Chavela Vargas: a complicated life

By Pamela Pollack-Fremd 

SAN DIEGO — Chavela a documentary on a famous Mexican Ranchera singer, produced and directed by Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi, shows how difficult life can be when you are different.    Isabel Vargas Lizano (Chavela) was born in Puerto Rico in 1919 into a conventional middle class family.  By the time she was eight, Chavela knew two things about herself: she loved to sing and her sexual orientation was different.  She liked to wear pants and she was attracted to women.  This orientation was not at all acceptable either by her family or in her community.  In fact, once when she went to church to celebrate Mass, the priest yelled at her family in front of the community to get Chavela out of his church.  Her parents divorced; Chavela was sent to live with an aunt and uncle, and from there migrated to Mexico City on her own when she was fourteen years old.

Chavela began singing on the streets and then in very small night clubs.  The wife of Jose Alfredo Jimenez, a famous Mexican songwriter and singer, saw her perform and was impressed with her unique voice and style, so she brought her husband to hear Chavela.  Jose and Chavela admired each others’ talent and became fast friends.  He considered her to be one of the best interpreters of his songs.

During this period Chavela became famous and socialized with powerful politicians and the owners of night clubs and record companies in Mexico.  Chavela developed a reputation for seducing the wives of these powerful men.  Chavela knew Diego Rivera and it was rumored that she had an affair with his wife, Frida Kahlo.  She also performed in Acapulco and met Hollywood stars who vacationed there.  For example, she attended Liz Taylor and Mike Todd’s wedding and was said to have awakened in bed with Ava Gardner.  Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher were also friends of hers.

These friendships also had a negative side.  The famous ranchero singers would get together, sing, drink and party for days.  Jose Alfredo Jimenez eventually died from liver failure.  Chavela began to be seen as unreliable by night club owners and record companies due to her heavy drinking.  Also, these men were offended by her affairs with their wives.  Eventually Chavela could not find work.

In the 1980’s Chavela was broke, unemployable and frequently drunk.  She was living in one room in Teopotzlan, Mexico and relying on friends to help her survive.  Due to her experiences as a child with priests, she rejected the Catholic Church.  However, she believed in Mexican gods, so she visited a Shaman and was able to eventually stop drinking.

In 1991 she went back to Mexico City and began to sing again in night clubs.  In 1992 she was invited to perform at a concert hall in Madrid.  This was the first time she had ever performed in front of such a large audience.  She loved it and she was very well received.  In Spain she met the Spanish director Pedro Almodavar.  He admired her spirit and talent.  He said that she sang about loneliness and emotional relationships.  Pedro Almodavar helped make Chavela famous again.  Chavela returned to Mexico City to sing at the Bella Artes.  She continued singing until her death in 2012.

It was during this renaissance fame that she came out for freedom and equality in music and sexuality.  She said that she was proud to be a lesbian and that made life easier for “different” people who followed.

Chavela is an entertaining journey into an aspect of Latino culture.  I knew very little about Chavela before seeing this movie, so it was interesting to learn more.  Also, I especially enjoyed the music in this film.  The film is in Spanish with English subtitles.

Chavela opens at Hillcrest Cinemas on Friday October 13th and plays through Thursday, October 19th.

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Fremd-Pollack is a freelance writer who specializes in coverage of the cinema.

 

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