February 19, 2012

LGBTQ Female Role Models: Chavela Vargas

Question: Who is one of the most (internationally) famous living lesbians?

Answer: Chavela Vargas! Born in 1919 in Costa Rica, she moved to México at the age of 14 and lived there thereafter, adopting Mexican nationality. She is considered one of the most famous "Ranchera" singers, a genre of Mexican music with one singer and a guitar.

The Ranchera genre is known for being traditionally dominated by men-most of the songs are long and ballad-like poems directed towards women. Yet the male domination of the genre didn't stop her, and when Chavela Vargas began singing in the 1940s, she sang traditional Ranchera songs, using the same lyrics
that expressed strong desire for women and the Ranchera clothing [see picture, left] and persona, which included pistol carring. She stopped her lengthy career in the 1970s for the next 15 years to battle alcoholism, but returned to her work and is still singing (to women) today at the age of 91.

In 2000, at the age of 81, she came out openly as a lesbian woman to the Madrid newspaper El País; "I was born this way, since I opened my eyes to the world. I've had to fight to be myself and to be respected. I'm proud to carry this stigma. I'm proud to call myself a lesbian." Her most famous relationship was with Frida Kahlo: "When I saw Frida's face, her eyes, it seemed like she was from another world...I sensed I could love that being with the most pure love in the world." She was also friends with many other famous Mexican artists of the time, including Diego Rivera, José Alfredo Jimenéz (who helped her produce much of her work), and Juan Rulfo.

[Note: The below video is actually a scene from the movie Frida, but since Chavela Vargas plays herself (and sitting across from one of her then-lovers) I thought it was pretty powerful! She has other videos online but for some reason it was hard to find one with good sound quality.]

Her vivacious personality and defiance to accept traditional norms seem fascinating to me; today Chavela walks with a limp , which she claims is from "jumping out of a window for a woman". Her most recent work involves her soundtrack and performances for the movie Frida, as well as for various films by Spainish director Pedro Almódovar (La Flor del Secreto, Tecanos Lejanos). Almódovar, who is also openly gay, characterizes Chavela as "la voz áspera de la ternura", or "the rough voice of tenderness".

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