Nacha Mendez channels Chavela Vargas
IT is Mexico City in the late 1950s. On a nightclub stage, a woman named Chavela Vargas, who dresses as a man and sings like a lovesick macho, pours her heart into a raw rendering of “Macorina,” a ranchera love ballad about a Cuban prostitute. “Put your hand right here, Macorina. Put your hand on me,” the singer coos, declining to change the lyrics’ pronouns from she to he.
Offstage, Vargas guzzles tequila, smokes cigars, shoots pistols, and chases statuesque divas — Frida Kahlo, with whom she lived for a year, was among the female artists and actresses entranced by the singer. Around the capital, Vargas drives a white Alfa Romeo, gifted to her by Mexican president Adolfo López Mateos. For an American to comprehend the audacity of her achievements, imagine Janis Joplin finding fame as a soulful country singer, performing for a rapt Richard Nixon at the Grand Ole Opry.
“There is no one like her in the world,” said Nacha Mendez, a longtime Santa Fe chanteuse whose Vargas covers have been a mainstay of her repertoire for decades. “Her music spoke to those people living on the margins. If you were one living on those margins, then it didn’t take much for you to be enveloped in the personal space she created in a song.”
In 2012, Vargas died in Cuernavaca at the age of ninety-three. Like any other true diva, Vargas had a rise, a fall, and a rebirth. Traveling alone as a fourteen-year-old, she left her family in Costa Rica to pursue a musician’s life in Mexico City, busking on street corners and making her way into the roster of bohemian nightclubs. She befriended the legendary ranchera singer José Alfredo Jiménez, who became her confidant, mentor, and frequent songwriter. One of the few performers who could rival her stage presence, he was also the rare drinking buddy who could match her alcohol tolerance. At the height of her fame in the mid-’70s, Vargas plunged into an alcoholic abyss, disappearing so completely, for more than a decade, that even close friends assumed she had died. Instead, she was rescued from a drunken stupor by an indigenous Mexican family who nursed her to health and sobriety without ever knowing who she was.
In her seventies she returned to the stage, where her emotive performances would solidify her reputation as “the rough voice of tenderness,” a phrase bestowed upon her by Pedro Almodóvar. A close friend and champion of Vargas, the Spanish filmmaker reintroduced her in the ’90s to audiences in Europe, the United States, and Latin America. Her songs lit up key scenes in Almodóvar’s La flor de mi secreto, Kika, and Carne trémula. In her second act, the octogenarian would perform at Carnegie Hall, win a Lifetime Achievement Grammy, and officially come out in her 2000 autobiography, If You Want to Know About My Past.
Mendez first encountered the singer 30 years ago. “I discovered Chavela in 1985 through a gay couple living in New York City. One of the gentlemen asked me if I had ever heard of her. I hadn’t. He worked in a radio station and had access to Latin music from all over the world. He made me a cassette mixtape of Chavela. The first song I heard was ‘Macorina.’ I was hooked right away.”
For Mendez, Vargas is a kindred soul whose artistic identity and personal struggles parallel Mendez’s life. Both are Latina lesbian musicians who revere traditional Latin American folk music while experimenting with its arrangements and pushing genre boundaries. Both faced down alcoholism that threatened to destroy their careers and lives.
Those parallels are at the heart of Amor Puro y Duro (Love Pure and Hard), a forthcoming documentary by director Catherine Gund, known for her movies about artists and activists who challenge conventional notions of gender and sexuality. For years now, the filmmaker had been sitting on unscreened interview footage of Vargas. Last year, Mendez and Gund conceived the idea of making a film that would jointly explore both performers’ lives. Currently in production, the movie mixes archival tapes of Vargas in Mexico City with recordings of Mendez’s performances and conversations in Santa Fe. “Chavela’s story will be revealed through Nacha’s eyes and her journey to wholeness,” said Gund in a press release.
During this month, several of Mendez’s local performances will be filmed for the movie, including a Saturday, July 25, concert at the Scottish Rite Center, Homage to Chela: Nacha Mendez Sings Chavela Vargas. The director said the film will follow Mendez as she explores Vargas’ legacy, writing and recording a new album inspired by the love letters Vargas received from Kahlo. Mendez has commissioned 15 writers to pen letters to Kahlo, as if they were artists and associates from the painter’s close circle, including Diego Rivera, Tina Modotti, and Vargas herself. Each letter will be transformed into a song by Mendez.
As a musician, Vargas’ bold approach to ranchera — no horns, no violins — has always appealed to Mendez. “I think that because she often accompanied herself on guitar, it made her delivery and phrasing personal and intimate. I also think that many trained musicians could not accompany her for her emotive pitch, her rhythm and interpretation of a song that was unique. I think that in her later years, she finally found the right musicians who could hang on her every breath.” As the late Mexican essayist Carlos Monsiváis put it, Vargas instinctively knew “how to express the desolation of the rancheras with the radical nakedness of the blues.”
“Chavela sang it like she lived it. In almost all of her recordings, there is that raw authenticity rarely heard in other recordings of her time. In other words, no one was using auto-tune or asking her to tone it down. Nor did she have a big mariachi band to back her up,” Mendez said. “When she sings, you listen!”
Frida Kahlo and Chavela Vargas, photographed by Tina Modotti in 1950