Chavela Vargas, Legendary Singer and Feminist Icon, Dies at 93

Read more

Chavela Vargas, a Latin-American cultural icon and a personal inspiration, died Sunday evening after being admitted to the hospital for heart and respiratory problems.

Vargas’ impact on Mexican music is hard to overstate. She is known as much for her haunting, hoarse voice as she is for defying the gender conventions and mores of 1950s Mexican society. A rarity in the male-dominated genre, Vargas garnered attention as one of the first female ranchera singers; she not only redefined the way the music was interpreted – stripping it down to raw, guitar-driven arrangements – she also pushed the boundaries of what it meant to be a woman in Roman Catholic Mexico.

Often appearing on stage in androgynous clothing, Chavela toted pistols, smoked cigars, and swigged liquor during her performances like a boss. She also refused to change the female pronouns in the love songs she sang – a bold reference to her homosexuality, which she would later officially reveal in her 2000 autobiography Y si quieres saber de mi pasado. While she shocked the more conservative parts of Mexican society, Vargas was embraced by the exploding artistic and intellectual community of the time – including Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Juan Rulfo, and Agustin Lara – and became a fixture on the bohemian scene. Eventually, she would come to be regarded as an emblem throughout Latin America, recording more than 80 albums over the course of her 50+ year career (which received a latter-day resurgence thanks in part to the support of Pedro Almodóvar, who became a close friend and utilized her music in several of his films.)

Chavela Vargas’ extraordinary talent and contributions were recognized with the Grand Cross of the Order of Isabella the Catholic (the highest Spanish distinction), a Latin Grammy, the Gold Medal of Madrid’s Complutense University, the Medal of Merit of Alcalá de Henares University, and in 2009 she was named a distinguished Citizen of Mexico City.

She will be truly missed and fondly remembered.