I was blessed to see the biopic movie on Chavela Vargas with a queer brown bilingual chica like me. Captivated from the opening scene when she grinned at the camera and declared, “My name is Chavela Vargas and don’t you forget it,” we sat together in the dark, falling head-over-heels for this Latina lesbian musical miracle. Think of her as the Prince of abuela’s generation, busting gender roles and breaking hearts throughout the Americas. After struggling to come out in my early forties, it was liberating to witness Chavela’s life unfurl on the big screen. Her unapologetic sexuality awoke decades of suppressed longing and inspired me to confess crushes on female friends, while her creative drive reignited childhood dreams of becoming a writer. Except for a frantic first affair that ended in disaster, my queer romantic life is temporarily on hold, but the authorial impulse grows stronger the more I accept my subterranean desire.
Remember the movie Frida, in which Salma Hayek does a sizzling tango with Ashley homophobic mid-century Mexico. She achieved overdue fame in Spain decades later and returned to Mexico to rest in state as a national treasure. Existentially, Chavela is older than time itself, has died a thousand times in a single incarnation, and was born eternal. She came of age in a society that only had room for women as virgins, mothers or whores, but Chavela was none of these. Instead, she was a musical shaman who drank and seduced women better than a macho. Every time she sang, she wrung each note for its last drop of blood, then passed the empty glass to her audience.
Rejoicing, despairing, and utterly turned on by this woman who sang like a bullfighter, dumped Frida Kahlo, and bedded Ava Gardner, we sat spellbound until the usher chased us out of the theater. When we finally left, quivering and lightheaded, we went straight to a bar for tapas, shots, and dissecting how much and how little has changed since the 1940s. As a film critic declared, Chavela is “Donald Trump’s ultimate nightmare – a Mexican lesbian diva who can wring your very soul.” What proof beyond the 2016 election do we need to confirm how revolutionary Chavela Vargas was, and how much work we have left to do?
Chavela adored women all her life and enjoyed deep friendships with famous men, but patriarchy savaged her. She enraptured crowds in a uniform of trousers, button-down shirts, men’s shoes, and characteristic poncho. After some initial success, she was blacklisted from Mexican concert halls and lost herself in tequila on the few cabaret stages that would still book her. Chavela did not sing in a major venue until her 80s, touring internationally and finally being invited to sing at Carnegie Hall and Mexico’s national theater, El Palacio de Bellas Artes.
While she finally found fame, she nearly lost herself along the way. Talent couldn’t save Chavela from homophobic hatred and gender policing, racism and poverty. Like her musical mentor José Alfredo Jiménez and other men of her era, she drowned her sorrows in tequila, blacking out on stage and descending to violence at home. She claimed that an indigenous shaman finally cured her of the alcoholism that destroyed her long-term relationship and nearly stole her voice, but Chavela would never entirely transcend isolation and heartbreak. She channeled naked emotion on stage, but always returned to an empty house, and ultimately died alone.
Witnessing such explosive desperation in close-up leaves me pondering, are overdue accolades poisoned by social stigma all that we have to offer our most talented artists and LGBTQIA+ women warriors? How many have succumbed to the despair that nearly broke Chavela Vargas? My best friend and longtime crush, Monika Lilia, was a prodigiously gifted artist whose career was curtailed by intersectional oppression and crushing domestic violence. A born iconoclast, Monika could have soared like Chavela. Instead, she committed suicide at age 43. Her sculpture, painting, song, and dance were inimitable, but her legacy has evaporated, disparaged by her family and confiscated by bill collectors. All I have left of Monika, a shooting star without enough longevity to achieve fame, are scattered emails and a list of disability documents scrawled on a paper napkin.
I am now two years older than my friend when she died, nearly half Chavela Vargas’ lifespan, and I remain inspired and bewildered by the cinematic homage to Chavela’s tumultuous life. I cannot help but wonder, how much time do I have left before my creative license finally expires? How long before yet another artistic life-clock stops ticking? In this post-Pulse, hurricane and volcano inscribed, mass-shooting, #MeToo reality show called Trump TV, we cannot afford any more untimely losses. Perhaps that is what Chavela’s story is meant to teach us, how to persevere in spite of outrageous odds. I am grateful to the filmmakers for documenting her epic dance with despair, 93 years of resisting annihilation and loving as many women as she could along the way. RIP Chavela Vargas. May your song never die.
A scholar, healer, and differently-abled queer Xicana mother, Ramona Lee Pérez teaches Latino history, food studies, and feminist anthropology. Her creative works are published in Hispanecdotes and Snapdragon, and by Silver Needle Press. Her latest writings focus on social and psychic healing. Follow her at https://wildwomanista.com/ and on Twitter @wild_womanista.
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