Born Isabel Vargas Lizano in Costa Rica, Chavela Vargas (1919-2012) ran away to Mexico City in her early teens and began singing in the streets. By the 1950s, she had become a darling of the city's thriving bohemian club scene, where she challenged mainstream Mexican morals by dressing in men’s clothing while she sang songs intended for men to woo women with incredible passion – and refused to change the pronouns. This tequila drinking, cigar smoking, rabble rouser sang at Elizabeth Taylor's marriage to Mike Todd (and ran off with Ava Gardner) and lived with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera in La Casa Azul for over a year. In a letter she wrote to a friend Frida the day they met, Frida said she wouldn't hesitate to take off her clothes before this "erotic lesbian" and called her "a gift from heaven." In an unforgettable scene from Julie Taymor's movie about Frida's life, Salma Hayek couldn't help but cry every time Chavela sang "La Llorona" to her. Chavela was infamous for moving audiences to tears.
Did Chavela really creep into women’s bedrooms late at night to steal them away from their husbands? Or scoop them onto a white horse to ride off with her? (Or was it the solid white Alfa Romeo Mexico’s President gave her that she crashed into a fountain drag racing at 3am?) Did she pack a pistol she sometimes shot off just for fun? Or have epic drinking binges with friends that started on Friday and ended the following Wednesday? After she sang at Elizabeth Taylor’s Acapulco wedding to Mike Todd, did she really leave the party with Ava Gardner? Spend a year living with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera all while carrying on a passionate romance with Frida? Was she cured of blindness as a newborn baby when shamans spit chewed herbs in her eyes? Was she really a shaman too with “special powers?”
These are a few of the incredible rumors people loved to tell about Chavela. Many she helped spread herself. Some are true. Known as a raucous, entertaining raconteur, Chavela chose the stories she liked best, breathed life into them and made them manifest. In her amazing journey from a 14-year-old rejected runaway from Costa Rica to world renowned, Grammy winning Mexican icon, this dream weaver took bits and pieces of who she was and who she wanted to be and wove them into reality. Although she didn’t officially “come out” until she was 81 years old, Chavela carefully crafted a public persona as a powerful, rebellious, free spirited outsider, a sexy sexual outlaw who blazed her own unique trail until she left the physical plane at the tender age of 93.