Legendary Mexican singer Chavela Vargas dies at 93
The first time I heard Chavela Vargas sing I honestly didn't like her voice at all. She sounded out of tune to me. By the second song, her raspy, guttural voice started to sink deep into my soul. By the seventh song, I was already crying. I was flat-out bawling for no other reason but the overwhelming feeling in that omnipresent voice. After the tenth song I knew: It didn't matter if I didn't hear her ever again, her shamanistic magic had captivated me and I had become one of her most devout followers. A few days ago, when we started talking about how ill she was, I knew it her time had come. And today, I heard she did. Vargas died on Sunday at the age of 93.
Vargas died in Cuernavaca, Mexico, country that adopted her, forged her, and gave her to the world after she left her native (and hated) Costa Rica at 17 years old. The immortal singer told Spanish newspaper El País in a 2009 interview: "I went back to Costa Rica. Seven months later, during Christmas, I decided to go back to Mexico. What a country, Costa Rica. I'd put all the world's suicidal people there, I'd put them up in apartments there. That would be a great business, a coffin shop."
For those of you who didn't know who she was, Chavela Vargas was a woman whose voice was as aggressive as her personality; she dealt with some dark rumors, and during her life she neither admitted nor denied them. She was great friends with Mexican icons like Diego Rivera, Frida Khalo, and singer-songwriter José Alfredo Jiménez, among others. Legend has it that when she was young, she handled a gun as adeptly as she handled a guitar. And Mexican journalist Carlos Monsiváis once said that talking to Vargas using the formal "usted" was like speaking to your own self in this formal way, because she was part of all of us--even those that didn't know her.
This tiny woman with huge talent and heart said: "The wonder of my life is that I have never felt self-important. I go on with my life as if it were my duty." In that journey that was her life, she won accolades the world over. She was honored by countries, presidents, and music academies, but she never let fame change her. She used to make fun of herself as much as she did of the Catholic church. "I don't believe in priests…One day, when I was in the hospital, one came to see me and I told him I was a Buddhist so that he'd leave me alone," she told El País in that same 2009 interview.
Vargas loved to have fun, so much so that even in a wheel chair she went partying with her great friend Pedro Almodovar. Because Chavela Vargas did whatever the heck she wanted to do and didn't let age or sicknesses defeat her. Even though fighting time became too much for her, until her last moment, she wasn't an image of a little old lady in a wheel chair. Under her eyeglasses and that peaceful smile, she was still the untamable Chavela Vargas. Today, we say goodbye, but we'll always keep looking for her in the everlasting melodies of her music.
If you've never heard Vargas sing, here's a sample of some heart-felt songs:
In a scene from Frida with Salma Hayek:
"En un rincón del alma":
Image via AP