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Chavela

Both the Guzman and Lopez sides of my family like their ranchera singers manly like Jose Alfredo Jimenez or feminine like Lucha Villa. Think of them as the Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn of Mexican traditional music.

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In ranchera music there are few artists who explore the space in between. That's what made me stop on one of the new Mexican cultural channels I'd recently signed up for. Some recognizable talking heads expounded on 90-some year old ranchera singer Chavela Vargas in a documentary. Chavela bragged about hanging with Jose Alfredo Jimenez and between both depleting all the agave produced in that mid 1950s tequila crop. Yeah.

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Her singing and persona are probably too androgynous for my relatives. What's interesting is that an effeminate Mexican male singer, Juan Gabriel, is hugely popular. There's no equally popular lesbian or masculine female singer in Mexican popular music. I'd never heard my aunts and uncles talk much about her. So for me, she'd remained an obscure performer. Vargas is big in Spain. Filmmaker Pedro Almodovar has championed her performances. And I'd gathered she was a gay icon several years ago after I'd seen her picture on a flyer for a Chicana lesbian performance group.

So I tuned in for some clarity. Among the documentary's talking heads were Carlos Monsivais - Mexico's preeminent cultural critic - and Miguel Bose, the 1980s Spanish pop singer. What's Bose doing there, I thought. It felt like seeing Rick Springfield talk about Lena Horne. His comments hooked me. Vargas, has a voice made raspy by decades of hard living and hard drinking. Her vocal chords, Bose said, are a library. The various chapters of her life stacked side by side in her throat. When her voice emanates from her lungs it passes through those volumes and gives the lyrics she sings the texture of her life experiences.

That flyer for Butchlalis de Panochtitlan had Chavela Vargas wearing an indigenous poncho next to the phrase "Fuck some dude's wife." I called Raquel Gutierrez, one of the founders of the queer Latina group to ask what was up with that. "Well, that was our Chavela Vargas, sort of gesture. It was kind of like recuperating who she was and trying to synthesize her life as an outlaw. She was meaningful to us as four masculine females, four butch dykes, gender-queer, transgender, identity crossers."

The story is that Chavela slept with Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera's wife at the time, Raquel said. We expect those manly ranchera singers to lace their lyrics with these kinds of anecdotes. And we identify in the public performances where they try to exorcise the demons of love, loss, loneliness, and desire.

Chavela Vargas has those chapters side by side in her vocal chords. For Raquel it's like a section of a library she knew existed but only recently discovered.

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