Chavela Captures the Essence of a Ranchera Icon


By Zamná Ávila, Assistant Editor

Filmmakers Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi are making sure ranchera great Chavela Vargas is never forgotten. Their documentary, Chavela, explores the life of the singer through interviews, images and, of course, music.

The 25-year project illustrates the life of a woman who used music as an instrument to release her pain, which she gifted to her audience. The film, which was screened in early January at the Art Theatre in Long Beach, will have an encore presentation in February.

Told in Spanish with English subtitles, Chavela is a mesh of interviews with the singer, friends and lovers, using photos and translated lyrics of her songs to create a sense of self-reflective storytelling as the music icon interpreted popular songs of the era. Rather than a complete biographical documentary, Chavela focuses on the life of the singer in Mexico and Spain, at the height of the resurgence of her career. While the documentary touches on her childhood it doesn’t go into great detail about her life in Costa Rica or how she arrived in Mexico and started her career.

“Let’s start with where I am going,” said Chavela Vargas at the beginning of the film, which was set in 1991. “It’s more interesting to the whole world, not where you come from but where you are going.”

Vargas, who had a cameo in the 2002 Salma Hayek film Frida, came back to the limelight in 1990s after more than decade of being retired. Chavela spotlights her personal struggles dealing with the homophobia (both internal and external), alcoholism, poverty and loneliness.

With Vargas’ unique and heart-wrenching, raspy voice the song Soledad, meaning “loneliness,” prefaces an interview with her.  The filmmakers begin to tell the story of Chavela Vargas through her eyes, starting and ending the film with Vargas saying, “My name is Chavela Vargas; don’t forget it.”

Like many artists of the time, Vargas started singing in small venues in Mexico. At first she wore feminine attire, makeup and long hair. That didn’t work well for the singer. It was actually her masculine traits that caught the attention of her audience. She shook the traditions of women singers standardized by elaborate dresses and feminine flirtation.

“I looked like a transvestite dressed as a woman, really,” she said. “Time stood still. ‘What’s up with this woman wearing pants before the 1950s?’… I put on pants and the public was stunned.”

Vargas was born Isabel Vargas Lizano, on April 17, 1919, in Costa Rica. Her parents were not able to deal with Vargas being naturally masculine.

“That Isabel, as my mother called me, that Isabel is the one I love and is with me,” she said. “Chavela is a cabrona (fucker).”

As a child, she was hidden from visitors, because they were ashamed of her. When her parents divorced they gave her up to an aunt and uncle.

“I was a very sad girl, very lonely,” she said.

At 14, she ran away and moved to Mexico in search of opportunities. Chavela Vargas, her alter-ego, was born in 1942.

“I used to dream of a paradise called Mexico,” she said. “Mexico taught me to be who I am, but not with kisses and hugs, but with kicks and slaps. Mexico took me and told me, ‘I’m going to make you a woman. I am going to rear you in land of men… You want to sing? Well, you have to confront the best that there is.’” Her former life partner, Alicia Pérez Duarte, remembered how Vargas had to assert herself in that land of men.

“To be Chavela, you have to be stronger and more macha and more drunkard than any of the charro singer who were around her,” Pérez Duarte said.

Her talents did not go unnoticed. José Alfredo Jiménez, a famous ranchera  singer, befriended Vargas and took her under his wings. Her career took off. She performed and opened for some of the best acts in Mexico.

Vargas was the only woman who dared sing to another woman. Frida Kahlo and Ava Gardner were among her known conquests. And yet, she didn’t officially come out as a lesbian until late in her life.

“It’s not about me being homosexual,” she said. “Consider that the human being loves and that’s it. Don’t ask who or why. Leave it. That’s the beauty of things.”

Chavela is a painstaking view of a woman who went against the norms through adventure, love, friendships, sadness and music. Gund and Kyi’s film is a vessel of understanding and acceptance.

Chavela is showing at 11 a.m. Feb. 3 and 4 at the Art Theatre, 2025 E. 4th St., Long Beach and at 7 p.m. March 8 at the Museum of Latin American Art, 628 Alamitos Ave., Long Beach.