y si quieren saber de mi pasado, es preciso decir una mentira, les dire que llegue de un mundo raro, que no se del dolor, que triunfe en el amor y que nunca he llorado…
For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, its the only light we’ve got in this darkness. -James Baldwin, from “Sonny’s Blues”
Le heredo al mundo y a los jovenes libertad, que no agachen la cabeza ante nadie. Es preferible morir antes que vivir de rodillas. -Chavela Vargas
I’ve been struggling for some time to put together the appropriate form of remembrance for Chavela Vargas. When I say that Vargas is my hero, I don’t say it lightly. On the banner of my blog you’ll find an excerpt from Jose Alfredo Jimenez’s “Un Mundo Raro,” but its an homage to Vargas’ rendition of that song. The conceptual framework of my dissertation is also inspired by what Vargas herself described as her interpretative style of la canción ranchera, “el sabor del amor y del dolor.” This is just a snapshot of my devotion to Chavela Vargas. Most folks are aware that she lived her life as an out lesbian, specifically most people will refer to her relationship with Frida Kahlo – while this is a point of interest for many (myself included) it’s not the crux of why Chavela Vargas is my hero¹. She is my hero because of her embodiment of a queerness that was about much more than who she had sex with, but rather is about who she loved, how she loved and translated the triumphs as well as the pitfalls and dangers of such a queer life through and in her musical repertoire with an uncompromisable vulnerability and honesty.
For many years Chavela Vargas’ musical repertoire, image and legend provided me with a certain kind of hope and freedom and was the soundscape for the many triumphs and tragedies I have known or been through. The first moment I heard Vargas’ voice I was transfixed by its intensity, by the unmeasurable and uncontainable amount of emotion laid bare in a three to four minute track. I was 21 years old, living in DF and had come across the CD on accident and was in no way emotionally prepared for what her voice would unearth inside me at a moment in my life where I desperately needed to feel something, anything. I didn’t know what that something was at the time but I at the moment I knew that I need to feel something and know that I wasn’t alone in feeling it. The experience was visceral, raw and earth shaking – and I haven’t looked back ever since. Carlos Monsiváis commented once that Vargas “knew how to express the desolation of the ranchera with the radical nakedness of the blues”. Monsiváis’ description of Vargas’ interpretation of the canción ranchera struck a chord with me and reminded me of one of my favorite lines from James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues” which is in the epigraph above. I need to pay tribute to the ability of Vargas to transform the tales of love, loss, betrayal and triumph into that light that for many represents the difference between life or death.
I found this light in Vargas’ music countless times. Her music has been like an emotional roadmap that has guided me through the continual vicissitudes of love and loss that life inevitably presents you with. Vargas is most known for her renditions of Jose Alfredo Jimenez’s musical catalogue of ranchera standards, but Vargas’ interpretation of these songs evokes more than just a nostalgia or longing for the the nation via “lo ranchero”. Rather, Vargas’ stripped down versions (Vargas’ use of only one or two guitars as accompaniment rather than a mariachi) of the canción ranchera signal the possibility for queer folk (specifically Chican@s and Mexican@s both living within and outside the physical borders of the Mexican nation state) to access a sense of belonging-in-difference. The radical nakedness of Vargas’ interpretation of the canción ranchera is the dulcet and tender sound of dolorous survival and freedom.
dolor dulce dolor – or – el sabor del amor y del dolor
The freedom that I believe Vargas’ has left to us, Queer Chican@s and Mexican@s is her uncompromising and unyielding commitment to living her life on her own terms. It is in her music that one can feel not alone in their dolor, that possibility for accompaniment is indeed in the gritty grain of her voice and at the depths of each guttural moan and grito. The grain of the voice is the affective register that enables the listener not to make Vargas’ pain their own but rather unearth the generative possibilities in confronting and feeling pain, pleasure, longing and the erotic. The grain of the voice makes these affects real as they are conjured via the listener’s bodily response: goosebumps, blushing, raised hairs on the back of the neck or even sometimes tears.
Vargas’ music made me feel that it was okay to be vulnerable and that sometimes I was at a loss to express the vulnerability in words, I could only feel it. Sometimes you feel things that you cannot explain, you know that they are love, pain, loss or triumph but somewhere in the attempt to describe to a lover or a friend what you are feeling, the profundity of that feeling gets lost in translation. Vargas’ voice and repertoire represent the bridge between what you cannot describe with words and what is felt that is palpably materially experienced. In the lowest points of my life I turned to Vargas for solace and for company and in return she gave me the strength to see my own resilience and beauty reflected in her erudite mastery of the canción ranchera.
These moments to me represent the freedom that Vargas has left us, this is her legacy. Vargas’ life and musical legacy tells the tales we already know, how we suffer, how we are delighted and how we triumph and in the reiteration of these tales one learns something new each time. Each lesson is in turn a lesson about freedom, freedom lurks around us and it is when we decide to raise our heads and actually listen that we can be free if only for a moment at a time.² A lifetime of moments, is better than a life lived on one’s knees. These tales of love, suffering, survival and loss repeat themselves every generation, however, according to Baldwin, “the tale has a new depth in every generation”.
It is an honor for me to thank Chavela for her courage, her light and the gift her voice continues to give for generations to come. I could not have gotten through some of the most important transitions, challenges and heartbreak in my life thus far had I not had the company of her voice, the hope of her legacy and the freedom I have inherited from her.
Gracias Chavela por tu herencia y tu voluntad. Nunca se me hizo realidad el sueño de conocerte pero se que estas conmigo siempre.
Note: This is a snapshot of a longer work in progress to be presented at the American Studies Association Conference in San Juan Puerto Rico in November.
1. Although most reports note that she didn’t “come out” until the release of her autobiography Y Si Quieres Saber de Mi Pasado (2002), Vargas openly seduced women during performances at the height of her fame.
2. This is not to say that there is only potential in audible registers – this is only one of many entryways to affective belonging that I am interested in – another example is touch – the touch of skin, the touch of time, etc.
I have many favorites, but the song I’ll include for your listening pleasure is one that I’ve seen move many people to tears on different occasions. “Vámonos” (written by Jose Alfredo Jimenez).
© Francisco J Galarte