Sunday, September 26, 2010

Know Your Herstory: Chavela Vargas

Chavela Vargas (Isabel Vargas Lizano, 1919- ) is a Costa Rican born musician known for her passionate love songs. And history points out that Chavela is a romantic herself: she once jumped out of a window out of disappointment behind a woman she loved and has a limp to show for it ever since. When she was fourteen, she made her way to Mexico where she sung in the streets. She began her professional career singing ranchera music in the mid-1950's. And in her adulthood, Chavela cross-dressed and smoked cigars and was not secretive of her love for women. However, it wasn't until the year 2000 that this beloved musician declared in Spain's El Pais, "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."

Chavela Vargas was no stranger to influential figures in Mexico, either. Her most famous relationship was with Frida Kahlo. In fact, she appeared in Frida, starring Selma Hayek, singing La Llorona.

I think the most beautiful thing for me about Chavela is that she was so open in her day and age, and was beloved by Mexico regardless, even if she did play into the masculine-feminine dichotomy. In her performances, she dressed like a man and openly seduced women in the audience. Even when she began recording music in the early 60's, her album covers reflected her masculine aesthetic. In the 70's, she was forced into semi-retirement due to alcoholism, and didn't make a comeback until 1991, when Pedro Almodovar asked her to record a song for one of his films. Today, Chavela resides in Veracruz, Mexico.

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