A Date With Chavela Frías

We scoured the earth to find her. Finally, at a Madrid café, we caught up with her. Here it is: our exclusive interview with Chavela Frías. Fashion Icon, Diva, Goddess.

“I’m catching a train to Barcelona at three,” that was the text that was waiting for me once the plane touched ground and I turned my phone on. Three in the afternoon? Don’t they say 15:00 in Spain? Or is that Argentina? Or both? Did I miss her?

My brain was exploding with questions I couldn’t answer. I’d been looking for her for months. Ever since the first time I saw her picture on Facebook. I’d jumped on a plane to Spain with only a “maybe” to hang on to. A maybe in one of her Whatsapp messages was all I needed. I had to make it happen. I had to.

I had to interview Chavela Frías.

The allure of those photos had blossomed first into infatuation and then into obsession, as I hunted down what would turn out to be one of the deepest secrets of the Venezuelan revolution.     

Another text: She would be at Asia Té at Calle de Agustín de Foxá near Chamartin Station for one more hour until her departure, then she would have left and I would’ve wasted my trip and missed the chance at my white whale.

I hopped on the train, my brain wrapped up in a dark cloud of doubt and blocked by a wall of negativity. There was no way I was going to make it on time, wasn’t sure anymore what I should ask, second guessed all my research, and was beyond a shadow of a doubt that the nine and a half hour flight had been a complete waste of time.

Once we arrived at the station I took a 5 minute Olympic sprint to the restaurant, with my jacket on and sherpaing my bag on my left shoulder.

I spotted her immediately. She was wearing an orange Pamela, an expensive looking trench coat, and large Chanel glasses. Legs crossed, a teacup in her hand. Alluring. Unmissable.

I sat across her, breathing heavy, and made a clumsy attempt to introduce myself. My head was boiling hot, my throat was dry, and the words were sticking in my tongue like mice on a trap.

She laughed, and asked the waiter for a glass of water.

After I caught my breath and composed myself, I was able to appreciate her for the first time.  

The allure of those photos had blossomed first into infatuation and then into obsession, as I hunted down what would turn out to be one of the deepest secrets of the Venezuelan revolution.

She realized I was looking at her up and down, and instead of blushing or feeling uncomfortable, she took off her glasses so I could verify. Yes, it was Chavela. And yes, the resemblance was striking.

“So? Writer? Does Chavela live up to your expectations?”

Her voice was powerful, but friendly.

“Yes, yes. It’s you… I can’t believe… We have 40 minutes, right?”

I noticed a couple of kids pointing at her. They giggled, and pulled at their father’s shirt while they kept staring.

I was uncomfortable, unsure how to handle it.

“Intolerant little shits,” I said.

Chavela laughed again, and with a clearly Spanish-inflected accent clarified “they are not intolerant, guapo.” She raised her left hand, in the way of a Spanish bailaora preparing for the next position in a sevillana. Then, with a vipery movement of the wrist, beckoned them.

The man released them, and diligently pulled out his cell phone to take a picture. Chavela posed with them. The kids thanked her. And she turned right back at me: “Todos aman a la Chavela, majo.”

Everybody loves Chavela, indeed.

Fashion icon.

I pulled out a digital recorder, but she shook her head in disapproval.

“Everything I say here is on the record. But please don’t tape it. I hate the idea of having my words taken from me, having my voice captured. What will happen to it once I’m gone? If you don’t mind, take notes. Don’t worry: what I say here you won’t forget.”

Chavela was born in Sabaneta de Barinas in 1954, the same year Marilyn Monroe married Joe Dimaggio. It was a tough delivery, twins usually are. She was born just fifteen minutes after her brother. When Chavela was pulled out of her mother’s womb, and before she could take in her first breath of air, her eyes were wide open. From that first instant, her’s were the same emerald green I was seeing that day.

Chavela came into this world a boy and a girl. Hermaphrodite, as the old-school anatomy textbooks used to say. Intersex, as they say now. Her grandmother, Mama Rosa, took that as a bad omen and decided that Chavela had no place in this earth. She instructed the midwife to do right by mother nature, and put the creature out of its misery.

The child was born without a name, Mama Rosa said “it” didn’t deserve one. It was never to be spoken of. More than the intersex features, Mama Rosa feared those piercing green eyes.

Chavela has trouble speaking about this. She takes some air, sips her rosario leaves tea and gazes into the street as if looking for the past.

“And then came Yamama,” she continued.

The midwife could not carry out her mandate. The baby was a monstrosity, she knew. But she couldn’t.

She handed the child over to Yamama, a well known santera trans woman who did trabajos for the family. The woman thought Yamama would know how to deal with the Chavela’s particular condition.

Yamama raised the baby as her own. She also gave her a name: Chavela Frías. Although she would never call her that. To Yamama Chavela was always Chara.

Yamama took Chara to her home in San Felipe, Yaracuy, a bustling city compared to the Macondean town of Sabaneta.   

Chavela’s time in Yaracuy wasn’t easy. She had the rough features of a boy, but the delicate heart of a little girl. And even though Yamama would let her express her identity as freely as possible, Chara had to deal with the townsfolk: Yaracuyans of the 60s.

The child was born without a name, Mama Rosa said “it” didn’t deserve one. It was never to be spoken of. More than the intersex features, Mama Rosa feared those piercing green eyes.

She was brought up as a santera and as a devotee of María Lionza, la Diosa Yara.

Yamama often told her a story about the Goddess Yara and how she met a snake in Sorte -the mountain at the center of most Venezuelan cults-, and the snake told her a prophecy about two children that were to be born. One would be the harbinger of destruction, and the other, with emerald green eyes, an angel of light and hope.

“So you were raised in San Felipe, what happened then? What happened to Yamama?”

“Yamama was killed. A few days after my eighteenth birthday, Mama Rosa learned I was still alive, and she sent two men after me. Yamama died saving my life.”

She wiped her tears, and put her Chanel glasses back in place.

I lit a cigarette to take in the dark twist, allowing Chavela a few moments to gather her thoughts.

“How did you get out of there?”

Chavela as Diosa Anaconda Chara.

“Oh. Yes. That was thanks to Wolfgang, the closest thing to a father figure I had. An Air Force Colonel who was very close to Yamama. Wolfgang would drive every Wednesday from Maracay to have dinner at my house. Yamama and him would drink cocuy and stay up late, but he would always leave before the sun came up. Although he was very distant and strict with me, I always knew that his feelings towards Yamama would somehow reflect onto me as her daughter. And they did. He sent me away to the United States, he had good contacts in San Francisco thanks to an reciprocal training program the Venezuelan military had with the United States back then. So I managed to study abroad. I went to community college first, and then I got a Scholarship to study Fashion Industry Management in The New School (NY). I can speak English too,” she laughed.

“And then, you moved to Madrid,” I said trying to move forward the story.

“Well, I moved around for a while, got my operation, worked with children with gender identity issues, became a spokeswoman for the LGBTI community, oh, and founded a multimillion dollar fake nail transnational. Did I leave anything out?” she said, clearly rushing as she glanced at her Cartier watch.  

“You know I have to ask you about him. Your brother.”

She sat back in her chair, looked away.

“Did you ever meet him?”

She took a sip of her tea.

“Of course I knew him, he was my twin. Twins are connected by their life energy,” she answered.

“You know what I mean. Did you two meet as adults? Did you ever see him?”

“Well, once. Although I can’t say we met, I just saw him.”

A few days before the 2012 elections, Chavela traveled to Venezuela. She did not recognize the land she had left so many years earlier. It was all louder, faster, and much more modern than she remembered. She had decided to travel because she knew this could be the last opportunity to meet her brother. And even when she had seen him on TV, she felt the need to make amends and say goodbye. He was the only person of her family, with whom she really felt some kind of connection. The child Yamama had always implied was the harbinger of destruction was, after all, her brother.

It will end badly for them, those people running the country, and when it happens, it will be faster than what most expect.

Wolfgang, an old man now, had been diligently getting promoted through the ranks without making too many waves. His profile was low, but he had good connections in the government. Not good enough, however, to get Chara a meeting with her brother, but enough to arrange for them to meet backstage at one of his political rallies.

And this was a big one. The skies of Caracas were gray, as if the Goddess Yara was mad because Chavela was abusing the good fortune that had been put before her. But Chavela didn’t mind, this was something she had to do.

And it happened. He jumped out of an SUV surrounded by a small army of big, handsome dark men. Chavela imposed herself in front of them, and was close enough to touch him, as the men tried to guide her brother through a crowd of people. They crossed gazes for a second. But Chavela was quick to realize that there was really not much left of him. The meds probably made it impossible for him to understand what it all meant. That he was not looking at a reflection, or an apparition, or a hallucination.

Chavela felt a burning pressure against her chest, as if Maria Lionza was pushing her back. Then she got dizzy. She describes it as the kind of feeling when you look in the mirror and realize that time has not gone by in vain. Chavela felt she was staring at the Picture of Dorian Gray, and decided not to touch it. Not to insist. To turn her back, and leave.

I didn’t want to push her on the subject, she looked distraught. I tried, however, to get from her one last comment about the situation in Venezuela. She wasn’t in the mood. But she did leave me with one last nugget of wisdom, before wrapping her neck with a polka dot scarf, with her 50s Hollywood star Marilyn Monroe swag.

“It will end badly for them, those people running the country,” she said. “And when it happens, it will be faster than what most expect. Because one hundred years of lies can catch up with you in just one second.”