Chavela Vargas

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Chavela Vargas
Chavela Vargas 060701-cropped.jpg
Vargas giving a concert in the Plaza de España, in Madrid, Spain, in 2006
Background information
Birth name Isabel Vargas Lizano
Born (1919-04-17)17 April 1919
San Joaquín de Flores, Costa Rica
Origin Mexico
Died 5 August 2012(2012-08-05) (aged 93)
Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico
Genres Ranchera
Occupations Singer–songwriter, actress
Years active 1961– 2012
Associated acts José Alfredo Jiménez

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.[1] 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[edit]

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,[2] 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.[citation needed]

For many years she sang on the streets but in her thirties she became a professional singer.[3] 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.[4] She recorded more than 80 albums.[5] She was hugely successful during the 1950s, 1960s and the first half of the 70s, touring in Mexico, the United States, France and Spain[6] 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.[1]

Partial retirement and return to the stage[edit]

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"[7] 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.[8] At age 81, she publicly declared on Colombian television that she was a lesbian.[9][10] 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.”[8] 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.[8]

Vargas returned to the stage in 1991, performing at the venue "El Hábito" in Coyoacán, Mexico City.[1] She debuted at Carnegie Hall in 2003 at age 83[11] at the behest and promotion of Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar, an admirer and friend of Vargas.

Appearances in film[edit]

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.[1] Vargas appeared in Frida, singing "La Llorona" (The Weeping Woman).[12] 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.[12] She appeared in Alejandro González Iñárritu's Babel, singing "Tú me acostumbraste" ("Because of you, I got accustomed"),[13] a bolero of Frank Domínguez.

References in literature and music[edit]

Joaquín Sabina's song "Por el Boulevar de los Sueños Rotos" ("Down the Boulevard of Broken Dreams") is dedicated to Vargas.[1] Sergio Ramírez Mercado, a Nicaraguan writer, published in 2011 the novel La Fugitiva, a fictionalized account of the life of Costa Rican writer Yolanda Oreamuno. In Ramírez' work, Oreamuno's life is told by three women who pressumably met her. According to many critics, one of the female characters telling Oreamuno's history is a singer that resembles Chavela Vargas. The character talks about her own life, and its non reciprocated lesbian love for Yolanda Oreamuno.[14]


Vargas died on 5 August 2012, in Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico, after she was admitted to a hospital for heart and respiratory problems.[15][16]

Selected discography[edit]

  • Con el Cuarteto Lara Foster, 1961
  • Hacia la Vida, 1966
  • Corridos de la Revolucion, 1970
  • Amaneci en Tus Brazos, 1973
  • La Original, 1973
  • Lamento Borincano, 1973
  • Poema 20, 1975
  • Noche Bohemia, 1989
  • Noche de Ronda, 1989
  • Piensa en mí AKA Vuelve, 1991
  • Boleros, 1991
  • La Llorona, 1993
  • Sentimiento de México (vol. 1), 1995
  • De México y del mundo, 1995
  • Le canta a México, 1995
  • Volver, volver, 1996
  • Dos, 1996
  • Grandes Mementos, 1996
  • Macorina, 1994/1996
  • Chavela Vargas, 1997
  • Pasion Bolero, 1999
  • Colección de Oro, 1999
  • Con la rondalla del amor de Saltillo, 2000
  • Para perder la cabeza, 2000
  • Las 15 grandes de Chavela Vargas, 2000
  • Grandes éxitos, 2002
  • Para toda la vida, 2002
  • Discografía básica, 2002
  • Antología, 2004
  • Somos, 2004
  • En Carnegie Hall, 2004
  • La Llorona, 2004
  • Cupaima, 2006/2007
  • Soledad, 2007
  • Piensa en mí, on Splendor in the Grass by Pink Martini, 2009
  • Luz de Luna, on San Patricio by The Chieftains featuring Ry Cooder, 2010
  • Por mi Culpa!, 2010
  • Luna Grande, 2012

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e Boccanera, Jorge, Entrelineas: Dialogos con Jorge Boccanera, ed. Mario José Grabivker (Buenos Aires: Ediciones instituto mobilizador fondos cooperativos C.L., 1999)
  2. ^ Vargas, Chavela, Y si quieres saber de mi pasado, ed. J.C. Vales, 2nd ed (Madrid: Santillana Ediciones Generales, 2002). In the interview with Jorge Boccanera, Vargas is quoted as saying she arrived in Mexico at 17.
  3. ^ Garrido, Isaac (5 August 2012). "Chavela Vargas Dead At Age 93, Famed Mexican Singer Challenged Catholic And Chauvinist Preconceptions". The Huffington Post. Retrieved 5 August 2012. 
  4. ^ Diccionario de la Musica Española e Hispanoamericana. 5 vols. Madrid: Sociedad General de Autores y Editores, 2002. s.v. "Vargas, Chavela".
  5. ^ Yarbro-Bejarano, Yvonne. "Crossing the Border with Chabela Vargas: A Chicana Femme's Tribute" [sic] Chap. 3, Sex and Sexuality in Latin America (New York: New York University Press, 1997)
  6. ^ Diccionario de la Musica Espanola e Hispanoamericano. 5 vols. Madrid: Sociedad General de Autores y Editores, 2002.
  7. ^ Vargas, Chavela, Y si quieres saber de mi pasado, ed. J.C. Vales, 2nd ed (Madrid: Santillana Ediciones Generales, 2002), p. 189
  8. ^ a b c Obituary in the New York Times, 7 August 2012
  9. ^ "Chavela sale del armario"
  10. ^ Lo, Malinda. "The Life and Music of Mexican Legend Chavela Vargas", 25 January 2005
  11. ^ Vargas, Chavela. (2006) Chavela at Carnegie Hall, CD recording, Tommy Boy
  12. ^ a b Vargas, Chavela, Y si quieres saber de mi pasado, ed. J.C. Vales, 2nd ed (Madrid: Santillana Ediciones Generales, 2002)
  13. ^ Tu Me Acostumbraste - Chavela Vargas on Odeo
  14. ^ "Sergio Ramírez: política y ficción" (in Spanish). Sigueleyendo. April 8, 2011. 
  15. ^ "Muere Chavela Vargas" (in Spanish). Televisa. 5 August 2012. Retrieved 5 August 2012. 
  16. ^ Garrido, Isaac (5 August 2012). "Chavela Vargas, famed Mexican singer, dies at 93". The Sacramento Bee. Retrieved 5 August 2012. 

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