When American filmmaker Catherine Gund met Mexican ranchera singer Chavela Vargas in 1991, both women were at major crossroads in their lives.
Gund, then a young queer activist, had just lost her best friend to AIDS. Vargas, a feisty 71-year-old who’d once been Mexico’s best-known female singer of mournful ranchera ballads, had just returned to the small stage following years of extreme alcoholism that had made her a virtual recluse.
Neither could have known that more than a quarter century later, the casual footage Gund shot of their early ‘90s interviews would form the backbone of an absorbing documentary about Vargas’ life. “Chavela” opens theatrically this week and covers both Vargas’ early career in the years leading up to their chat and the unlikely comeback and international stardom that she would go on to enjoy very late in her remarkable life.
Born in Costa Rica in 1919, Vargas endured a turbulent childhood before fleeing to Mexico at the tender age of 14 to seek her fortune as an entertainer. She found her niche — and what would become her life’s calling — in the macho world of canción ranchera, a traditional style of Mexican singing performed almost exclusively by men.
Her intensely passionate interpretations of traditional love songs — and her steadfast refusal to swap pronouns to make them more heterosexually palatable — earned Vargas popularity within bohemian and high society circles in the 1950s. She then parlayed that into wider Mexican fame in the 1960s and early 1970s, all the while stoking a shameless reputation for hard drinking and skirt chasing.
Over the two phases of her long career, Vargas befriended both Frida Kahlo and Pedro Almodóvar, two of the 20th century’s biggest global LGBTQ icons. For Almodóvar, Vargas became a favored muse, and he featured her in several of his films. Fittingly, she also appeared in the 2002 biopic of her former love, “Frida.” She personally shunned labels for decades, but in 2000 at the age of 81, Vargas finally came out as a lesbian.
After Vargas died in 2012 at the age of 93, Gund dusted off the footage from their early 1990s meetings. Teaming with co-director/producer Daresha Kyi, Gund conducted modern interviews with key figures from Vargas’ life, then threaded the pieces of the story together using the singer’s own emotionally powerful songs.
NBC Out spoke with Catherine Gund about the legendary singer and their fateful rendezvous more than 25 years ago.
What were you doing in Mexico when you interviewed Chavela in 1991?
My best friend Ray Navarro had just died of AIDS. We had been video activists, and we had been recording ACT UP — documenting, just for our own internal purposes, how beautiful and strong we looked and felt, and how loving, and surrounded by community, people living with AIDS and their loved ones were. Because if you remember, there were all these pictures of people isolated, people dying alone and miserable — and so we were trying to counter that mainstream representation. So when he died, I went to Mexico, and I took my camcorder with me, because I carried it with me everywhere in those days. I ended up staying four months, and at that time I heard Chavela’s music. Her ability to express and mine the pain of loss and love really tapped into something in me. I was at a place where I needed help with my grieving, and she provided that.
How did you go about finding her?
I was hanging out with these young women who were active in the international feminist movement at the time. We tended to gather together as young lesbians, and we did a lot of things — we hiked up to the Tepozteco, and we went to El Hábito to hear music, and that's where Chavela performed. And they of course loved her and totally revered her as a very intimate and important part of their local culture. Because although she’s an international superstar now, at the time she was really just another lesbian from around the way.
We didn’t realize what a kind of alcoholic spiral Chavela had been in, but she was just coming back to the small stage. And these women said, ‘We have to interview her, we can’t lose this gem.’ And that's why at the outset, she says, ‘Don’t ask me where I've been, ask me where I'm going’— and we were so confused. At that time, 71 seemed very old. We were like, ‘Where are you going?’ And she couldn't have known, and we didn’t either. But now the interview serves as the fulcrum of the film, because it sort of falls halfway through the narrative of her story. After the filming, she was discovered by Pedro Almodóvar and went to Spain and subsequently performed on all the biggest stages all over the world — Bellas Artes [in Mexico City], Olympia [in Paris] and Carnegie Hall. And she hadn't done any of that at the time of the interview.
She was a very private person, and up until that point had been mostly on her own while she was suffering so much from the alcoholism. But there was this way that she knew she had something to say. She invited us in. I think the magic of that interview is the conversation she’s having with the other women that she’s sitting around with. So it’s not biographical or data-driven or informational — it was really a conversation.
You really get such a sense of her, right in the beginning of the film.
She was super feisty at that time, and in the interview you can see that. She was so raw. Her lover had just left her, she'd just gotten sober, she'd decided she wanted to sing again after 10 or 15 or 20 years — you never knew with facts and her, she was fast and loose with the facts. She would say, ‘You know, I lived with Frida for a year’ — sometimes it was a month, sometimes it was five years. She was like, ‘Do you really want to know the details, or do you just want to hear my story?’
Being macho was clearly always important to Chavela. But then late in the film, she also says it was such a blessing to be born a woman. Do you think if Chavela had been young today, she might have lived a trans life?
That's such a fascinating, fabulous question. I think about that all the time for myself, for people who are my out elders like Chavela, and then also for my children and their generation. And it is a conundrum, because one is about what your gender is, and one is about who you desire, right? She says it herself, ‘I got dressed up with makeup and a dress and high heels, and I felt like a transvestite.’
I think there’s this way that her loving being a woman was just her loving being an outsider. Whether she would have chosen at the time to transition, whether she would have been able to embrace a sort of gender-free thing, I don’t know. Because I feel like she did love who she was, and that that was miraculous then, and that is miraculous now.
But in the body you have, how do you navigate identity? People ask, ‘Why didn't she always identify as a lesbian?’ And at the time, I certainly didn't have as nuanced an opinion as I do now. Because I sat down in the interview and I said, ‘So tell us about being lesbian.’ And she was like, ‘Lesbian! I'm not a lesbian.’ And I was like, ‘Wait, what?’ But to her, that didn’t mean that she didn’t sleep with women, or that that wasn't her primary attraction, and the loves that she’d had in her life weren’t women. It meant that she didn’t use that word.
Do you think it was her lesbianism, or the rumors thereof, that prevented her from being a bigger star in Mexico earlier on?
I do. I think she knew who she was, but she felt entirely disempowered by the culture she lived in. Maybe she also didn't push, but I don’t think people were ready either. I mean, you could be as brazen as you wanted to be like Liberace, but did he have an easy time? I don’t think so. You can say, ‘This is who I am, love it or leave it,’ but then you get left. And I think that’s the price she paid. That doesn’t mean that I think she could have or should have put on the dresses and makeup and high heels. I’m not sure that would have helped her, because she would have been miserable — maybe in a different way, but miserable nonetheless.
Do you have a personal favorite Chavela song?
‘Adoro,’ without question — or ‘Amanecí en tus brazos,’ when she sings about daybreak. But you know, she only wrote one. They're traditionals. But those songs that are written for men take on a completely different meaning with her voice, and her not changing the pronouns. And so I tried to use them to really narrate her story.
Are there any female ranchera singers today who can compare to Chavela’s greatness?
There's a wonderful group based in New York City called Flor De Toloache. They're so great, they're beautiful. We considered having them in the film early on, but then it became a film just about Chavela.