She was 81 when she decided to kick open the closet door. It was the autumn of 2000, and she'd just gotten a big prize in Madrid after fifteen years in an alcoholic wilderness, then a decade of an incredible comeback partly engineered by gay filmmaker Pedro Almodovar who apparently tracked her down in a Mexico City bar, got her sober and back to work. At the time, there were hardly any out Latin American queers. And it meant something huge that she said it out loud, several times, even if everybody already knew that the hard-drinking, cigar-smoking, womanizer was a dyke.
Afterwards, she did an interview in the Spanish paper El País and was so absolutely fierce, thumbing her nose at the Catholic Church, not worried about what anybody thought. "I've had to fight to be myself and to be respected. I'm proud to carry this stigma and call myself a lesbian . . . I've had to confront society and the Church, which says that homosexuals are damned. That's absurd. How can someone who's born like this be judged? I didn't attend lesbian classes. No one taught me to be this way. I was born this way, from the moment I opened my eyes in this world. I've never been to bed with a man. Never. That's how pure I am; I have nothing to be ashamed of. My gods made me the way I am."
She was born in Costa Rica in 1919, and fled to Mexico when she was 14, mostly to get away from a suffocating, conventional society and a family that tried to force her into its straitjacket. According to the BBC, she once said: "I never got to know my grandparents. My parents I got to know better than I would have liked. They never loved me and when they divorced, I stayed with my uncles, may they burn in hell!"
In Mexico, she somehow survived by singing on the streets, gradually moving into the bars. Only in her thirties did she really get popular by styling Mexican ranchero songs about love and loss, usually sung by men. Despite Mexico's own conservative culture, she stepped into their shoes, and found a way to fill the halls with her lush, raw voice, and masculine persona, tossing back tequila, lighting up cigars, and refusing to wear women's clothes, or change the pronouns in the songs. It was still women that done her wrong.
She became a favorite of artists like Frida Kahlo, apparently one of her many lovers. Chavela adored women almost as much as she loved singing, which was still topped by her passion for tequila. Rumor has it that she once kidnapped a woman at gunpoint. She always denied that one, but not that her slight limp was earned when she jumped out a window after being disappointed in love.
Her open desire for women fueled her music, but also made her a target for dickheads who even now dismiss her as a minor quirk, an outsider, though she transformed the ranchero landscape, outmanning the men, even if she repeatedly said she didn't want to be one. She was her own thing. Later on, she identified what it was. A dyke. And if men got an inferiority complex listening to her rough and tender voice that made even straight women swoon, that was their problem.
Chavela Vargas upended Mexican music. She cut more than 80 records, and composers used to say that she "robbed" the songs, not just squeezing every last bit of life from them, but like Billie Holiday, making every song so fully her own, it was nearly impossible for other singers to approach them afterwards.
Her fans continue to adore her. In April, she did a big recital at the Palacio de Bellas Artes de Mexico, around the time of the elections there. It was jam-packed with admirers of all ages. At the end they screamed, "Chavela for president!"
Usually, fatalistic about social change, one of her last political gestures was to tweet in support of lesbian visibility day on April 26. "Proud to be the way I am." "Let's raise our voices so we are not invisible." And the photo that she distributed with it, my god. She had these dark shades on, and her head a little thrown back, revealing the strong cut of her jaw, just supremely cool. Even at 93, the dyke was so incredibly sexy she smoldered. She'd burst into the world, and burned things up. Herself along with everybody else. Chavela Vargas left this earth on August 5 to conquer the rest of the universe.
Don't know Chavela? Give a listen to the classic "Chavela Vargas Le Canta a México," on the Orfeón label. It's also worth checking out her two tracks on the CD, "The Songs of Almodóvar" (Emd/Blue Note), which also includes Cuban greats La Lupe and Bola de Nieve, and 50's Chilean crooner Lucho Gatica.