One last drink with Chavela
María Isabel Anita Carmen de Jesús Vargas Lizano — Chavela Vargas … “the lady in the red poncho”… may not have been born in Mexico (14 April 1919, San Joaquín de Los Flores, Costa Rica), but she “owned” Mexican traditional music — the sentimental, sad ranchero and cantina songs — like no one else.
Although internationally recognized in her later years, Vargas was never wealthy, and never particular cared about conventional recognition. Her weary and worldly-wise stylings were less art and more heart.
A street singer up into her 30s, she only began to achieve fame when her friend, the composer José Alfredo Jiménez, convinced her to come into the recording studio. Chavela OWNED Jiménez… her version of his popular songs from the 40s and 50s and 60s becoming canonical in every cantina in Mexico. This despite the “macho” sensibilities of the songs, and the novelty of a woman singing ranchero.
Never much for convention, and one who cared more for her music than what one thought of the singer, Vargas came out as a lesbian at the age of 81 — just as she was becoming an icon and international superstar. If her promoters and booking agents were worried about the effect this might have on her fan base, they didn’t understand Mexico. Mexicans, even the most reactionary cantina louts, were not about to lose everyone’s favorite drinking buddy, their compadre who happened to be a woman.
And what a woman.
Chavela died earlier today in Cuernavaca.