Celebrating Chavela Vargas

A couple of weeks into August and 2012 has already been a year of profound loss for pop culture enthusiasts, music fans, and queer folks–many of whom are one in the same. Enumerating the recently deceased is too much to bear–it was when it we lost Esme, it was when I was out of town and missed the news of Ms. Melodie’s passing. For me, it seems as though I’ve almost literally lost someone great since the first day of the new year. Just consider that on the same day we began mourning the sudden death of queer theorist Alexander Doty, we also lost drag performer and LGBT activist Sister Boom Boom and singer Chavela Vargas.

Much of my interaction with Vargas’ work is mediated through cinema. I think I first saw her in Babel, but I disliked its obvious interpersonal connections and the racist pathology of Rinko Kikuchi’s mute teenager so intensely that I blocked it out. Pedro Almodóvar offered a proper introduction to her music, as he featured her music in several of his films. She had a brief musical appearance in Julie Taymor’s Frida, a cameo that doubles as an intertextual reference to her rumored affair with the titular artist.

It’s hard not to be crushed by the weight of such loss or to be stymied by reflections on our limited, uncertain time on this earth. It’s also hard not to regret putting off tribute because you’re not sure what to say. For some time, I sat on a post on Vargas’ appearance in Almodóvar’s The Flower of My Secret, a film about a troubled romance novelist. I was deeply moved by Marisa Paredes’ lead performance and believe Flower to be slightly underrated. I hope isn’t just remembered for certain plot points’ subsequent references in All About My Mother and Volver. I intended to make a comparison between Paredes’ brave, vulnerable performance and Vargas’ heroically candid singing, but didn’t think I had much of an argument. And then Vargas’ heart and respiratory system gave out on August 5th at 92 years of age, which nullifies such reservations.

Many have already written on Vargas’ life and legacy–I especially like Arturo García’s tribute. Maybe people will be inspired to watch or revisit Flower with Vargas’ voice as a guide. I take comfort in knowing that we’ll always have her sandpaper-and-silk voice, which knew how to reconcile the devastation of loss with the promise of renewal.

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