I've never been to bed with a man. Never. That's how pure I am; I have nothing to be ashamed of. My gods made me the way I am.—Chavela Vargas
Chavela Vargas was born in San Joaquín de Flores, Costa Rica, on 17 April 1919, the daughter of a rancher. As a child she suffered from polio and blindness, from which, she later explained, she was cured by shamans. Her childhood was unhappy, perhaps abusive. She said, “My parents ... never loved me, and when they divorced I stayed with my uncles—may they burn in hell!” At the age of 14, she ran away to Mexico, where she began singing, initially on the streets.
It wasn’t until she was in her thirties that she began to be offered professional engagements and became well-known in the clubs of New Mexico, as well as among the Hollywood stars who visited the Mexican resort of Acapulco. Her voice, sweet, keening, gravelly and full of power, seemed to have been especially created for singing the Mexican rancheras, boleros and corridos, traditional songs of heightened tragedy, love found and lost, and redemption. Many of her performances of these songs became definitive.
Vargas threw herself into the artistic hot-bed that was Mexico, living hard, drinking and womanising. “Drink this bottle with me. Let’s not stop until the last drink... Let’s hope no one sees us together, in case you are embarrassed’ run the words of one of her best-known songs, “El Ultimo Trago” (The Last Drink). She dressed in men’s clothes, smoked cigars and carried pistols. “When I was young and drunk, I'd shoot in every direction,” she told The New York Times in 2003.
She scandalised Mexican society with her unconcealed relationships with women. Later in life she claimed it wasn’t true that she had once kidnapped a woman at gunpoint. However, she did not deny that her slight limp was the result of having to jump out of a window when a love affair with another woman went wrong. Her lovers included artist Frida Kahlo. She lived for several years in the house of Frida and her husband, artist Diego Rivera, and was with Frida on her death bed. “I learned a lot from Frida,” she told El Pais in 2000, “and I saw her suffer. I learned to live, and also about death.”
While homosexuality was not explicitly criminalised in 1950s Catholic Mexico (and some indigenous groups accommodated same-sex sexual practices), laws agains public immorality were often used to prosecute homosexual acts. In 1959, Mayor Ernesto Uruchurtu closed all gay bars in Mexico City under the guise of “cleaning up vice”.
To a large extent, this was an issue of homosexual visibility. When Vargas’s performances were televised in the 1950s and 60s, she was filmed only from the waist up in order to hide the fact that she was wearing trousers. But she never changed the pronouns in the love songs she sang about women. In fact, she embraced the erotic potential in being a woman singing these lyrics. One of her most famous songs, “Macorina”, which she recorded in 1956, includes the lines, “Your breasts like pineapple flesh, / Your mouth like a sweet blessing, / Of ripe guanabana juice / Just like your fine waist.” According to Marvette Perez, curator of Latin-American Culture and Music for the Smithsonian Museum of American History, it was “Macorina” that made Vargas famous. “I don’t think there could be a more queer song for a woman to sing,” she says: