In the late 1950s and early 1960s in Mexico, singer Chavela Vargas dressed in men’s clothes, drank and smoked cigars like any man, carried a gun with her, and was notorious for her love of women. Some even say that she once kidnapped a woman at gunpoint, but Vargas denies that rumor.
She doesn’t deny, however, that she gained her slight limp from jumping out of a window because a woman disappointed her in love. If that’s true, Vargas in her youth was every bit as romantic as the music she sang.
A legend in Mexican ranchera music — traditional folk music filled with lusty songs about women and romance and heartbreak — Vargas publicly came out as a lesbian in 2000 at the age of 81, the same year she was awarded Spain’s Great Cross of Isabel la Católica, the country’s highest honor for artistic production.
Speaking to Madrid’s El País newspaper in October 2000, Vargas declared, “I’ve had to fight to be myself and to be respected. I’m proud to carry this stigma and call myself a lesbian. I don’t boast about it or broadcast it, but I don’t deny it. I’ve had to confront society and the Church, which says that homosexuals are damned. That’s absurd. How can someone who’s born like this be judged?”
“I didn’t attend lesbian classes. No one taught me to be this way. I was born this way, from the moment I opened my eyes in this world. 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.”
Born in Costa Rica in 1919, Vargas suffered from polio and blindness as a child, and has claimed that she was cured by shamans — a fitting beginning for someone who eventually became one of Mexico’s best-known and best-loved singing legends.
Although she went to Mexico when she was fourteen and often sang in the streets, she did not begin singing professionally until the mid-1950s, when she was in her thirties.
She was associated with Mexico’s well-known intellectuals of the time, including Diego Rivera and Luis Echeverría who went on to be President of Mexico from 1970-76. But her most well-known relationship was with bisexual artist Frida Kahlo, who was most recently portrayed by Salma Hayek in the critically acclaimed Frida.
“When I saw [Frida’s] face, her eyes,” Vargas says on the film’s DVD, “it seemed like she was from another world…I sensed I could love that being with the most pure love in the world.”
Working with José Alfredo Jiménez, Vargas released her first album in 1961, Noche Bohemia (Bohemian Night), and has recorded over 80 albums throughout her career.
In her performances, Vargas dressed in traditionally masculine clothing and openly seduced women in the audience with Mexican folksongs — ranchera music — originally intended to be sung by men. Her album covers didn’t shy away from her butch persona, and often featured her wearing traditional men’s clothing.
“La Chabela” was also known for her hard drinking and womanizing ways.
Her alcoholism eventually forced her into a semi-retirement in the late 1970s that lasted for about a dozen years. In 2000 Vargas reflected, “I’d get a new car on Friday and by Monday I had nothing left; I’d get drunk and go sing on the streets and be late for the show. I used to drink tequila. I drank everything I ever owned. That’s why I left nothing over there.”
During her retirement, Vargas continued to perform intermittently at cabarets, building up a devoted following among gay men.
Despite a brief comeback in the early 1980s, it was not until filmmaker Pedro Almodovar asked her to record a song for his film Tacones Lejanos in 1991 that her career fully revived.
In 1993 she returned to the studio to record new material for the first time in decades.
She opened her Madrid concert that year with a double entendre about her musical passions, declaring, “When you like something, you should do it all night long.”
In 2000 Vargas performed for an audience of 20,000 in Mexico City’s main square, the Zócalo, and in 2002 she played the part of Death in Frida, singing the traditional song “La Llorona” (“The Weeping Woman”).
In 2003, at age 83, Vargas made her Carnegie Hall debut, and was introduced to the appreciative audience by Salma Hayek.
Although Vargas didn’t come out publicly in 2000, she has long been an icon for Latina lesbians who grew up listening to her reinterpret traditional ranchera music, making those well-loved songs accessible to lesbians.
In her essay “Crossing the Border with Chabela Vargas: A Chicana Femme’s Tribute,” Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano, a professor of Chicana Studies at Stanford University, explained, “Because of her public sexual positioning as a lesbian, Chabela Vargas appropriates or undermines many of the gendered subject positions in Mexican popular songs, even as she illuminates how impossible it is to conceive of the Mexican/Chicana lesbian identities and desires completely outside these culturally specific imaginings about men and women, masculinity and femininity.”
Now 84 years old, Vargas makes her home in Veracruz, Mexico and still retains a love for guns, keeping a Magnum in her house that she uses to warn away animals.
“I only shoot in the air when I hear a noise at night, so that they know there’s someone here,” Vargas insisted to The New York Times in 2003. “But when I was young and drunk, I’d shoot in every direction.”
Asked if she regretted her years of alcoholism and hard living, Vargas replied that she had no regrets, stating, “I was me and I lived.”