ISABEL VARGAS LIZANO (d: 2012), better known as CHAVELA VARGAS, was a Costa Rican-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 Almodovar, hailed for her haunting performances, and called “la voz áspera de la ternura”, the rough voice of tenderness.
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 recently appeared in the 2002 Julie Taymor film 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 also appeared in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Babel, singing “Tú me acostumbraste” (You Got Me Used To), a bolero of Frank Dominguez. Joaquin Sabina’s song “Por el Boulevar de los Sueños Rotos” (“Down the Boulevard of Broken Dreams”) is dedicated to Vargas.
Her heavy drinking and raucous life took their toll, and she vanished from public life in the 1970s. Submerged in an alcoholic haze, 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 twenty-five years.
In the early 1990s she began singing again at El Habito, the bohemian Mexico City nightclub. From there her career took off again, with performances in Latin America, Europe and the United States. At 81, she announced that she was a lesbian.
“Nobody taught me to be like this,” she told the Spanish newspaper El País in 2000. “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.”
On the eve of her Carnegie Hall debut in 2003, she looked back on how her singing had changed over her career. “The years take you to a different feeling than when you were 30,” she said in an interview with The Times. “I feel differently, I interpret differently, more toward the mystical.”
On the evening of her death in 2012, instead of holding a traditional Mexican wake, friends, fans and musicians gathered in the evening for a musical tribute at Plaza Garibaldi in Mexico City, where Ms. Vargas had spent many a night drinking with Mr. Jiménez. She would have loved it.