Happy Pride! Today, in honor of Pride month, FF2 is celebrating influential singer and queer icon Chavela Vargas! Chavela’s revolutionary musical style, as well as her defiant rejection of heteronormativity, spoke to her listeners and influenced the work of queer artists of future generations.
Born in San Joaquín de Flores, Costa Rica on April 17, 1919, even at a young age Chavela dedicated herself to her dream of singing, bravely leaving her home for Mexico at 17 to give herself a better chance at a professional music career. Once in Mexico City, Chavela started her career by singing for passersby on the streets. However, in her thirties she began to receive a growing amount of critical acclaim.
Chavela proved her singularity to her audience through her development of a signature style, both in song and persona. Chavela wore men’s clothes as she performed, as well as smoked cigars, drank, and carried a gun in her personal life. Her audience was completely unused to behavior such as this from a woman performer, and though many were thrilled by her, obviously the blowback was also extreme. It was unthinkably brave of Chavela to present so obviously queer at this time. Of course, she had already grown used to negative reactions to her identity. Chavela had presented masculinely her whole life, and, in her childhood, her own parents had hidden her from guests who visited the house out of embarrassment. Now, far from hidden, Chavela was singing in men’s clothes out on the streets of Mexico City, for all to see.
It was unthinkably brave of Chavela to present so obviously queer at this time.
Chavela’s masculine image was further cemented by her choice of song: rancheras, or Mexican love songs with roots in traditional folk. Traditionally, rancheras are sung from the male perspective, to a woman. In Chavela’s songs, the lover she sang to stayed a woman. In doing this, Chavela not only alluded to her queerness, but forefronted her identity in her art, refusing to change herself to fit into the mold of what a woman in the Mexican music industry should be.
This was in the 1940s and 1950s, decades before the ascension of other queer icons to the main stage of music. Most ranchera singers also use many instruments in their accompaniment, but Chavela created a new life for the ranchera through the powerful and raw sound of only her voice and a lone guitar. She was not afraid of standing alone even in her music.
In 1961, Chavela released her first album, Noche de Bohemia. She quickly became an international success, and in the decade following went on to tour Mexico, the United States, Spain, and France. At this time, Chavela became close with other prominent Mexican artists, including Juan Rulfo, Agustín Lara, Dolores Olmedo, Diego Rivera, and Frida Kahlo. Chavela was especially close to Frida, with whom she shared a short romantic relationship. Chavela herself appears in the 2002 biopic Frida, based on the artist’s life. In it, she sings her rendition of La Llorona as Frida, played by Salma Hayek, stares back at her pensively from across a table.
Although Chavela had obtained monumentous professional success, in the later 1970s she was forced to retire due to her own battle with alcoholism. Though Chavela’s mainstream celebrity had only lasted a little over a decade, her absence was profoundly felt by those she had inspired.
Chavela returned to the music industry in part thanks to filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar, who was himself a teenager at the height of her fame. His films, filled with passionate colors, powerful women, and epic queer stories, also feature the beautiful and haunting music of Chavela. Chavela’s daring rejection of heteronormativity in her music profoundly impacted Pedro, who has gone as far as to call her his muse. Years after Chavela’s retirement, Pedro, now successful himself, reached out and promoted the woman who had influenced his own art. The bond forged between the pair is a testament to the ability of queer artists to inspire and support one another.
The bond forged between the pair is a testament to the ability of queer artists to inspire and support one another.
Chavela began to perform again beginning in the early 1990s. In 2002, she published her autobiography Y si quieres saber de mi pasado (And If You Want to Know about My Past) in which she officially came out as a lesbian at the age of 81. Though Chavela had never before publicly put a label on her sexuality, she had also never been one to hide herself. Fans of Chavela’s were not surprised by her disclosure, but it was consequential all the same for such a historic queer icon to come out and exhibit her own pride.
On August 5, 2012, Chavela died in Cuernavaca, Mexico at the age of 93. In February of 2017, the documentary of Chavela’s own life, titled Chavela, was released to theaters. In her review of the film, FF2 contributor Giorgi Plys-Garzotto calls the documentary “at once inspirational and sobering.” Chavela, directed by Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi, takes viewers on a tour of Chavela’s successes and mistakes in an attempt to fuse the icon and the woman into one nuanced and real figure.
The contributions of Chavela Vargas to the music industry alone are immense, but her contributions to the LGBTQ+ community are irreplaceable. She bravely carved out a place for herself in the Mexican music industry, an industry which would have preferred for her to be more straight, more feminine, and more passive. However, Chavela not only proved that she would not sacrifice herself for her career, but also that listeners out there were just as ready to connect with her as she was to connect with them. Happy Pride to you, Chavela.
© Reese Alexander (6/6/23) FF2 Media
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
Read Giorgi Plys-Garzotto’s review of Chavela here.
Visit Chavela Vargas’s Wikipedia page here.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured Photo: Photo by Ysunza. Courtesy of Chavela Vargas Film / Aubin Pictures.