No one understood sorrow, love or loss like Chavela Vargas.
The late Ranchera singer, a self-identified Mexican by way of Costa Rica, possessed an intimate understanding of pain that could only be articulated in song. Her voice would crack, sometimes stumbling while trying to climb a few octaves, other times trembling on the verge of tears. Often, the sorrow would overtake her so intensely she had to stop and recover mid-song.
Vargas refused to be anyone but herself. Her authenticity and vulnerability made her a legend in the history of traditional Mexican music, a queer icon and the subject of the award-winning documentary “Chavela” by Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi opening at the Opera Plaza in San Francisco this week.
Gund says she filmed an interview with Vargas upon meeting her while traveling in Mexico in 1991; the tapes poked at the back of her mind for years, and she eventually had them digitized.
After Vargas died in 2012 at 93, Gund and Kyi culled that archival footage and interviews with those closest to Vargas to make “Chavela,” which pays homage to the trailblazing singer’s legacy.
The filmmakers weren’t concerned with delivering a comprehensive story. They were more preoccupied with capturing Vargas’ magnetism, depth of emotion and the effect she had on those around her.
“People make myths about our celebrities, but she also made myths about herself,” Gund said of Vargas, rumored to be a gun-slinging seductress who had affairs with Frida Kahlo and Ava Gardner.
Whether that’s true is beside the point, Gund says: “I don’t know and I don’t think it matters. The truth is, she could have. And that is what we are trying to get across.”
As a child, the Costa Rican-born Isabel Vargas Lizano was subject to intense abuse and was hidden by her parents when visitors came around.
After running away to Mexico as a teen, she struggled to navigate the fickle hypocrisy of machismo and homophobia in the culture. Her tough personality, hardened more by her severe alcoholism, became a coping mechanism for surviving in a society that marginalized many aspects of her identity.
Despite a close friendship and creative partnership with beloved Ranchera singer Jose Alfredo Jimenez, it would take decades for Vargas to get her due as an artist in Mexico. Her sexuality and refusal to conform to conventions of gender expression (she often dressed like a man) meant that for much of her career, Vargas would be relegated to small clubs.
After a long hiatus and reckoning with her alcoholism, she got sober and found a home among Madrid’s community of bohemian artists that included filmmaker Pedro Almodovar and writer Federico Garcia Lorca.