Chavela Vargas is getting a new biographical series. Last week, it was announced that Mexican actress Kate Del Castillo will portray the iconic Costa Rican-Mexican vocalist in the upcoming chronicle Chavela.
Vargas – born Isabel Vargas Lizano – is a ranchera and feminist icon after breaking stereotypes in a male-dominated genre since the start of her music career in the 1940s. Instead of sticking to the gender role norms, she would dress in ponchos and pants and was known to drink tequila and smoke cigars on stage – at the time, unheard of for women. Throughout the 1960’s, she released recordings of iconic songs like “La Llorona” and “Paloma Negra,” cementing her sorrowful voice as one of the greatest ranchera voices ever.
As expected, things weren’t easy for Vargas. Other than navigating machismo in her industry, she had a turbulent relationship with alcoholism, which led her to retire in the 1970s. This resulted in what she describes as “15 years of alcohol hell” before eventually getting back on her feet in the ‘90s. However, despite her ups and downs, she cemented her position as a legend in the genre with the support of other creatives, such as longtime Mexican singer-songwriter collaborator and icon José Alfredo Jiménez and Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar.
Moreover, she became a cultural curiosity due to her rumored romantic links with Frida Khalo and Ava Gardner. However, it wasn’t until 2001 – at age 81 – that La Dama del Poncho Rojo came out publicly as a lesbian.
All of these components make for an incredible story of one of the greats – but let’s not forget the music that made Vargas popular during her lifetime and beyond. To get a deeper look into her sonic legacy, here are six essential songs that helped define the icon’s career ahead of the film’s release.
“Paloma Negra,” written by Mexican composer Tomás Méndez, is perhaps one of Vargas’ most popular songs. Her gravelly vocals exude raw pain as she narrates a heartwrenching story about a parrandera who broke her heart. “Y aunque te amo con locura, ya no vuelvas / Paloma negra eres la reja de un penar / Quiero ser libre, vivir mi vida con quien me quiera / Dios dame fuerzas, me estoy muriendo,” she pleads to the microphone, hoping God gives her the courage to stop looking for her. “Paloma Negra” was further popularized throughout the years by singers like Jenni Rivera, Vicente Fernández, and Lila Downs.
“Que Te Vaya Bonito”
“Que Te Vaya Bonito” is another popular song written by Jiménez. To date, it’s been sung by the likes of Fernández, Antonio Aguilar, and Vargas, to name a few música mexicana greats. The tune follows the same vein as “Paloma Negra,” only this time, the lyrics wish the ex-lover a good riddance with a broken heart. Vargas’ rendition oozes her emotions, with her signature mournful vocals backed by poetic guitar strings. What can we say? Whether you’re heartbroken or not, her voice tricks you into thinking you need to go drink your sorrows away upon first listening.
“Macorina” is another one of her greatest hits. It’s about a free-spirited Cuban woman known as La Macorina, who was also a prostitute. The song was inspired by a poem written by Alfonso Camín. With sensual lyrics like, “Ponme la mano aquí, Macorina,” and “Tus senos carne de anón / Tu boca una bendición / De guanábana madura / Y era tu fina cintura / La misma de aquel danzon,” the Costa Rican-Mexican singer engages her audience into an enticing lesbian love story. This particular song shows another side of Vargas’ artistry – with sensual and suggestive undertones – as opposed to her popular sad, heartwrenching tunes.
“Un Mundo Raro”
“Un Mundo Raro” was also penned by Jiménez. In Vargas’ cover of the song, she uses her versatile voice to enthrall her listener with a story of a love described as a “sueño dorado [golden dream].” What makes this song different is that her usual hoarse vocals are absent, making way for her entrancing croons. At the end of the song, we hear what sounds like Vargas’ voice cracking when she sings, “Y si quieren saber de mi pasado / Es preciso decir otra mentira / Les diré que llegué de un mundo raro / Que no sé del dolor, que triunfé en el amor / Y que nunca he llorado,” bringing more emotion to the track. Overall, her vocals are again the centerpiece of the song, serving as another testament to why she’s known for being such a memorable, passionate singer.
“Las Simple Cosas”
Accompanied by powerful guitar strings, Chavela sings “Las Simple Cosas,” a bittersweet, nostalgic song about encouragement despite her sorrowful tone. Like all her music, her intense vocals allure the listener into her words, leaving little to no space to be distracted from her voice. With lyrics like, “Demórate a ti, en la luz solar de este medio día / Donde encontrarás con el pan al sol la mesa tendida / Por eso muchacha no partas ahora soñando el regreso / Que el amor es simple y a las cosas simples, las devora el tiempo,” she tries to enlighten someone who isn’t finding happiness in the little things in life. The result? An anthem for those who need a reminder that it’s the mundane activities in your everyday life that make life worth living.
Last but not least, “La Llorona” is another classic sung by Vargas. “La Llorona” is a folk song covered by many artists throughout the years, tapping into the emotions of loss and sorrow, which makes it fit for Vargas to cover it. In her popular version, she not only uses her rasping voice to express her feelings, but she also uses sighs and inhales to captivate the listener’s ear. The song ended up being featured in Julie Taymor’s Frida (2002), where Vargas made a special appearance alongside the film’s star, Salma Hayek. Other artists who have covered this song include Downs, Natalia Lafourcade, and Ángela Aguilar.