Frida Kahlo's lesbian lover, a venomous tarantula, and being comfortable with uncertainty

November 27 2015

A few years ago, I was gifted a venomous tarantula. My entomologist cousin passed me the small vial which held a 3-month old avicularia poecilotheria and I named it Chavela Vargas. Chavela the tarantula is now 4 years old. If it's a female, it will may live 25-30 years. If it's a male, it may live 7-9 years. Since Chavela the tarantula is venomous, I can't handle it in order to decipher the sex. Male? Female?

And this is perfectly appropriate, given the genderqueer nature of her namesake, Chavela Vargas, the Costa Rican-turned-Mexican singer who lived to age 93. She passed away in 2012 after a life lived to all extremes and in defiance of decades of alcoholism. Chavela's voice is sandpaper, cigar smoke, spilled tequila, hard kisses, resistance and longing. I first heard her voice in college, where my queer Latin@ self was experimenting with eyeliner mustaches alone at night in my dorm room after a few drinks. Her interpretation of the song "Macorina," with its innuendo and tears, wooed me with the story of a night spent with the most famous prostitute in Cuba, my mother's native country.

Chavela had many distinguished lovers: Elizabeth Taylor, Ava Gardner, and, most famously, Frida Kahlo. Two weeks ago, perusing Google Images, I found a sepia photo of them embracing and laughing heartily. Chavela is dashing in a suit; Frida has an embroidered blusa and those inimitable eyebrows. My heart leaped to see this moment of joy in the lives of two young lovers who, history has shown, experienced sorrow and heartbreak more often than most. I was moved by their courage to be in love when queerness was infinitely more taboo.

Chavela, ever the rebel, rose to fame as a singer in her beloved Mexico by singing rancheras written for men in a lamenting, low voice. Full of machismo but also ternura, she carried guns, got in bar-fights, drank herself to oblivion, and eventually bottomed-out from an internationally-lauded singing career, and because of all this, she is my MUSE. I'm a DJ, singer and electronic music producer (Soundcloud: MAMBISA) who loves throbbing basslines, layering folk songs with kicks and snares, staying up til sunrise drinking tequila, and pouring out my heart to friends and strangers. There aren't many well-known female DJ/producers, but my friends and I show our anger about that fact by killlllllin' it with audacious remixes and DJ sets, night after night, around the world.

AND ---- I'm also a yoga and meditation instructor, a social worker who works in mental health services for undocumented immigrant youth, and I'm currently dating a cis-gendered male (shout out to Fernando!) Chavela has shown me I can be both masculine and feminine, queer and seemingly heternormative, creatively-inspired and angry about injustice, partying hard and retreating into silence, in love and heartbroken, venomous and good-intentioned, happy and happily imperfect.

A couple years after I heard Chavela Vargas, I read Pema Chödrön. Pema is the most famous Western nun in Tibetan Buddhism. Before that, she was married and divorced twice. We all have demons, and I love Chavela and Pema even more for their integration of light and dark. Pema writes about the practice of being comfortable with uncertainty, an enormous challenge for humans who seek safety in the illusion of stability. One line from "The Wisdom of No Escape" has stuck with me for a decade: she quotes a senior teacher who told her, "If you step on this path, you accept that you will never have It All Figured Out." How scary. How liberating. Phew.

Thanks for reading. Thanks for being. I'd love to hear from you.

Philadelphia, PA
[email protected]

PS: shout-out to my entomologist cousin, Isa Betancourt, who is also on the Listserv!

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