Early in 1990 I decided I wanted to move to Mexico City. I took an intensive course in Spanish at Taller Latinoamericano, which at the time was in the East Village in New York. Two months, two hours a day, four days a week, and that was my entire formal education.
But I had some auxiliary teachers, including my next-door neighbor, an Argentine from Mendoza called Tito. His mother had loved Mexican music, and Tito inherited her predilection. “You like Mexico?” he asked. “Listen to this tape. Try to transcribe the lyrics on paper and then translate them.”
A woman’s voice – so deep and husky she could almost have been a man – imbued my apartment. (It wasn't difficult. At the time I lived in a one-room studio.) She sang a song traditionally sung by a man, “Ella” by Jose Alfredo Jiménez, which begins like this:
I got tired of begging
I got tired of telling her that without her I would die of grief
She didn’t want to listen to me, and if she opened her mouth
It was to tell me she didn’t love me anymore
These kinds of exaggerated emotions are typical of the lyrics of ranchera songs, indeed of much of Mexican music. Yet when Chavela Vargas, the singer on the tape that Tito lent me, sang them, they seemed completely rational and normal. In Vargas’s voice, each song did not so much recount a soap opera, but the accumulated pain of an entire life. I could not get enough of the tape, and on a trip to Mexico – I wasn’t ready to move until later in the year – I bought several more. Tito told me that about ten years earlier, Vargas, who had been a big star in Mexico, had disappeared from the face of the earth. She was rumored to have been a “difficult” artist who consumed a bottle of tequila a day. I asked around in the Mexico City record stores, and many thought she was dead.
A couple of months after I moved to the city, in October of 1990, it was announced that Vargas would be making her comeback at a nightclub in Coyoacán called El Hábito. I was among the first in line for the show. A diminutive woman wearing a huge rebozo, Vargas was in her early seventies at the time. If in her voice you could hear the ravages of time (and all that tequila), the emotions were intact. Each song was like a little play of tragedy or redemption. I knew that I was witnessing an important moment in Mexican cultural history – and I got her autograph for my neighbor Tito. (She signed it, "Para Tito -- no mames nunca," a deliciously vulgar phrase of Mexican slang that he often used.) I went to see her several more times at the same little night club.
Within a couple of years, Vargas would be discovered by Pedro Almodovar, who used her music for several of his films. Despite her increasingly fragile health, she would entertain King Juan Carlos of Spain as well as other luminaries and royalty in Mexico, the U.S. and Europe. The last time I saw her was at a free concert in Mexico City’s zócalo in October of 2010. In the last two decades of her life – she died on August 5 at the age of 93 – she regained the fame and love she so justly deserved.