Victor Jara: Turning grief and joy into songs

It is half a century since the murder in Chile of the people’s musician and singer-songwriter, Victor Jara. Arrested in Santiago the day after the 11 September 1973 coup against the socialist Popular Unity coalition government of Salvatore Allende, the forty-year-old world-renowned artist was brutally tortured and executed by Pinochet’s henchmen in the Estadio Nacional, the Stadium of Chile.   

Victor Jara dedicated himself and his art to the cause of the struggling people of Chile and to the programme of the first socialist government to be democratically elected to power in Latin America. From October 1970, the new government set about removing ownership and control of Chile’s rich resources, including the copper mines, from its own wealthy elite and foreign international corporations, transforming public infrastructure and services to meet the needs of the masses and giving land to the destitute toilers who worked it.  From the outset, the US plotted Allende’s downfall, the CIA working hand in hand with the most reactionary elements of Chilean society. Their machinations culminated in the fascist coup of autumn ‘73 and initiated 17 years of dictatorship and the first disastrous experiment in the application of neoliberalism.     

Just hours before his death, Victor composed his last poem, The Stadium of Chile. He was unable to dictate the final lines before his captors hideously silenced him in the basement of the sports complex. His words spoke of the stark contrast between what workers collectively can achieve and the horror that is fascism – as expressed in that place of incarceration and death:

“Here alone are ten thousand hands which plant seeds and make the factories run. How much humanity exposed to hunger, cold, panic, pain, moral pressure, terror, and insanity? […] What horror the face of fascism creates! […] How hard it is to sing when I must sing of horror […] To see myself among so much horror and so many endless moments in which silence and screams are the end of my song.”

But it was of the people, their struggle, and their ultimate victory that Victor Jara sang until the end. After his arrest, his captors recognised their prisoner – one of the junta’s most wanted. At the Stadium they broke his wrists and then his fingers so that he could never again pluck a guitar’s strings. They subjected him to terrible beatings and then taunted him – “Now sing!” And in an act of defiance, Victor sang “Venceremos!” because he believed unwaveringly in the words he had written, which had become the song of the people, and the anthem of the Popular Unity government – “We shall win!”

When, in the wake of the coup, the junta’s militia came to search the Isla Negra home of Pablo Neruda, whose poems Victor had set to music, the Nobel laureate famously told them, “There’s only one thing here that’s dangerous to all of you – Poetry.” In Victor’s case, the most dangerous weapon was the power of his song.

Victor was exceptionally talented across the range of performing arts – a folk musician, singer, songwriter, poet, and theatre director – whose deep connection with the people shone through everything he did. He possessed an extraordinary capacity for giving voice to their bitter experiences, concerns, hopes, aspirations, and struggle. As his wife Joan said, for him art and social justice were “one and the same”. In the words of the beautiful elegy, ‘Victor Jara’, penned by Adrian Mitchell and set to music by Arlo Guthrie (Amigo 1976): “He grew up to be a fighter against the people’s wrongs. He listened to their grief and joy and turned them into songs.”

Joan Jara identified her husband in a morgue and testified to his horrific injuries – his beaten body, smashed and broken bones – and to the single shot to the head that killed him, as his captor played Russian roulette to torment him in his final moments.  She left Chile for safety with their young daughters, Manuela and Amanda, smuggling out tapes of her husband’s songs and ensuring, through both her testimony and his works, that his legacy would always live. Her moving account, An unfinished song: The life of Victor Jara, was first published in 1976.

Although Victor’s last days have become a symbol and indictment of fascism, and how he lived those days an inspiration to people everywhere, we should never forget the gifts this exceptional human being brought to the movement through his art and politics throughout his life. He struggled for the things he loved. He once listed them – family, the earth, education, work, others who strive for the common good, justice, peace, and freedom “without yokes: neither ours nor foreign.”    

He was in touch with the people and the soil from earliest childhood. The son of poor land workers, he was given the gift of music by his mother who played the guitar and sang. She it was who taught the boy the ancestral tunes and folk songs of her repertoire.  

During his lifetime, Victor was not only famed in Chile but internationally. His work in theatre took him to the US and Britain, the Soviet Union and Cuba. But he increasingly devoted himself to music. Key influences were those folk artists, including Violeta Parra, who both collected and composed songs in traditional Andean form but reflective of people’s contemporary everyday lives and experiences. He brought music to the people and put the people in his music. He sang across the world and, as he did so, others, including Joan Baez and Pete Seeger, brought his works to new audiences.

At home, prior to the victory of Salvatore Allende, Victor used his art to promote the politics and aspirations of the Popular Unity coalition to mass audiences to whom he played free of charge. From this era comes the protest song, Questions for Puerto Montt, in condemnation of a “vile massacre” of people “fighting for their right to a plot of land to live” and Prayer to a Labourer, with humanist lyrics mirroring those of the Lord’s Prayer, addressed not to god but workers – “We’ll go together, united by blood. Today is the day we can make our future”. Jara performed it in 1969 at the first festival of the Neuva Cancion Chilena movement – in the same stadium in which he was later to die.

During the Popular Unity government’s three years in office, Victor and Joan became its cultural ambassadors, key influencers in the reorientation of Chilean culture towards socialism and justice. Meanwhile Victor continued to perform in many countries, including In April 1972 in Moscow at the Young Pioneers’ Palace and in Lima, Peru in July 1973 only weeks before his death.

Fifty years on, as we watch again and listen to Victor Jara’s performances, we can rejoice that Pinochet’s fascists were unable, even through the barrel of a gun to silence him and that, through him, we have witnessed the power of the arts to win the people for justice, peace, and socialism.   

Photo: Marcelo Urra from Santiago, Chile/ Creative Commons

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Originally published in Liberation Journal, September 2023

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