Chavela Vargas was an LGBT Mexican ranchera singer who didn’t just sing Rancheras, she lived them. Honestly, when I think of Ranchera, I think of Chavela.
Isabel Vargas Lizano was born in San Joaquín Flores, Costa Rica on April 17, 1919. She ran away to Mexico when she was 14, attracted by the creative energy of the Mexican Golden Age after the Mexican Revolution.
For a long time, Vargas sang on the streets. She turned professional in her 30s and established a career in the 1940s and 50s.
Vargas is a Ranchera singer. Rancheras are Mexican folk songs of love lost mostly sung by men with a drunken swagger. Chavela made this style her own by singing Rancheras with simple emotion, and lots of alcohol.
She sang like a man, dressed like a man, partied like a man, and chased women like a man.
Traditional Mexican society is conservative and very Machista (macho). Vargas was breaking the rules and that made her unique. It also made her a fan of the queer community which was very repressed in that time and place.
In the late 1950s, Vargas got noticed for her performances in Acapulco which at the time was a jet-set getaway. That led to her first recording Noche de Bohemia (1961). She eventually recorded 80 albums.
Vargas became a huge star in the 1960s. Eventually, she succumbed to alcoholism a disappeared in the 1980s. Vargas told the New York Times that without knowing who she was, a Huichol Indian family took her in and nursed her back to health.
Vargas started performing again in 1991 and her career took off again. Spanish film director Pedro Almodóvar became a fan and used her music in some of his movies including The Flower of My Secret (1995), and Julieta (2016). This helped grow her international audience.
New York’s own Claudia Norman produced Vargas’ Carnegie Hall debut in 2003 at age 83.
The great singer passed away on August 5, 2012, in Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico.
Chavela is Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi’s 2017 documentary about the great singer.
The movie is centered around an interview that Catherine Gund shot in Mexico in the early 1990s. She dug up her old footage after Vargas passed and the movie was born.
In Spanish with English subtitles