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No one taught me to be this way. I was born this way, from the moment I opened my eyes in this world.

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chavela vargas

Mexican legend Chavela Vargas (R) receives an award from Spanish film director Pedro Almodóvar. Andrea Comas


Chavela Junks the Closet

by Juan Pérez Cabral

DECEMBER 11, 2000. At age 81, the legendary Mexican singer Chavela Vargas, an icon of several generations of Latin American lesbians, has finally come out of her transparent closet. What everybody in Mexico and other points south have always known is now official—Chavela is a dyke. What's new, and wonderful, is that she's proud of it.

Chavela, who was recently awarded Spain's highest honor, the Great Cross of Isabel la Católica, told the Madrid daily El País in October, "I've had to fight to be myself and to be respected. I'm proud to carry this stigma and call myself a lesbian. I don't boast about it or broadcast it, but I don't deny it. I've had to confront society and the Church, which says that homosexuals are damned. That's absurd. How can someone who's born like this be judged? I didn't attend lesbian classes. No one taught me to be this way. I was born this way, from the moment I opened my eyes in this world. I've never been to bed with a man. Never. That's how pure I am; I have nothing to be ashamed of. My gods made me the way I am."

chavela vargasThe rebellious daughter of a Costa Rican rancher, Chavela, who was born in that country in 1919, ran away to Mexico when she was 14 years old. In Mexico she began singing on the streets, fell in love with Frida Kahlo, and became famous in the 1950's. Hard-living, drinking, and womanizing, Chavela hit bottom and resurfaced more times that she now cares to remember.

"I'd get a new car on Friday and by Monday I had nothing left; I'd get drunk and go sing on the streets and be late for the show. I used to drink tequila. I drank everything I ever owned. That's why I left nothing over there," Chavela says, remembering her life in Mexico, which ended in an alcoholic orgy that lasted almost 15 years, during which she seldom sang.

Spanish film director Pedro Almodóvar tracked her down to an obscure bar in a suburb of Mexico City a few years ago, and helped her rebuild her life and her career. Last April, Chavela, who now lives in Spain and does not drink, gave a triumphant concert before 20,000 people in Mexico City's main plaza, the Zócalo.

Chavela still loves guns, but she now claims it is not true that she once kidnapped a woman at gunpoint. It is said that her slight limp is the result of having jumped out a window once when another woman disappointed her in love. This, Chavela does not deny.

Chavela Vargas is the Billie Holiday of Mexico. If you've never heard her sing, do yourself a favor and go get one of her CD's right now. My favorite is the classic Chavela Vargas Le Canta a México, on the Orfeón label, but any will do. And don't miss her two knockout contributions to The Songs of Almodóvar (Emd/Blue Note), a fab soundtrack CD that also includes 50's Chilean crooner Lucho Gatica and Cuban greats La Lupe and Bola de Nieve.

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México: Chavela sale del armario

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