Partner Alicia Elena Pérez Duarte

Queer Places:
Quinta la Monina, Morelos Cuernavaca - Yautepec de Zaragoza 4b, 62520 Tepoztlán, Mor., Mexico

Di Martino e Cammarata omaggiano Chavela Vargas. Ecco chi è stata la rude  voce della tenerezza | LeftChavela Vargas (April 17, 1919 - August 5, 2012) was an acclaimed Costa Rican-Mexican performer and singer. She became notorious for the eroticism of her performances and for her open expression of lesbian desire.

Vargas was born Isabel ("Chavela") Vargas Lizano to Herminia Lizano and Francisco Vargas on April 19, 1919 in the province of Santa Bárbara de Heredia, Costa Rica, which is nestled between Nicaragua and Panama. She grew up in Mexico, in exile, where she associated with leading intellectuals such as Frida Kahlo, with whom she had an affair, Diego Rivera, Agustín Lara, and Juan Rulfo, and even befriended political leaders such as Luis Echeverría, who served as President of Mexico from 1970 to 1976. Vargas's career as a singer commenced in the mid 1950s, under the direction of José Alfredo Jiménez, her producer.

Towards the end of the 1950’s, her reputation began to expand greatly — particularly in artistic circles. She was a popular performer in Acapulco, singing in the champagne room of La Perla, frequently in front of tourists from other parts of the world. She was so well regarded that she was hired to sing at the wedding of Elizabeth Taylor and Mike Todd on February 2, 1957. Chavela would later claim that she slept with Ava Gardner at that wedding. She is known to have had numerous romances after this — including, apparently, with some very famous people, but she would never share their names. A few have stepped forward, including American author Betty-Carol Sellen, but Chavela was very careful to keep these things private.

Her first recording came a decade later in 1961. With the help of José Alfredo Jiménez, Chavela’s first album was released: Noche de Bohemia. This was the first of more than 80 albums that she’d release over the course of her career. Later that year she released Con el cuarteto Lara Foster. Rumor has it that although her career was just beginning to take off, Chavela began a short-lived affair with Arabella Árbenz Villanova in 1964 after their paths crossed coincidentally — the problem being that Arabella was also having a torrid romance with Televisa executive Emilio Azcárraga Milmo, also known as “El Tigre.” When El Tigre learned of this affair he was infuriated and tried to destroy her career. With his pretty powerful influence in Mexico, he very nearly did, and Chavela Vargas was banned from appearing on Televisa in any capacity.

Vargas became famous in the mid-1960s for her hallmark interpretations, frequently melodramatic and heart-wrenching, of sentimental Mexican songs. The originality of her style and the deep pain she was able to communicate marked her as a singular talent. At the same time, however, she became infamous for her outlandish behavior, which violated a number of Mexican taboos. Not only did she wear trousers and dress as a man, but she also smoked cigars, carried a gun in her pocket, and sported a red poncho in her celebration and vindication of folklore. A crucial element of her radical performance art was her seduction of women in the audience and her singing rancheras written to be sung by a man to a woman. Vargas came to be known as "the woman with the red poncho," as the Spanish singer Joaquín Sabina dubbed her, as well as "the queen of Mexican song." She shared this latter accolade with Mexico's greatest popular singers: Lola Beltrán, Angélica María, Juan Gabriel, Lucha Reyes, and Rocío Durcal. For those intimately acquainted with her performances Vargas was known simply as "La Doña" or "La Chabela." These epithets are signs of respect and reverence, which were extended to her despite her "black legend," which included a devastating bout with alcoholism as well as overt lesbianism. Vargas' life was dedicated to ritual performance that transgresses social, gender, and cultural borders through song. Perhaps because she was afflicted with illness in childhood--including polio and blindness that she claimed were cured by shamans--she declared that she shared the stage with her own gods. Through her long life, she expressed a bold faith in spirituality and artistic expression--a faith that she relied upon time and time again, especially when she was labeled "other," "queer," and "strange." After gaining fame in the 1960s, Vargas fell into alcoholism in the 1970s. She retreated from the public sphere for about twelve years. She attempted comebacks with only modest success, though she did sing in local cabarets, especially those frequented by gay men, who throughout her career constituted a large fraction of her admirers. In 1981, however, she made a major comeback with stellar performances in the Olympia Theatre of Paris, Carnegie Hall in New York, the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico, and the Palau de la Música in Barcelona.

On September 2, 1988, at the request of mutual friend Patria Jiminez, lawyer Dr. Alicia Elena Pérez Duarte arrived at Chavela Vargas’ home in order to stop her from drunkenly signing some legal documents. This began an intense romantic relationship, which both Chavela and Alicia would describe as “something greater than love.” Chavela moved in with Alicia and her four kids — but Chavela’s reliance on alcohol, and her great attachment to firearms, put a heavy strain on the relationship. Although Chavela did manage to quit drinking — which she credits to a shamanistic ritual (though Duarte has publicly disagreed with that statement) — it turned out her violent streak and penchant for guns was not dependent upon alcohol at all. Alicia ended the relationship, though she remained Chavela’s legal representation.

In the early 1990s she experienced another revival. Gay filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar helped bring her a new audience by incorporating her bold, expressive, and seductive music into his films. Vargas recorded over eighty albums. Among her most notable and cherished titles and interpretations are "Macorina," "La China," "La Llorona," "Luz De Luna," "Toda Una Vida," "Corazón Corazón," "Quisiera Amarte Menos," and "Volver Volver." In November of 2000, the President of the Spanish government presented Vargas with "la Cruz de la Orden Isabel Católica," one of the most prestigious awards for artistic production. This award, the singer declared, was testament to her vexed legacy, one that included her unapologetic persona and creative lesbian aesthetic. In 2002, she appeared in Julie Traymor's biopic of Frida Kahlo, Frida, in which she hauntingly sang "La Llorona," or "The Crier." Vargas pursued an active working life into her nineties. In 2011, she released a new album of Federico García Lorca's poems and appeared in concerts, singing from her wheelchair. She died on August 5, 2012 in a hospital in Cuernavaca, where she had been admitted for heart and respiratory problems.

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