Early on in the documentary “Chavela,” a cabaret owner describes the voice of Chavela Vargas: “She wasn’t a little fountain. She was more like a tremendous canyon.… She sounded as if she’d been born with the wounds of life and death.”
Vargas was born in Costa Rica and moved to Mexico at 17 to pursue music. At first, she presented herself as a traditional, feminine cabaret and ranchera singer, but found the style unnatural and uncomfortable.
When she appeared onstage in the 1940s wearing pants, with her hair tied back, without jewelry or makeup, “time stood still,” Vargas remembers. “Women didn’t wear pants. If you wore them, people would yell at you on the street. The public was stunned.”
As filmmakers Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi recount in their 2017 documentary, this act of rebellion launched a 70-year career in which Vargas would become an international star: singer, songwriter, actor and queer icon before most people knew what the phrase meant.
“Chavela” screens on Monday, brought to Kansas City through a collaboration between the UMKC Friends of the Library, several other UMKC organizations and the Kansas City Filmfest.
“I was very unfamiliar with Chavela’s work. I learned about her when I wondered, ‘Who is that older woman with the raspy voice singing “La Llorona” in the “Frida” movie?’ That is what began my journey with Chavela,” says Jackie Madrigal, who teaches language and U.S. Latino Literature courses at Shawnee Mission North High School and is board president of the UMKC Friends of the Library.
“Flash forward a few years when the Chavela documentary was released,” Madrigal says. “I saw how there were showings all over the Southwest, which is typical when it comes to films focused on Mexican/Latinx archetypes. Frankly I was tired of it. There is a large Latinx population in Kansas City … and I saw no reason why we couldn’t bring the film to Kansas City.”
The documentary is packed with footage of Vargas’ performances from the 1940s through 2012, the year of her death, as well as the filmmakers’ interviews with Vargas, mostly from the 1990s and 2000s.
These conversations reveal a brash, charismatic woman who relished the limelight and dominated every space she was in. Her method of surviving the male-dominated and misogynistic Mexican entertainment industry was essentially to “out-macho” the machsimo, such as in clips from José Bolaños 1966 documentary “La Soldadera,” in which Vargas strides about draped in bandoliers and manhandles pretty young women.
In the interviews, Vargas recounts parties with Hollywood celebrities who were vacationing in Mexico to escape the limelight in the U.S., and dishes gossip from her rowdier years, claiming affairs with Frida Kahlo and Ava Gardner, among others.
The film spends considerable time on a difficult mid-life struggle with alcoholism that almost ended Vargas’ career and nearly killed her. She emerges from retirement partly through the efforts and devotion of Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar, who refers to Vargas as a “priestess” and advocated for her recognition through the end of her life.
“She broke stereotypes,” Madrigal says. “She did the unexpected, and that is what made her great. That is what makes most women great.”
“Chavela,” 5 p.m. Monday, April 9 at the UMKC Student Union Theater, 5100 Cherry Street, Kansas City, Missouri 64110, preceded by a brief musical performance. The event is free and open to the public, but seating is limited and reservations are required.
Melissa Lenos is an Assistant Professor of English at Donnelly College, where she teaches film studies, composition, literature and popular culture. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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