A tribute to Chavela Vargas, Mexico's badass chanteuse
Vargas 'was uniquely magical and magnetic', as new film explores
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For late chanteuse Chavela Vargas, 2017 would have been a momentous year.
After all, with increasing numbers of women continuing to confront sexual misconduct and female voices rising to demand social change for all, it’s impossible not to feel society has reached a watershed moment that would not have been lost on the singer.
“She would’ve said it’s not like this just started; it’s something that’s been going on forever and thank God someone’s listening to women now,” said filmmaker Catherine Gund about the progressive talent who broke barriers in mid-century Mexico. “To grow up as an unusual, not very feminine woman in the ’40s and ’50s in a hyper-Catholic society — that obviously was a stranglehold on her and she fought her whole life to get out of that.”
As captured in Chavela, Gund and co-director Daresha Kyi’s cinematic cinematic tribute to the artist, Vargas defied gender stereotypes to become one of the country’s most beloved legends of “ranchera” (a male-dominated singing genre) with a particularly androgynous style that inspired generations of women in Mexico.
“She really didn’t fit in on a visceral level,” said Gund, who met the icon through friends in 1991. “Even though she was uniquely magical and magnetic, there’s an essence to her story that has a lesson for all of us — that we all feel alone; that we’re all seeking community and connection with other people and we only have this one wild and precious life.”
And Vargas’s life was definitely wild before her death in 2012. A gun-carrying alcoholic with a penchant for partying, Vargas was also a well-known paramour who had affairs with legendary painter Frida Kahlo and even mysteriously “woke up” with screen-legend Ava Gardner. Indeed, her escapades are so many, they could’ve easily overshadowed her accomplishments.
“Regardless of what the details are, it was more about the essence of who she was,” insisted Gund of the documentary’s main intent. “We know she was a badass and she was scary and dangerous and exciting and sexy. She was those things; what she did with those things became less important to me (and) in the end, as far as I was concerned with her, it was about feeling.”
SYNONYMOUS WITH SCANDAL
Vargas vowed to never wear a skirt onstage, a shocking defiance in patriarchal mid-20th century Mexico. “It’s a choice, right,” said Gund. “(But) it didn’t seem like it was a choice at that time.”
Macorina — one of her most famous songs — is reported to have been originally banned on Mexican radio for its lusty lyrics. As Marvette Perez from the Smithsonian Museum of American History stated, “I don’t think there could be a more queer song for a woman to sing.”
Vargas had many affairs and insists she even lost a recording contract after sleeping with the label owner’s girlfriend. “She could’ve slept with anyone she wanted,” added Gund. “She was just one of those who creates desire in people around her and manifests so much energy.”
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