her story.
Born in 1919 in Costa Rica, Isabel Vargas Lizano starts life under extremely tough circumstances. Her family rejects her and with nowhere else to go she has to rely on the care of an uncle. At 14, Chavela (her pet name) leaves her home country for Mexico City. She sings on the streets there for many years.
By the 1950s she rises up to become one of the more sought after of the singers in a thriving Mexican club scene. With her guitar and haunting voice full of tenderness she reduces revelers to tears. Chavela sings many genres of Latin music in her rich repertoire. She is especially appreciated for her heart rending covers of Mexican Rancheras (a genre of traditional Mexican music).
By night Chavela sings in the clubs and by day she continues to push social boundaries. Chavels challenges mainstream Mexican morals. She dresses in men’s clothing, dates women, drinks copious amounts of tequila, smokes cigars, and totes guns on her hips.
Her unique voice and distinct identity make her popular well beyond the Mexican borders but also in the USA, France and Spain. From this international vantage soon follow a circle of famous friends. Her travels provide space for much fun and frivolity – including singing at Elizabeth Taylor’s marriage to Mike Todd in Acapulco. She then, allegedly, runs off with Ava Gardner; and from there spends a year living with Frida Khalo and Diego Rivera in Casa Azul, whilst, again allegedly, having an affair with Frida.
Some of her zest is bolstered by generous amount of alcohol. As time goes on her fame fades but the drinking continues. By the 1970s old habits force her to partially retire from performing. She describes herself as “submerging into an alcoholic haze”. But then Chavela is taken in by an Indian family who nurse her back to health, without even knowing her more famous identity.
A Huge Comeback
In triumph Chavela returns to the stage in 1991 and her career begins making a strong recovery. She receives further international acclaim and she becomes muse to many artists and filmmakers including famously Pedro Amodóvar. With her newly rejuvenated status and re-burgeoning international acclaim Chavela Vargas goes onto win a Latin Grammy in 2007 after receiving a lifetime achievement award.
She publishes her autobiography And If You Want To Know About My Past at the age of 81. This is how she finally publically comes out and it’s no surprise to her fans, though. Her songs have involved detailed stories of women partying together all night long as well as breaking her heart.
Chavela’s long and colourful life finally ended at the age of 93 in Cuernavaca, Mexico, in 2012. Her parting words were “I leave my heart with Mexico.”
This trailblazing woman added her own unique colour to the already wonderfully vibrant landscape of Mexico, and a legacy of timeless music that continues to be discovered by all ages.