Updated: Feb 27, 2020
Picture Credit: https://www.imer.mx/rmi/centenario-de-chavela-vargas/
Chavela Vargas was a cultural icon that challenge gender roles and a major figure in the LGBTQ community in South America.
Like many Mexican-Americans in the U.S., I grew up listening to ranchera songs, specifically what my dad would play from Vicente Fernandez. Maybe I’d listen to Selena or Shakira on the radio, but when it came to rancheras it was always male artists dominating this genre. That is, until Chavela Vargas came along, singing ranchera songs in her own unique way that challenged gender roles. Until a few months ago, I actually had never heard of Chavela, but many others did. Chavela passed away at 93 years old, and today she would’ve been 100. She is a major icon for the LGBTQ+ community. For those who have heard of her, it may be surprising to learn that she is not Mexican. So who was Chavela Vargas? She was a Costa Rican woman who loved singing Mexican music and turned Mexico into her new home. Vargas is known for her passion in her music, even if some might say that she had a bad singing voice. Nevertheless, the roughness of her voice will always be a distinguishing characteristic of hers. Interestingly, Vargas also never changed the male perspective in her music. For example, she’d sing about a woman partying at night and breaking her heart, or about a Cuban sex worker. Her most well known songs are “Macorina” and “La Llorona".
A picture of Frida and Chavela.
It can be said that Chavela left Costa Rica for Mexico in order to become the person she eventually became. She loved Mexico even if the people there were not that much more accepting of her sexuality than those in her home country. It is reported that Chavela dressed with pants, smoked cigars, drank tequila, and kept a pistol with her ( “Chavela Vargas"). It’s no surprise then, due to her eccentric personality, that Chavela befriended other artists like Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. She was even rumored to have had an affair with Frida ("Chavela Vargas")! Even though many of her fans already suspected long ago of Chavela’s sexuality, in her autobiography “Y Si Quieres Saber De Mi Pasado”, she opened up and let the public know. Unfortunately, Chavela later on battled alcoholism, and it kept her from the stage for many years; however, she eventually returned in 1990 and continued until she passed away in 2012. Even so, Chavela revolutionized ranchera songs, never singing a song the same way twice, always changing melodies, tempos, and lyrics with passion.
Garsd, Jasmine. “Chavela Vargas, Legendary Ranchera Singer, Dies.” NPR, NPR, 6 Aug. 2012, https://www.npr.org/sections/therecord/2012/08/06/158166344/chavela-vargas-legendary-ranchera-singer-has-died.
Pons, Emilie. “Chavela Vargas Was a 'Revolutionary' Who Ushered in a New Ranchera Style.” Public Radio International, 8 Mar. 2019, https://www.pri.org/stories/2019-03-08/chavela-vargas-was-revolutionary-who-ushered-new-ranchera-style.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Chavela Vargas.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 1 Aug. 2019, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Chavela-Vargas.