Chavela Vargas: Trailblazing Costa Rican-Mexican Lesbian Singer

Queer icon Chavela Vargas was known for being unabashedly herself in the face of homophobia in the music industry

Chavela Vargas

In this April 21, 2009 file photo, singer Chavela Vargas acknowledges the audience during a ceremony in her honor in Mexico City. Vargas, 93, died on Sunday, Aug. 5, 2012, after being hospitalized recently due to cardiac and renal problems. (AP Photo/Alexandre Meneghini, File)

It’s officially Pride Month! Celebrated every June, this is a time of year to uplift and celebrate the contributions and accomplishments of the LGBTQIA+ community. When it comes to LGBTQIA+ history, queer people of color tend to be forgotten in favor of a white, mainstream narrative. As a result, sometimes folks in the Latinx community don’t know much if anything at all about how LGBTQIA+ rights have been championed by queer Latinxs or that we only became visible because of people who were marginalized both by their sexuality and their ethnicity, yet were fearless in their advocacy. One such person is Chavela Vargas, a Mexican singer born in Costa Rica who rose to fame for her radical interpretations of ranchera songs. Ranchera music is typically sung by male singers but she was known for her stripped-down style and gender-bending performances that meshed elements of femininity and masculinity, which mimicked how she carried herself in real life. Later in life, she came out as a lesbian, further cementing her legacy in the queer Latinx scene and in the hearts of ranchera fans in Latin America. Read on to learn more about Chavela Vargas, who pushed the boundaries of sexuality and gender to bring more visibility to the queer community in the Latinx diaspora and around the world.

Early Life

María Isabel Anita Carmen de Jesús Vargas Lizano was born in San Joaquín de Flores, Costa Rico in 1919 and early on she refused to conform to gender roles. From an early age, she preferred to dress in clothing traditionally meant for men like ponchos, a style that carried on into adulthood. Since there were strict rules at the time about what women could and couldn’t wear or do, her parents chose to hide her from guests so that no one would be able to see her rebellion against heteronormativity and femininity. After her parents divorced, she was left under her uncle’s care and became ill with polio though she would later credit shamans with healing her. At this time, music was her refuge to the point that she often sang in the streets and even took a stage name: Chavela, a pet name for Isabel. Then, when she was 17 years old, she decided to leave Costa Rica because she felt that there weren’t enough opportunities for musicians, especially women. She also longed for freedom from her family to fully express herself. Instead, she immigrated to Mexico where the music scene had been growing and getting bigger for years. She would live there for the rest of life.

Music Career

About a decade after she immigrated from Mexico, Vargas finally kickstarted her professional career as a singer, musician, and performer. She became known for singing ranchera songs, which was already pretty radical for the time. Traditionally, ranchera is sung by men with a mariachi band and all the songs are written from a male perspective to a female lover. Just the fact that she was stepping into a male-dominated genre was saying something. But in her performances, she took it a step further by singing it solo and stripped down with the guitar as her only instrument. And not only did she refuse to change the pronouns and keep the lyrics to be addressed to a woman, but she also slowed down their melodies to draw out the dramatic tension, insert some humor and naughtiness, and make sure the audience knew exactly what she was doing. She would often perform in Acapulco in the Mexican state of Guerrero, especially in the Champagne Room of a restaurant known as La Perla. She became known for being unabashedly “masculine”, regularly smoking cigars and drinking heavily and even carrying a loaded pistol.

By 1961, she had released her debut album Noche Bohemia, or Bohemian Night in collaboration with José Alfredo Jiménez. He was one of the leading ranchera singer-songwriters in the ranchera scene in Mexico. One of the songs on the tracklist, “Macorina,” became one of her most famous but also most controversial songs. It was based on a poem by the Spanish poet Alfonso Camín about María Calvo Nodarse, a Cuban sex worker in Havana known as “La Macorina” who lived a luxurious lifestyle. After Vargas met her once on the island, she set the poem to music. The song would soon become one of the first and most famous erotic lesbian songs of its time.

For the next three decades, she went on tour all over the world and recorded more than 80 albums. She ran in social circles with many famed artists and intellectuals including artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, writer Juan Rulfo, and Mexican composer Agustín Lara. She claimed to have had brief affairs with Kahlo during her marriage to Rivera, as well as with American actress Ava Gardner after the wedding of fellow American actress Elizabeth Taylor.

Eventually, Vargas disappeared from the public eye in the 1970s after succumbing to an alcohol addiction which had worsened with her fast-paced lifestyle. For 15 years, she stopped performing altogether and had to be nursed back to health by her romantic partner at the time, Dr. Alicia Pérez Duarte. However, their relationship was volatile in part because of Vargas’s temper and they later separated. After going sober, she eventually returned to touring and performing in 1991 in Coyoacán, Mexico City. Overwhelmingly supported by fans, she again performed on international stages across Latin America, Europe, and the U.S. When she was 83, she made her debut at the iconic NYC venue, Carnegie Hall, cementing her status as a prominent musician. In 2002, she finally addressed the rumors that had been circulating her life and came out as a lesbian at the age of 81 in her autobiography Y Si Quieres Saber de Mi Pasado (And If You Want to Know About My Past). In 2007, she was recognized by the Latin Recording Academy with the Latin Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. She also received the Grand Cross of the Order of Isabella the Catholic, the Gold Medal of Madrid’s Complutense University, and the Medal of Merit of Alcalá de Henares University for her contributions to music. In 2009, the state government recognized her as a distinguished Citizen of Mexico City.

Queer Icon

Long before coming out, Vargas was considered a queer icon in the eyes of her fans and supporters. She chose to rebel against widely accepted ideas about gender, dressing in masculine styles with pants, charro suits, sombreros, guayaberas, and ponchos. Her performance style, which was rooted in sensuality, also helped remove taboos about female sexuality, especially with regard to lesbian relationships. This was that much more significant considering the rampant homophobia throughout LATAM where laws and social conventions were largely driven by religious beliefs. Instead, she was wholly dedicated to amplifying queer visibility in a time when it was still a rarity and often vilified and/or criticized.

Though she remained steadfast in her authenticity, it was a constant struggle in an industry famously dominated by men. As a female ranchera artist singing about lesbian relationships, she was often the subject of marginalization and hate. She found it difficult at times to drum up support from the mainstream industry, who found her unsettling and rebellious. However, what fans she did have saw themselves in her and vocalized their support for her groundbreaking career, allowing her to still find fame and success.

“I opened my arms and I said to the world: ‘Come here, let’s talk.’ And the world and I talked every night and sometimes it rejected me,” she told El País in 2009. “It required tears of blood for me to get ahead.”

Death and Legacy

In 2011 she released her final album, La Luna Grande, an ode to Spanish poet Federico García Lorca.The following year she was hospitalized for several weeks to treat a bout of respiratory problems and died on August 5 in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Her funeral in Mexico City was attended by hundreds of fans who played her music and drank tequila, her preferred liquor, in her honor. Seven years after her death, she was inducted into the Rainbow Honor Walk, a walk of fame located in San Francisco that honors LGBTQIA+ leaders for their notable contributions to their fields and the wider community. Today, more than a decade after her death, she remains an influential figure that’s recognized for helping to pave the way for queer musicians and empowering the LGBTQIA+ community.

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