On the day of the military coup in Chile, 11 September 1973, Victor Jara heard the brief radio transmissions on the Communist Party’s Radio Magallanes. Probably some of Salvador Allende’s final words: “This will surely be the last chance I can address you. The Air Force has bombed the towers of Radio Portales and Radio Corporación. My words have no bitterness, but disappointment ... I can only tell the workers: I will not resign! I will pay with my life the loyalty of the people”.
Victor and his wife Joan exchanged the same realisation hundreds of thousands of workers had been aware of for months: “This seems to be it”. Victor decided to keep his commitment and headed off to the Universidad Técnica del Estado, where Allende had been scheduled to speak at the same event that day. Like most of his Communist Party comrades, and Allende himself, Victor seemed resigned to a political course destined to fail, and at the same time deeply committed to the lives and hopes of Chilean workers. He set off that morning, knowing he too would pay with his life.
Earlier that year Victor had written his last song, “Manifesto”, a testament of sorts: “My song has found a purpose. My guitar is not for the rich. My song is of the ladder we are building to reach the stars. For a song has meaning when it beats in the veins of a man who will die singing, truthfully singing his song”.
Within a few days, rumours were spreading about Victor’s fate. My parents said they had cut off his fingers and forced him to play guitar. Word got out that he had been beaten and tortured, his fingers and hands smashed. Taunted to sing, he let out one last verse, from the song “Venceremos”. I always imagined it was the most rousing: calling on farmers, soldiers, miners, women, students and workers to sow the lands of a socialist future.
Four days after his capture, Victor was murdered. Machine-gunned, his body was found riddled with more than 40 bullets. By chance, he was recognised by workers in the neighbourhood where his body was first dumped. When his body was taken to the morgue, a worker there risked his life to get word out to Joan.
It is a measure of how impervious Chile’s ruling class is to any sense of morality that only last year – 45 years on – in July, eight retired Chilean military officers were sentenced to 15 years for the murder of Victor and his comrade Littre Quiroga.
It is fitting that a year on, Chile’s most significant popular rebellion since the early ’70s has made Victor Jara one of its cultural beacons.
Like most of the membership of the Communist Party he joined, Victor came from humble roots. He was born to a peasant family in southern Chile and was already working the land by the age of six. His mother, a self-taught musician, encouraged his education. After her death when he was 15, Victor studied accounting but soon moved to a seminary to join the priesthood, where he lasted only a couple of years before becoming disillusioned with the Catholic Church. He later joined the University of Chile Choir in Santiago, and subsequently the university’s theatre program.
Victor, the actor, theatre director, poet, songwriter, musical director and singer, encapsulated the rich cultural explosion that accompanied the revolutionary yearnings of the Chilean working class.
In 1965, while their already well-known mother, Violeta Parra, was exhibiting in Paris, the siblings Angel and Isabel formed the Peña de los Parra, much more than a venue at 340 Carmen Street in central Santiago. The idea was to encourage the folk arts, which were hidden from the screens, radios and venues of the mainstream. By 1967, Peñas were sprouting all over Chile.
One weekend in the winter of 1966, Victor was at a Peña in the port city of Valparaiso, near Santiago. He was called over to a table with Eduardo and Julio Carrasco and Julio Numhauser. These three bearded young men formed the beginnings of Quilapayún (meaning “three beards” in the Mapuche language). Together with Sergio Ortega, Quilapayún would go on to compose one of the most emblematic songs of the Chilean revolution, “¡El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido!” (The people united will never be defeated!) The three beards convinced Victor to become their musical director, which he did between 1966 and 1969.
By the late ’60s, the young musicians emerging from the radicalising university campuses were beginning to understand the importance of fusing their ideas and talents with the growing workers’ movement. Victor, who had joined the Communist Party in the first half of the decade, and whose roots and life experience made him especially sensitive to the hopes of the toiling classes, was well positioned to provide leadership to the emerging young artists.
Victor argued for a revolutionary cultural propaganda, believing neither that middle class artists could bring “culture” to the masses, nor that political art was simply about reflecting working class culture as it was. As Joan Jara said, Victor “believed that a true popular culture took time to mature and an artist should be less concerned with producing the transcendental work, than with being a kind of craftsman whose work would be as useful as a nail in making a house or a drop of oil to make a machine run smoothly”.
Victor saw the artist’s role as a pedagogue and organiser: “In every place where we perform, we should organise and, if possible, leave functioning a creative workshop. Our job is to give [people] what belongs to them – their cultural roots – and the means of satisfying the hunger for cultural expression”.
In 1968 the Communist Party Youth founded the Discoteca del Cantar Popular, which soon became an important album label. By the late ’60s, young groups like Quilapayún and Inti Illimani – with whom Victor established close ties and a special affinity – were no longer performing just for Peña audiences of the progressive movements. Trade unions were inviting them to factories, protests and celebrations.
In July 1969, at the Universidad Catolica, the first Festival de la Nueva Canción Chilena [New Song Movement] was organised. The festival’s best song prize was awarded to two songs, one of them being Victor’s “Plegaria a un Labrador” (Prayer to a labourer):
Rise up and look at your hands,
to grow, hold it out to your brother.
Together we will go united in blood,
now and at the hour of our death.
Victor was a product not only of Chile’s class struggle but also of the worldwide radicalisation. His “El derecho de vivir en paz” – now sung by thousands in Chile’s current protests – was written as a tribute to Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese revolution. His “El Aparecido” – which caused some disquiet among the Stalinist Chilean Communist Party – was a comment on the important example of Che Guevara and the Cuban revolutionary experience.
As part of the global cultural rebellion, and of the Chilean New Song and its many associated trends in the arts, Victor helped give expression to some of the most advanced thinking about the political role of artists. He argued that “the commercialisation of so-called ‘protest music’ and the creation of ‘idols’ of protest music who obey the same rules and suffer from the same constraints” meant that “the term ‘protest song’ is no longer valid because it is ambiguous and has been misused. I prefer the term ‘revolutionary song’”.
He lived, performed and sang among the revolutionary workers of Chile, and he died alongside them also. His last poem, written in the Estadio Chile, shared in the agony of Chilean workers and called out in hope of a new day:
Suddenly my conscience awakes and I see that this tide has no heartbeat, only the pulse of machines and the military showing their midwives’ faces full of sweetness.
We are ten thousand hands which can produce nothing.
How many of us in the whole country? The blood of our president, our compañero, will strike with more strength than bombs and machine guns!
So will our fist strike again!