Latin Music's Queer Revolution: Proud, If Not Always Out
by Monika Fabian | November 13, 2012
Our next guest essayist for Rhapsody Latin Week 2012 is Monika Fabian, a writer from New York City. Her pieces on Latino arts and culture have most recently appeared in ABC-Univision News, the New York Daily News and WNYC.
When Chavela Vargas died on August 5, Latin Americans lost one of their culture's few openly gay musicians. The legendary Mexican folk singer didn't go public with her sexual orientation until late in life, coming out in 2000 at the age of 81. But as many of her remembrances noted, the fierce Costa Rica-born chanteuse's queerness and rumored liaisons were practically public record throughout most of her life and career. Vargas sang to female love interests (in songs like "Macorina" and "Se Me Hizo Facil") and defied gender norms in Catholic, conservative Mexico nearly 50 years before she would publicly proclaim her homosexuality.
Latin American countries have made significant strides toward LGBT civil rights like marriage equality and openly gay soldiers serving in the military in recent decades -- often ahead of the United States, as with Argentina and Uruguay -- but the shift in cultural attitudes toward gay acceptance has been slower in coming. Homophobia and transphobia are still entrenched and largely unchecked in a number of Latin American societies, and incidents of gay- and trans-bashing still readily occur.
Vargas' late-life public outness but lifelong queerness might be an example of a phenomenon acclaimed Mexican singer Juan Gabriel famously summarized when he himself swatted away prying inquiries into his orientation with the reply "Lo que se ve, no se pregunta" ("There's no need to ask about something that's obvious"). Without making tacit assumptions about Gabriel's sexuality, it seems that he, Vargas (for most of her life) and other Latin American musicians have articulated expressions of queerness in their music that have little to do with outness. This queer (in)visibility or ambiguity insures protection from any homophobic backlash or "pink market" ghettoization, and also provides fluid, freeing and safe space in which to personally and artistically navigate. Many queer and allied artists compose music about same-sex love and other LGBT themes, all the while resisting the "out" labeling and the perceived roles for out public figures.
Spurred by a punk-rooted DIY ethos, Argentina and Mexico's Kumbia Queers say they sought to do little else beyond singing love songs to girls when they formed their group in 2007. "From the moment we started, we had the idea that we wanted to do songs for girls, about girls," explained co-lead singer Juana Chang in a recent interview with the Latin culture site Remezcla. The motley sextet adopted "queer" to reflect its homo sensibility as well as its overall philosophical weirdness.
But queer references or innuendo in songs are often more veiled or suggested. In Juan Gabriel's ranchera "Inocente Pobre Amigo," for example, a spurned lover taunts, "Te pareces tanto a mi que no puedes engañar" ("You look so much like me that you can't fool me"), before diving into a lovelorn tirade that, while never revealing its recipient's gender, does dress down that ex-lover's new male lover (the "innocent, poor friend" mentioned in the title).
Songs like "El Baile y El Salon" by alt rock act Café Tacvba and Chilean pop artist Alex Anwandter's "Como Puedes Vivir Contigo Mismo?" employ a similar device, wherein the same-sex nature of the songs are revealed only at the end. The former's ballad about love and life as a metaphorical dance in a hall ends with this: "Y asi bailando quiero/ Que me hagas el amor/ De hombre a hombre/ Voleuz-vous coucher avec moi?" ("And dancing this way/ I'd like you to make love to me/ Man to man/ Would you like to sleep with me?"). Anwandter's first-person-voiced '80s dance-pop throwback about heartbreak reveals its subject to be male with the gendered final line: "Vuelve a ser el mismo de antes, amor" ("Go back to being who you were before, love").
But as mentioned earlier, gay acceptance in Latin America was slowly progressing, and in the '80s, two important songs emerged. Spanish electro-pop act Alaska y Dinarama's "A Quien Le Importa" came out in 1986 and was embraced as an empowering gay anthem in the region. And at the height of the AIDS epidemic, Nuyorican salsero Willie Colon recorded "El Gran Varón," a parable about a father who rejects his cross-dressing and presumably gay son, who then dies of AIDS, leaving the father full of regret. The song's chorus gets to the heart of the matter: "No se puede corregir a la naturaleza/ Palo que nace doblado, jamás su tronco endereza" ("You can never correct nature/ The tree that is born bent will never straighten its trunk"). The song has become a salsa classic.
Artists themselves are coming out, too -- most notably, Puerto Rican pop icon Ricky Martin, former telenovela teeny-bopper Christian Chávez, Argentine pop-rocker Leo Garcia, and Dominican electro-merengue singer Rita Indiana, who started out in the duo Miti Miti before going solo on 2010's El Juidero. But again, even as out artists, they all vary in how they treat queer themes in their music and negotiate being a publicly out figure. And this, in the end, might be Chavela Vargas' most enduring legacy: The revelation of a "Mundo Raro" ("Queer World," one of her best-known songs) in Latin American music, and one queer artist's path through it.