She began singing on the streets of Mexico as a teenager and became known as the Edith Piaf of Latin music.
From the 1950s to the 1970s, Chavela Vargas recorded many albums featuring passionate love songs of heartbreak which promised to leave her fans weeping into their tequila.
Her career began when homosexuality was taboo. Not only did she openly sleep with women, she refused to change the pronouns in love songs about women and long before it was permissible to express erotic love for ones own gender, she embraced it in her songs.
She shocked Roman Catholic Mexico by appearing on stage dressed as a man, puffing on a long fat cigar, swigging booze from a bottle and carrying a pistol.
She admitted that she had a great love for the painter Frida Kahlo (close enough to be at Kahlo’s deathbed) but she was reticent about discussing their relationship.
In 2002, Vargas appeared in Julie Taymor’s film about Frida Kahlo and in the role of DEATH Vargas sang La Llorona (The Weeping Woman) with a desolate dramatic intensity which critics attributed to the fact that Chavela Vargas and Frida Kahlo were in fact lovers.
Chavela’s liasons with women were known throughout her life but she didn’t come out as a lesbian until she published her autobiography at the age of 81.
From the late 1970s for almost a decade, Vargas disappeared from public view as she struggled to overcome her addiction to alcohol. She returned to the stage two decades later and made her debut at Carnegie Hall at 83 years old. She continued to perform until she was 92 when she released the poems of Frederico Garcia Lorca, Spain’s greatest playwright poet, and received a standing ovation while performing on stage in a wheelchair.
In 2007, the Latin Recording Academy gave her its lifetime Achievement Award.
‘I don’t think there is a stage big enough for Chavela Vargas’ wrote the Spanish director Pedro Almodovar, who featured her music in many of his films.