She’s one of only two women even to be awarded Spain’s prestigious La Cruz De La Orden de Isabela La Catolica. She was a friend and drinking partner of the late José Alfredo Jiménez. She lived with painter Frida Kahlo. And after she’d abandoned music, she was tracked down by film director Pedro Almodóvar, who put her career back on track after a long break.
Oh, and she’s one of the greatest female ranchera singers ever to emerge from Mexico—even if she isn’t actually Mexican—who sold out Carnegie Hall in a special appearance. Add to all that the fact that she’s a lesbian, and you have a remarkable tale.
Isabela Vargas (the Chavela came later) was born in Heredia, Costa Rica in 1919, the daughter of a mess orderly who died young and a woman of good Spanish stock who owned a ranch. From the beginning she was a rebellious girl, and at the age of 14 she ran away to Mexico, where she survived by singing on the streets.
She was in her thirties and already a heavy drinker by the time she began recording. By then the Lady of the Red Poncho, as she was nicknamed, had been a muse to Kahlo and fellow painter Diego Creek, and also to one of Mexico’s greatest composers, Agustin Lara.
The boleros she sang (and, after 1961, recorded) were usually composed by men, odes to heterosexual romantic love. Vargas—who’d eventually become known in Mexico and Spain by the single name—never changed the gender when she sang them, even on her most famous piece, “La Macorina.” She could sizzle, simmer, steam, and growl.
Given the time and place, she couldn’t come out of the closet, especially as her career took off during the 1960s and ’70s.
She lived a wild life, womanizing—she still walks with a limp she received when younger; she jumped out of a window after being spurned by a woman—and drinking in a manner that made it seem as if she didn’t care whether she lived or died.
But could she sing? Very<
Recommended RecordingsVolver A España (Orfeon)
De Mexico Y Del Mundo (Orfeon )
Frida (Music from the Motion Picture) (Universal)