legendary Mexican singer, Chavela Vargas, 93, known as “the rough voice of tenderness,” died Sunday of respiratory failure at a hospital in the city of Cuernavaca, south of Mexico City.
Vargas, who recorded more than 80 albums, was born in Costa Rica on April 17, 1919, but moved to Mexico at age 14. She sang on the streets for many years before she recorded her first album, 1961′s Noches de Bohemia, under the tutelage of José Alfredo Jiménez. She became famous worldwide for her renditions of rancheras, corridos, boleros, and even tango, and her raspy voice and heart-wrenching delivery were as famous as her style: gun-toting, dressed like a man, and a heavy smoker and drinker for many years. At age 81, she came out as a lesbian.
“I was never afraid of anything because I never hurt anyone,” Ms. Vargas told the audience at a Mexico City tribute concert in June 2011. “I was always an old drunk.”
“I was born like this,” she once said. “Since I opened my eyes to the world. I never went to bed with a gentleman; Never. Look how pure, I have nothing to be ashamed of… My gods made me this way.”
Even though she’s mostly known as a ranchera singer, her style was unique. Unlike most rancheros, she didn’t use a traditional mariachi, opting instead for the intimacy of sometimes only one guitarist.
“Chavela Vargas was able to express the desolation of rancheras with the radical desolation of the blues,” once wrote the late Mexican writer Carlos Monsiváis.
She was the ultimate singer of heartbreak, but she sang it with such joy that it moved, empowered and energized the listeners. She was a larger-than-life figure that, through her life and music, made an example of taking the bull by the horns and making beauty out of whatever life gives you.
Vargas was adored in the Latin music world, especially among connoisseurs. Artists from virtually all Latin music genres poured the internet with messages of condolences. But, in Spain she was as big and respected (if not more so) than in Mexico. Indeed, a great part of the credit for her success in the latter part of her career (after being absent from the stages for 20 years while battling alcoholism) goes to Spanish film director Pedro Almodóvar. He used one of Vargas’ biggest hits (Agustín Lara’s “Piensa en mí/Think of Me,” on a version sang by Luz Casal) for 1991′s “Tacones Lejanos” (High Heels). Then, in 1995, Almodóvar gave her a cameo role in his underrated gem “La flor de mi secreto”(The Flower of My Secret). In the following scene, Leo Macías (played by Marisa Paredes) goes to a bar to get over a heartbreak, but a video of Chavela Vargas singing José Alfredo Jiménez’s ranchera classic “En el último trago” (“In the Last Drink”) makes thing even worse for her.
Ms. Vargas was still at work in 2011, releasing a new album of Garcia Lorca’s poems and basking in standing ovations from a wheelchair on stage while wearing her emblematic neckerchief. In interviews she said she was at “peace with life and could not ask for more,” saying that at death, she would “go with pleasure.”
As Andrés Duque reported in Blabbeando, for this year’s Latin America and Spain’s Lesbian Visibility Day on April 26 , Vargas tweeted an image of herself along with a caption that said “Proud to be the way I am,” and also “Lets raise our voices since we’re not invisible.”
She was a tremendous artists with no regrets, and though she will be greatly missed, she left us all a body of work to remember her by.