Chavela Vargas, one of Mexico's greatest musical and cultural icons, passed away in Cuernavaca, Morelos August 5 of heart and respiratory failure. She was 93, and had been hospitalized for a week. According to her doctor and those close to her, she was conscious until the last second and had refused any invasive surgery to prolong her life. On Sunday, she had been in good spirits but things took a complicated, lethal turn.
Vargas, who recorded more than 80 albums, was born in Costa Rica on April 17, 1919, but moved to Mexico at age 14. She sang on the streets for many years before she recorded her first album, 1961's Noches de Bohemia, under the tutelage of José Alfredo Jiménez, arguably the greatest composer in Mexican history. She became famous worldwide for her renditions of rancheras, corridos, boleros, and even tango, and her raspy voice and heart-wrenching delivery were as famous as her style: gun-toting, dressed like a man, and a heavy smoker and drinker for many years. At age 81, she came out as a lesbian.
“I was born like this," she once said. "Since I opened my eyes to the world. I never went to bed with a gentleman. Never. Look how pure, I have nothing to be ashamed of... My gods made me this way."
Even though she's mostly known as a ranchera singer, her style was unique. Unlike most rancheros, she didn't use a traditional mariachi, opting instead for the intimacy of sometimes only one guitarist.
"Chavela Vargas was able to express the desolation of rancheras with the radical desolation of the blues," once wrote the late Mexican writer Carlos Monsiváis.
She was the ultimate singer of heartbreak, but she sang it with such joy that it moved, empowered and energized the listeners. She was a larger-than-life figure that, through her life and music, made an example of taking the bull by the horns and making beauty out of whatever life gives you.
Vargas was adored in the Latin music world, especially among connoisseurs. Artists from virtually all Latin music genres poured the internet with messages of condolences. But, in Spain she was as big and respected (if not more so) than in Mexico. Indeed, a great part of the credit for her success in the latter part of her career (after being absent from the stages for 20 years while battling alcoholism) goes to Spanish film director Pedro Almodóvar. He used one of Vargas' biggest hits (Agustín Lara's "Piensa en mí/Think of Me," on a version sang by Luz Casal) for 1991's Tacones Lejanos (High Heels). Then, in 1995, Almodóvar gave her a cameo role in his underrated gem La flor de mi secreto (The Flower of My Secret). In the following scene, Leo Macías (played by Marisa Paredes) goes to a bar to get over a heartbreak, but a video of Chavela Vargas singing José Alfredo Jiménez's ranchera classic "En el último trago" ("In the Last Drink") makes thing even worse for her.
"With her emphasis at the end of her songs, Chavela created a new genre that should be named after her," wrote Almodóvar on Sunday in the Facebook page of his production company, El Deseo. "She gloated over those endings, she turned the lamentation into a hymn. She spit the ending on your face."
Her work with Almodóvar wasn't the only time she acted in movies. In 2002, she sang "La Llorona" in Julie Taymor's Frida.
As guest recording singer, her version of "Piensa en mí" was featured in Pink Martini's 2009 Splendor in the Grass.
Her last album, La Luna Grande (The Big Moon), was a tribute to Federico García Lorca. Shortly before her death she said the album was her way of paying García Lorca "a debt of love, peace, and beauty."
"With her death, we lose a way of singing while crying, an incomparable quejío [groan], an uncommon expressiveness," wrote Spanish singer-songwriter Joaquín Sabina for Madrid's El País daily. Sabina, arguably the best lyricist in the Spanish world, wrote his hit "Por el bulevar de los sueños rotos" directly inspired by something Vargas once told him: "I live in the boulevard of broken dreams."
In the video, Sabina imagines a young Vargas (herself appearing at the end), her famous red poncho, and key celebrities in her life: Agustín Lara, José Alfredo Jiménez, Diego Rivera, and Frida Kahlo.
“[Kahlo and Rivera] invited me to a party in their home," Vargas told El País in 2009. "And I stayed, they invited me to stay with them and I learned all the secrets of Diego and Frida's paintings. Very interesting secrets I will never, ever reveal. And we were all happy. We were people living day by day, without a cent, maybe with nothing to eat, but dying of laughter. All the time."
"She had a pair of balls and ovaries not seen in popular music since the death of [Argentine tango singer] Roberto Goyeneche," Sabina wrote. "She didn't sell a voice, she sold a style. Oh, who could laugh the way she cries..."
She toured and recorded until shortly before her death, talking more than singing, but her ability to communicate with her audience never suffered. Once during a concert at the Olympia in Paris, Almodóvar was sitting next to the great Jeanne Moreau, whispering translations to the lyrics on the actress' ear. She stopped him. "It's not necessary, Pedro. I understand her perfectly."
In 2007, the Latin Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (LARAS) gave Vargas a Lifetime Achievement Award.
"In the world of music there's successful people, people of value, and people with strength," LARAS president/CEO Gabriel Abaroa told the Current on Sunday. "Next to them are the legends, and that's what Chavela Vargas is."
“I hope one day it's understood that my message no longer comes from the throat, from the record, from the concert," Vargas told Spain's Letras Libres magazine in 2003. "It is the immense voice of the human individual who is silent, who has no name, who cannot be called by any name. That's what I feel, that's what stops me from dying until people know my singing is not singing, it's something that goes beyond pain, beyond anguish, beyond knowing, beyond everything, even art itself." — Enrique Lopetegui