The singer, who passed away Sunday in Cuernavaca, lived to be 93, surviving many contemporaries from decades ago when Vargas wore men’s clothes, smoked, and carried a pistol in macho-bound Mexico.
Then she disappeared. For a few foggy years in the last century, when Vargas stayed away from the capital's cabarets and fell under the spell of alcohol in a forgotten town in the state of Morelos, she had become a ghostly myth. Many people actually thought she had died.
After the reflourishing of her career -- starting in 1991 at the Coyoacan district cabaret El Habito, but marked for U.S. audiences by her performance of "La Llorona" in the 2002 film "Frida" -- Vargas through her performances seemed to be gamely singing her way around death.
It was always a fair match, always a matter of courtly struggle against a respected rival.
In her songs, in that uniquely Latin American way of romancing melancholy, Vargas would channel the long echoes of sorrow and pain that accompany any life as long as hers, armor against its end. Few details are known about her famous affairs, but we didn't really need them. Her songs about love and loss evoked countless shivers and heavy hearts, countless borracheras -- enthusiastically sorrowful drinking sessions.
For that, audiences and listeners across Mexico, the Americas and Spain would sometimes find themselves under a surprising state of rapture in the presence of her voice. It was pleading and raspy, yet always remarkably controlled.
On Monday night, throngs of Vargas devotees filled Plaza Garibaldi near downtown Mexico City to be near her casket for a few hours and participate in a customary Mexican ritual that's become familiar after the passings of Carlos Fuentes and Carlos Monsivais: a public mourning session.
Howls of farewell from fans were heard across the plaza. When prominent folk singer Eugenia Leon led the crowds in the universally revered ranchera ballad “Volver,” which Vargas always delivered with fire and ruination, hundreds of voices joined in what felt like a spontaneous group therapy session. There was a lot of tequila flowing by then.
This sort of event in any context can become a platform for insincere or awkward reactions to the death of a beloved figure, and this was particularly apparent. The memorial was organized by the culture ministry of the Mexico City municipal government and included the participation of a mariachi band associated with the media conglomerate Televisa.
Against such a powerfully distinct voice as that of "Chavela," the tributes sung by Leon, Tania Libertad and Lila Downs as "offerings" before her reboso-covered casket served only as reminders of what has been lost. All are accomplished singers, but none could capture what Vargas could.
When she sang, she'd sometimes lift her chin in a slow physical gesture, as if exposing both her dignity and wounds. At a microphone, she'd take her arms and raise them past her head, palms open, as though conjuring a ghost. Vargas might have laughed out loud if she was observing the memorial Monday night from the comforts of the Aztecs' underworld.
At Plaza Garibaldi, the troubled meeting-point for Mexico City’s roving mariachi musicians, several mariachis said gruffly that they were respectful but indifferent to her passing because Vargas usually did not perform with mariachis but with the solitary guitar.
She did, however, drink at the Tenampa cantina on the plaza. On Monday night, a group of longtime lesbian activists who knew Vargas gathered at a table at the Tenampa, with a bottle of tequila in her honor.
Patria Jimenez Flores, 55, described herself as a "spiritual daughter" to Vargas, who was also seriously regarded by many as a shaman.
"She was the first to break with all the stereotypes and paradigms in a country like Mexico, that is so machista. She took the criticisms, and then had the public at her feet," Jimenez said.
A comment heard since Vargas's death is that, as a chamana, she not merely died but "transcended" to another plane.
In one of her final interviews, Vargas told the El Universal newspaper's Sunday magazine in April that she was enjoying her final years in her home in Tepoztlan. She told the magazine that she would "cease living without dying."
-- Daniel Hernandez
Photo: Chavela Vargas performs in Lima, Peru, on Oct. 12, 2002. Credit: Jaime Razuri / AFP/Getty Images