ONCE, WHEN MEXICO WAS THE BELLYBUTTON of the universe, Isabel Vargas Lizano ran away from home and resolved to make herself into a Mexican singer. This was in the 1930s, when Europe was on fire, the U.S. out of work and Mexico busy giving birth to herself after a revolution.
At 14, Isabel was busy birthing herself, too. Cast off from her Costa Rican kin for being too strange, she would become Mexico’s beloved Chavela Vargas.
It was the country’s golden era. Visitors came from across the globe. Sergei Eisenstein, Luis Buñuel, Leonora Carrington. Mexico was a knockout, and everyone was crazy about her.
At first, Vargas made her living doing odd jobs: cooking, selling children’s clothes, chauffeuring an elderly lady. She was adopted by artists and musicians and sang at their parties and favorite bars. When she was not yet 25, she was invited to the Blue House of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera in Coyoacán. “Who’s that girl, the one in the white shirt?” Kahlo asked. Kahlo summoned her over, and Vargas sat at her side the rest of the night. Because Vargas lived all the way up in the Condesa neighborhood, Rivera and Kahlo offered her lodging for the night. Rivera suggested she take to bed some of their Mexican hairless dogs. “Sleep with them,” he told her. “They warm the bed and keep away rheumatism.” Vargas had found her spiritual family.
Eventually Vargas apprenticed with Mexico’s finest musicians: the composer Agustín Lara and Antonio Bribiesca and his weeping guitar. She fine-tuned her singing style listening to Toña la Negra and the Texas songbird Lydia Mendoza, among others. The songwriter José Alfredo Jiménez became her maestro with his songs that “expressed . . . the common pain of all who love,” Vargas said. “And when I came out onstage they were mine, because I added my own pain, too.”
With just a guitar and her voice, Vargas performed in a red poncho and pants at a time when Mexican women didn’t wear pants. She sang with arms open wide like a priest celebrating Mass, modeling her singing on the women of the Mexican revolution. “Amexicana is a very strong woman,” Vargas said, “Starting with la Adelita, la Valentina —mujeres muy mujeres.” Chavela Vargas belonged to this category of women-very-much women.
Even when Vargas was young and her voice still as transparent as mezcal, she danced with her lyrics tacuachito-style, cheek to cheek, pounded them on the bar, made them jump like dice, spat and hissed and purred like the woman jaguar she claimed to be and finished with a volley that entered the heart like a round of bullets from the pistol she stashed in her belt.
“She was chile verde,” remembers Elena Poniatowska, the grande dame of Mexican letters.
Vargas lived and sang a lo macho. She sang love songs written for men to sing without changing the pronouns.
Her big hit was “Macorina,” Poniatowska said. “ ‘Put your hand here, Macorina,’ she sang with her hand like a great big seashell over her sex, long before Madonna.”
In her autobiography, Vargas writes: “I always began with ‘Macorina.’ . . . And lots of times I finished with that song. So that folks would go home to their beds calientitos, nice and warm.”
Because she immortalized popular rancheras, Vargas is often labeled a country singer. But she kidnapped romantic boleros and made them hers too. Her songs appealed to drinkers of pulque as well as of Champagne.
The critic Tomás Ybarra-Frausto remembers the Vargas of the early ’60s. “I used to see her at La Cueva de Amparo Montes, a club frequented by the underground in downtown Mexico City. She dressed in black leather, and would roar over on a motorcycle with a blonde gringa on her back.”
Someone else told this story. In a Mexico City club, Vargas serenaded a couple. Then she slipped off the man’s tie, lassoed it around his woman’s neck, gave it a passionate yank and kissed her.
She had a reputation as a robaesposas. Did she really have affairs with everyone’s wives? A European queen? Ava Gardner? Frida? What was true, and what was mitote? You only have to look at Vargas’s photos when she was young to know some of the talk was true. In the town of Monclova, Coahuila, go ask the elders. They’ll tell you: Vargas came to town and sang. And then ran off with the doctor’s daughter. People still remember.
Judy Garland, Grace Kelly, Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor. . . . She was invited to their parties, danced with the wives of powerful politicos, claimed to have shared un amor with “the most famous woman in the world” but would not say more.
And then, somewhere in her 60s, Vargas disappeared. Some thought she had died, and in a way, she had.
“Sometimes I don’t have any other alternative but to joke about my alcoholism as if it was just a one-night parranda,” she said. “It was no joke. . . . Those who lived it with me know it.”
Before Pedro Almodóvar and Salma Hayek featured her in their films, there were friends who helped Vargas walk through fire and be reborn. The performers Jesusa Rodríguez and Liliana Felipe invited Vargas to make her 1991 comeback in their Mexico City theater, El Hábito.
“There were only a few minutes left before her entrance, and the place was packed,” Rodríguez remembers. “All the hipsters of that era were waiting. No one could believe Chavela was returning to sing.
“She was very nervous. Well, she’d never appeared onstage without drinking. When we gave her the second call, she panicked and asked for a tequila. Liliana and I looked at one another, and then Liliana said, ‘Chavela, if you drink, it’s better if we just cancel the show.’ ‘But how?’ said Chavela. ‘There’s a full house.’ ‘Well, it doesn’t matter,’ we said. ‘We’ll just give everyone their money back, and that’ll be that.’
“Chavela looked serious for a few moments, then she took a deep breath and said, ‘Let’s go!’ We gave the third call, she climbed up on the stage, stood there like an ancient tree and sang for . . . years, without stopping, without drinking.”
Her voice had become another voice. Ravaged but beautiful in a dark way, like glass charred into obsidian.
Vargas’s specialty was el amor y el desamor, love and love lost, songs of loneliness and goodbyes in a voice as ethereal as the white smoke from copal, but as powerful as the Pacific. Songs that sucked you in, threatened to drown you; then, when you least expected it, pulled down your pants and slapped you on the behind. Audiences broke out into spontaneous gritos, that Mexican yodel barked from the belly and a lifetime of grief.
Mexican parties always end with everyone crying, the journalist Alma Guillermoprieto once noted. Vargas satisfied a national urge to weep. She embodied Mexico, that open wound unhealed since the conquest and, a century after a useless revolution, in need of tears now more than ever.
This summer, at 93, Vargas returned to Mexico from Spain. She was sick. On Aug. 5, death came at last and ran off with her.
Sandra Cisneros is a novelist, poet and essayist. She is the author, most recently, of “Have You Seen Marie?”