Latin America & Caribbean

Mexican singer Chavela Vargas dies aged 93

Chavela Vargas, pictured in 2007
Image caption Only days before her death, Chavela Vargas said she "wouldn't die but transcend"

Mexican singer Chavela Vargas has died of respiratory failure aged 93.

The popular performer was born in Costa Rica but was closely linked to the Mexican cultural scene.

Open about her homosexuality when it was frowned upon in Catholic Mexico, Vargas was a friend of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, with whom she said she had been in love.

She performed Mexican "ranchera" songs dressed in men's clothes while smoking cigars and drinking on stage.

Her friend and biographer Maria Cortina said Vargas died in hospital in the city of Cuernavaca, south of Mexico City.

Vargas moved to Mexico as a teenager after having a loveless childhood in Costa Rica.

Image caption In later life she performed on stage from a wheelchair

"I never got to know my grandparents," she once said. "My parents I got to know better than I would have liked.

"They never loved me and when they divorced, I stayed with my uncles - may they burn in hell!"

In Mexico, Vargas originally started singing in in the streets before finding fame when she was in her thirties.

By then she had embraced the Mexican genre of "rancheras" and made it her own.

Until then rancheras - traditional songs about love and loss - had mainly been performed by men.

Singing in a deep and rugged voice and often swigging from a bottle of tequila, Vergas refused to change the pronouns in love songs about women.

Many of her versions of the passionate Mexican folk songs are considered definitive and her unique style caught the attention of the country's intelligentsia.

As well as Kahlo, she became a close friend of muralist Diego Rivera and the writers Juan Rulfo and Federico Garcia Lorca.

In 2011 she released a new album of Lorca's poems and received standing ovations while performing on stage in a wheelchair.

She appeared in the 2002 film Frida, about her old friend, singing the eerie song La Llorona or The Crier.

Spanish director Pedro Almodovar, who has featured her music in many of his films wrote: "I don't think there is a stage big enough in this world for Chavela."

While her liaisons with women were known throughout her life, Vargas did not publicly come out as a lesbian until she published her autobiography, You Want to Know About My Past, at the age of 81.

Image caption She counted both Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo as close friends

"Homosexuality doesn't hurt," she said. "What hurts is when you're treated like you have the plague because of it."

While singing in the hotels of the Mexican resort town of Acapulco, she became popular with Hollywood stars holidaying there.

In 1957 she performed at the wedding of Elizabeth Taylor to her third husband, the film producer Michael Todd.

Vargas recorded 80 albums and performed until late into her life, making her debut at New York's Carnegie Hall when she was 83.

In 2007 the Latin Recording Academy gave her its Lifetime Achievement Award. She was also honoured as a "distinguished citizen" of Mexico City and received Spain's Grand Cross of Isabella the Catholic.

As a youth, she suffered from polio and attributed her recovery to the shamans she consulted.

On Sunday her doctor, Jose Manuel Nunez, said she had refused to accept breathing tubes or other measures to keep her alive as she "had to have a natural death".

Her friend Cortina said she was conscious to the end and "went with great peace. She never complained."

Only recently she said in an interview that she did not fear death. "I don't owe life anything and life doesn't owe me anything," she said. "We're quits," she said.

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