Singer Dorian Wood Channels This Year’s OUTsider Festival Legacy Award Winner Chavela Vargas
Award and performance honor the legendary queer ranchera singer
By Diane Zaragoza,
4:35PM, Wed. Feb. 19, 2020
“Ponme la mano aquí, Macorina, ponme la mano aquí,” Chavela Vargas sings seductively in “Macorina.” “Place your hand here, Macorina, place your hand here.”
The words are as ambiguous as they are provocative, describing the beauty of Cuban prostitute Maria Calvo Nodarse, aka “La Macorina,” as well as Chavela’s desire toward her. With suggestive lyrics such as these and a powerful presence onstage, the Costa Rican-born Mexican chanteuse, belovedly known as Chavela, won over the hearts of both Mexico and Latin America when she rose to fame during the 1960s. At a time when being queer in Mexico was especially looked down upon, Chavela was the only female ranchera singer in a macho culture. Sporting her guitar in one hand and a pistol in the other, she was able to deconstruct rancheras – which were sung exclusively by men in bars – and made them her own.
For Curran Nault, founder of OUTsider Festival – Austin's annual queer transmedia festival kicking off tonight – Chavela’s unparalleled life made her worthy of this year’s Legacy Award, which honors artists who have been “on the forefront of LGBTQ art history that maybe certain folks don’t know about [and] that have been written out of history.” With the 100th anniversary of Chavela’s birth having just passed in 2019, Nault aims to remind new generations of Chavela's bravery. Chavela, Nault explains, “was doing this kind of outdaring in your face and [making] really emotionally resonant work at a time where very few people were doing it. She was doing it from a space of dominant discourse or dominant knowledge.” He adds, “There’s this assumption that Mexico is this macho place – a male-hetero normative kind of place – and she challenges that.”
Nault is driven to honor Chavela – the first posthumous Legacy Award recipient – as she was someone who wove her uniquely queer personality into the fabric of the Mexican art scene, yet runs the risk of being forgotten. Chavela, who Nault describes as checking “all the boxes of being this outsider [and of] being a revolutionary,” is a figure that younger generations can look to as an example. “There are a lot of people, especially the younger generations, that don't know a lot about Latin America or its history, [and] that don't know much about her at all,” says Nault. “[Chavela] is someone that we can educate people about and introduce them to and get them excited about.”
Although Chavela didn’t officially come out until she was 81 years old, her sexuality was an open secret among the public. She was the first woman in Mexico to openly dress like a man in public, flirt, and maintain romances with famous femmes. Imagine, the intimate stage of a dim lit cantina: Chavela’s hair is pulled back in a tight ponytail, a dark jorongo rests over her shoulders and drapes her body, bringing the audience’s focus to her eyes and words. Her fingers delicately stroke her guitar strings, and her voice dances in the air, reaching out to another woman.
Chavela’s bold queerness astounds Costa Rican American singer Dorian Wood, who will be performing their tribute to Chavela, titled “Xavela Lux Aeterna,” as part of the Legacy Award festivities Friday night. Far from an impersonation, the homage is an explorative dance between Wood and the audience: a look into Chavela’s queer complexities and generosity as an artist. Wood reveals that although they share similarities – for example, their Costa Rican roots, April 17th birthdays, and queer identities – it was Chavela’s intimate stage persona that influenced Wood’s collaborative performance style between themselves and the audience.
Perhaps most impactful to Wood is what Chavela represents to them and the queer Latinx community. For Wood, Chavela symbolizes the strength the queer Latinx community has maintained amidst adversity. Wood explains, “Her singing is something that I feel the queer Latinx community specifically really resonates [with] because we have collectively proven to the world for many years, decades even, that we are able to find joy and celebration even in the deepest, darkest pain.”
Eager to bring Chavela’s light to the heart of Texas, Wood hopes to inspire their audience, especially queer people of color in the room. Accompanied by guests Michael Corwin & Mariachi las Coronelas, they’ll pay respects to a queen, but most importantly, share her message of hope to those who live in the margins of the margins. Impassioned, Wood confesses that to them, “Chavela represents the power and pride of being both queer and immigrants.”
OUTsider Festival runs Wed., Feb. 19, through Sun., Feb. 23, (mostly) at the Vortex, 2307 Manor Rd. Badges are available online. Individual tickets are issued 10 minutes before each show after badge holders have been seated. For the complete lineup, see www.outsiderfest.org.