The Queer Syllabus: Chavela by Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi

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The Queer Syllabus is a joint project from The Rumpus and Foglifter Press that allows writers to nominate works for a new canon of queer literature. When we identify our roots, when we point to the work that shaped us as writers and as people, we demonstrate that our stories are timeless, essential, and important—and so are we. New entries will run on Thursday, September through December, and then will be collected as a living document on the Foglifter website. The Queer Syllabus is edited by Wesley O. Cohen and Marisa Siegel.

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My second time in Mexico City by myself in 2016, I walked around Coyoacán’s callecitas empedradas listening to Chavela Vargas. Viendo cada casita de color, entre lágrimas sentí que yo flotaba. It was then that the love I lacked from my father, from my lover, from myself and my own country, was given back to me in the form of a song. Chavela Vargas became the arms I sought.  Not so long ago I traveled back home to Tijuana and found out the 2017 Chavela documentary by Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi was playing at my favorite independent film theater, Cine Tonala. More so than the film itself, the act of seeing it became an intimate and crucial step to healing my ongoing heartbreak. Just like that time in Coyoacán, I, desolada como pintura de Kahlo e instalación de Mendieta, sat in that movie theater, crying alone.

The film is one that depicts the life of music icon Chavela Vargas, from the moment she was born in Costa Rica in 1919 to her death in Mexico in 2012. I knew what I was getting myself into. I knew perfectly well there was no way my soul would leave that movie theater intact, which is why I decided to watch it alone, the same way I knew I needed to attend Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Rooms exhibit and Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul alone. Siendo otro icono femenino y divino en mi vida, Chavela Vargas’s documentary understood my hand needed to be held, and it did. From the moment her music appeared in the movie Frida, Chavelita became a ghost in my poetry and nostalgia. I thought I knew everything I needed to know about her, but just like reading a Garcia Marquez novel more than once, I discovered tesoros I had no idea I needed to encounter. As I sat in the darkness of that room filled with womxn the age of my grandmother frente a la pantalla me di cuenta que Chavelita y yo eramos una sola. I felt as if I sat in front of a mirror, looking at myself, the self I so often neglected and disguised. I realized I missed myself.

Not only a lesbian artist in a patriarchal, homophobic and racist México, Chavela demostró ser una libre paloma, tal y como la que yo añoraba ser. Chavela, just like myself, belonged to no city, her music traveled beyond a Costa Rica that neglected her for her sexuality and spread to Mexico, Spain, and even France, which is something I wish to accomplish some day with my own writing. She belonged to nothing, nowhere and no place.

Chavela y yo somos el universo y tampoco correspondemos en el amor. Something I will never forget was Chavela saying (I reach for my notebook where I took notes while watching the film as I write this) she left Costa Rica (she recalls her mother hiding her given her sexuality) to Mexico City when she was young, feeling like something already awaited her in Mexico City. It was then that her career took off and she was able to become the ethereal legend she is today. Similarly to Audre Lorde when she traveled to Mexico City herself, Chavela found her identity in full bloom. Volar de su nido fue entonces volar de la jaula opresora. In 2017 I, myself bought a ticket to Mexico City (for reasons I explain in my chapbook Girasol). I find it fascinating how Mexico City has provided refuge and the love we lack from physical and tangible folks for many of my queer inspirations, including myself.

The film’s ending, with the death of Chavela and the grief and heartbreak of the countries she inspired, was the healing inductor I had no idea my body deserved. “Ojos Tristes” by Chavela played in my head all over again and I sat in the theater, feeling like I had just lost a soulmate, grandmother, and sister myself. El dolor de Mexico y aquel que Chavelita mostraba entre borrachera y canción se convirtio en mi dolor. Quería ahogarme en lágrimas, en tequila, en sus besos y en sus risas de mujer libre y enamorada. This is the womxn that gave my book the perfect epigraph. Chavela Vargas, donde quiera que estés, espérame en el infierno para tomarnos un tequila juntas.

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Rumpus original logo art by Luna Adler.

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Foglifter is a queer journal and press showcasing powerful, intersectional writing that fosters queer writers and galvanizes the queer community through literary events and programming.


Vianney Harelly Casas Espinoza was born in San Diego, California but lived 18 years of her life in Tijuana, México, crossing the border for six years to attend school. She realized she wanted to write for the rest of her life when she won her first writing contest, in 2007. Since then she has been published inCanto, Cipatli, Bossy, Gentromancer, Chevere, Yerba Mala, and Foglifter. She graduated from San Francisco State University with a degree in Creative Writing and hopes to continue writing poetry that will heal her traumas, as well as eventually running her own magazine and becoming the next Mexican Anna Wintour. Her work is inspired by García Márquez, Borges, Cortázar, Kusama, Kahlo, Mendieta, and Carrington. More from this author →