Chavela Vargas was born in Costa Rica but became Mexican out of choice, identifying with the the bolero ranchera. She succeeded in becoming one of Mexico’s Golden Age icons, through her music and also her public queer life. The singer’s masculinity was universally acknowledged. Vargas boasted of loving guns, women, and cars, of traversing urban space with the same freedom as any of her counterparts in song. She also enjoyed an intimate friendship with the songwriter José Alfredo Jiménez, author of the crucial ranchera and corrido repertoire which staged and voiced the masculinity defining the Mexican equivalent of the “man’s man.” Without discounting her iconic significance, Vargas’ most sustained relationship to masculinity was vocal and musical and in this sense she did not necessarily follow the standard script.
Licia Fiol-Matta reviews the arc of Vargas’ career, examining her relationship to the genre that made her so famous. Importantly, debunking the common narrative of an unspecified “dark night of the soul” derailing Vargas personally and professionally at around 1970. Fiol-Matta examines how Vargas’s turn to the political repertoire and that particular masculinity makes much more sense to theorize her sudden absence from the performing and recording scenes. Considering the politics behind her comeback as an older woman and global icon in the 1990s, including various ephemera and a discussion of the recent documentary Chavela, by Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi, in which Chavela Vargas’ masculinity occupies a prominent role.