Isabel Vargas Lizano
(17 April 1919 – 5 August 2012), better known as Chavela Vargas
, was a Costa Rica-born Mexican singer. She was especially known for her rendition of Mexican rancheras, but she is also recognized for her contribution to other genres of popular Latin American music. She has been an influential interpreter in the Americas and Europe, muse to figures such as Pedro Almodóvar, hailed for her haunting performances, and called "la voz áspera de la ternura", the rough voice of tenderness. The Latin Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, presented her with a Latin GRAMMY Statuette in 2007 after receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award on behalf of that organization.
Early life and career
Although the name Chavela Vargas is associated to México and its culture, she was born in Costa Rica, as Isabel Vargas Lizano was born in San Joaquín de Flores, daughter of Francisco Vargas and Herminia Lizano. She was baptized on 15 July 1919 with the forenames "María Isabel Anita Carmen de Jesús". She had a difficult childhood: her parents divorced and left her under the care of an uncle, and she contracted poliomyelitis. She went by Chavela
, which is a pet name for Isabel. At age 14, she abandoned her native country due to lack of musical career opportunities, seeking refuge in Mexico, where an entertainment industry was burgeoning. There she resided for almost eight decades and obtained the Mexican nationality.For many years she sang on the streets but in her thirties she became a professional singer. In her youth, she dressed as a man, smoked cigars, drank heavily, carried a gun and was known for her characteristic red jorongo, which she donned in performances until old. Chavela entered the canción ranchera, which she had a peculiar style to perform. The ranchera variety, represented by José Alfredo Jiménez, used to be masculine but emotional, singing about love and its mishapps, usually mediated by alcohol, since in a macho oriented culture, display of feelings are only allowed to the drunk. These songs are sung from a man's perspective and with a mariachi accompaniment. Chavela sang this type of song, as a solo, using only guitar and voice, evoking the singing style of a drunk man, that's why she sometimes slowed down the tempo of melodies. In this manner, she drew more dramatic tension out of songs that could be taken as naughtily humorous.Towards the end of the 1950s, she became known within artistic circles, partially due to her performances in Acapulco, center of international tourism, where she sang at the Champagne Room of the restaurant La Perla. Her first album, Noche de Bohemia
(Bohemian Night), was released in 1961 with the professional support of José Alfredo Jiménez, one of the foremost singer/songwriters of Mexican ranchera music. She recorded more than 80 albums. She was hugely successful during the 1950s, 1960s and the first half of the 70s, touring in Mexico, the United States, France and Spain and was close to many prominent artists and intellectuals of the time, including Juan Rulfo, Agustín Lara, Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Dolores Olmedo and José Alfredo Jiménez.
Partial retirement and return to the stage
She partly retired in the late 1970s due to a 15 year-long battle with alcoholism, which she has described in her autobiography (Y si quieres saber de mi pasado
[And if you want to know about my past\], published in 2002) as "my 15 years in hell" Chavela couldn't keep on with her heavy drinking and intense life style, in 1970 "submerged in an alcoholic haze" as she said, she was taken in by an Indian family who nursed her back to health without knowing who she was. In 2003, she told The New York Times that she had not had a drink in 25 years. At age 81, she publicly declared on Colombian television that she was a lesbian. In 2000, she told the Spanish newspaper El País
: “Nobody taught me to be like this, I was born this way. Since I opened my eyes to the world, I have never slept with a man. Never. Just imagine what purity. I have nothing to be ashamed of.” In the 1990s she went to sing in a bohemian Mexico City nightclub "El Habito", and her career started to recover international prominence, with performances in Latin America, Europe and the United States.Vargas returned to the stage in 1991, performing at the venue "El Hábito" in Coyoacán, Mexico City. She debuted at Carnegie Hall in 2003 at age 83 at the behest and promotion of Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar, an admirer and friend of Vargas.
Appearances in film
She is featured in many Almodóvar's films, including La Flor de mi Secreto
in both song and video. She has said, however, that acting is not her ambition, although she had previously participated in films such as 1967's La Soldadera
. Vargas appeared in Frida
, singing "La Llorona" (The Weeping Woman). Her classic "Paloma Negra" (Black Dove) was also included in the soundtrack of the film. Vargas herself, as a young woman, was alleged to have had an affair with Frida Kahlo, during Kahlo's marriage to muralist Diego Rivera. She appeared in Alejandro González Iñárritu's Babel
, singing "Tú me acostumbraste" ("Because of you, I got accustomed"), a bolero of Frank Domínguez.