Victor Jara, 1973-2013 – a Tribute

Victor Jara, a popular singer who gave expression to the revolutionary fervour of the working people of Chile was brutally beaten the day after the Pinochet coup and his hands were smashed with rifle butts. Fellow prisoners described how his torturers mockingly asked him if he could now play the guitar. In defiance, Víctor started singing the words of Venceremos (We Will Win). In this article Marzia De Luca looks at the work of Victor Jara and how it developed in line with the rising revolutionary movement of the Chilean masses.

In September 1973 Augusto Pinochet carried out a coup that brought to an end the Popular Unity government led by Salvador Allende. The anniversary of that coup is also the anniversary of the murder of Victor Jara. In other articles we have dealt with the causes of this tragedy and the mistakes that were made, that made of the Chilean revolution an important historical experience that we need to learn from.

The Chilean revolutionary experience ended in defeat above all because of the reformist illusions in bourgeois democracy and in the neutrality of State. Every mistake flowed from this: the brakes that were put on the revolution, the attempts to reach agreement with the so-called “moderate” forces as a means of “appeasing” the bourgeoisie, and the trust paced in the high-ranking officer caste. Unfortunately, in spite of Lenin’s analysis on this question in his State and Revolution, the nature of the bourgeois State as an apparatus at the service of the dominant class was not fully understood. Although formal power was in Allende’s hands, real power remained in the hands of the bourgeoisie which kept control over the mass media and the fundamental levers of the State.

However, the Chilean experience also revealed what enormous enthusiasm develops during a revolutionary upsurge of the masses, their self -awareness, their class consciousness and the very power of the masses. The masses began to engage in the construction of their own future; the revolution wave freed their energy in every field of human knowledge.

In Chile, this awakening involved – as much as and perhaps more than in other revolutions – the arts, theatre, dance, music and poetry. This is why, together with thousands of workers, union activist and left-wing militants, also a whole generation of artists paid a heavy price under the blows of the dictatorship. In their own original manner they had had supported the revolution with their creations, and thus became not just witnesses but also protagonists.

Amongst the most original were the groups of mural artists. In particular, there was the Brigada Ramona Parra (BRP) which derived its name from a young communist activist murdered in 1946 during a demonstration. In order to conquer the highest and most visible walls, in busy areas as well as in the barrios altos, which were the neighbourhoods where the richest people used to live, these groups had to organize veritable battles over territory. During the Popular Unity government, their works coloured the corners and squares of Santiago and other cities with messages of support to the Allende government and images that evoked the life and hopes of the humblest layers of society.

During the revolutionary process, the Nueva Canción Chilena reached its high point. In fact, it had started to develop during the 1960’s as a current of the more general Nueva Canción Latinoamericana. In Chile its patron was Violeta Parra. This artist, whose extraordinary value was only recognized only after her death, took the first steps in rediscovering and valuing folk traditions and popular music.

This rediscovery of musical tradition, of patriotism and the stress on national cultural roots had nothing to do with nationalism. In actual fact these elements, together with the social issues that were being taken up, had a deep anti-imperialist meaning. Overwhelmed by North-American commercial music, the Chilean commercial counterpart either imitated it or recounted stories about the country as a pretty postcard for tourists, with blue skies and pleasant landscapes, thus completely ignoring everything related to the conditions of poverty under which the people had to suffer.

However, the rediscovery of their own traditions lead to a deep contrast with the hegemony of North-American culture, which was another consequence of the more general political and economic oppression of imperialism. For this reason, the Nueva Canción Chilena actually anticipated the features that were to emerge during the whole of Chilean revolutionary experience. In order to establish itself as a national musical tradition it could only do so by being anti-imperialist, and that meant it had to be anti-capitalist and revolutionary. No wonder it met with such extraordinary success during the revolution.

The victory of Allende in the 1970 presidential elections was anticipated in the second half of the 1960’s by a process of social and cultural awakening. Violeta Parra committed suicide in February 1967, having passed on the baton, however, to a group of artists that had emerged in those years and that gathered in the Peña (club) de los Parra created by Ángel and Isabel, Violeta’s son and daughter, also musicians.

Opened in 1965, the Peña was an informal place, a kind of cultural circle, where artists from outside the official mass media circuit could gather and exhibit their works. In its first period, the Peña highlighted the – still – weak link between the new musical movement and the working class movement by maintaining a small and elitist public. However, by the end of the 1960’s, with the growth of pre-revolutionary ferment, the Peña de los Parra played a central role in the development of the Nueva Canción Chilena movement, becoming the model for the creation of other Peñas and acting as a springboard for many revolutionary artists. Among these, the most important artist was undoubtedly the theatre director, musician and songwriter Victor Jara.

Of humble origins, from his debut in theatre and from the composition of the very first songs, he showed the need to express and represent the world of abuses, deprivation and poverty in which most of the population lived. In this continuous expressive need, not only did Victor Jara glean ideas from his recent past, but also from a constant contact with misery and humble people, made possible by periodical visits to his home town and other villages and slums around Santiago. Thus, he wrote some autobiographical songs in which he perfectly describes the life of Chilean peasants; songs such as La luna siempre es muy linda:

I remember the face of my father
like a hole on the wall
sheets stained with mud
and my mother always working
suffering and shouting

They frighten the poor so much
So that they will swallow their suffering,
So that they will cover their wretchedness
With images of saints.

Or there is El arado:

I grip the plough tightly
And I sink it into the earth
As I have been doing for years.
How am I not exhausted?
The butterflies soar and the crickets sing,
my skin grows dark under the sun
as it shines on and on and on.
Sweat trickles in furrows down my skin
as I dig furrows into the earth without end.

This is how Joan Jara, his wife and life-long companion, describes the artistic tension: “The spring of his songs laid in a deep identification with the dispossessed people […], a deep awareness of social injustice and its causes and a determination to denounce such injustice […] in addition to the need to do something to change things”. In fact, humble children are often the main subject of his songs, as in Canción de cuna para un niño vago:

The moon in the water
flows through the city
under the bridge, a baby
dreams to fly
The city traps him
like a metal cage
The baby gets older
without knowing the meaning of playing
How many like you
will meander without a place to stay?
Loving is easy
with money
Sad the day
if you're poor

From the end of the 1960’s his songs became more explicitly political and indissolubly tied to the problems and goals posed by the social reawakening taking place. In those years Victor wrote:

“American imperialism perfectly understands the magic of communication through music; that is why it continues to gorge our youngsters all sorts of commercial nonsense. With professional expertise it adopted certain measures: in the first place, the commercialisation of so-called ‘protest music’; in the second place, the creation of ‘idols’ of protest music that obey the same rules as other idols […]: they resist for a while and then they disappear. In the meantime, they make themselves available to neutralize the innate tendency to rebellion on the part of the youth. The term ‘protest song’ is not convincing anymore, because it is ambiguous and abused. As far as I am concerned, I prefer ‘revolutionary song’.”

The beginning of 1968 saw a movement over university reform breaking out, which demanded access to education for the sons and daughters of workers and peasants; as a consequence, there were many occupations that lasted until the end of the autumn. It was in that moment that the Nueva Canción Cilena found a massive audience among the students. The subsequent contact between the students’ and the workers’ movements became the channel through which the Nueva Canción Cilena reached the working class.

Street art in Chile. Photo: Yohan NavarroStreet art in Chile. Photo: Yohan NavarroIn Chile, the workers’ movement had had a long tradition in promoting artistic and cultural activities. It was a tradition that had been deeply rooted since the beginning of the century when the father of the workers’ revolutionary movement, Luis Emilio Recabarren, had promoted the spread of workers’ poetry, music and theatre. As a natural consequence, in 1968 the Young Communists created an alternative record label, the Discoteca del Cantar Popular (DICAP), that allowed the publication of songs that otherwise would never have found distribution in the market. Thanks to the DICAP, Victor Jara could record and publish albums like Pongo en tus manos abiertas and songs like Preguntas por Puerto Montt.

Puerto Montt was a city where, in March of 1969 four hundred homeless peasants occupied a muddy fallow plot of land, the property of one of the most powerful landowning families in the region. Tired of waiting for the right to a roof over their heads, long promised by the government, 91 families tried through this action to draw the attention of the authorities and push them to finding a final solution to their problem. The answer, however, was a massacre ordered by the Home Affairs Minister Pérez Zujovich, which left on the battlefield sixty injured and ten dead, as well as a seven month old baby suffocated by the tear-gas bombs.

The massacre provoked a wave of general public anger and made people remove – once and for all – any popular illusions they may have had about the Christian Democrat government of Edoardo Frei who had won the elections with a left-winged phraseology but that had not carried out any of the promised reforms.

In Santiago there were violent riots between the police and the students and there was also a large protest demonstration during which Victor Jara sang Preguntas por Puerto Montt:

Well, I'm going to ask
for you, for the one,
for the one who has remained alone
and for the one who has died without knowing,
without knowing why he has died,
why they riddled with bullets his chest,
struggling for the right
of a land where to live.
Ahi, what a sad man
the one who has ordered to shoot,
although he knew how to avoid
so cowardly a massacre
Puerto Montt, oh, Puerto Montt,
Puerto Montt, oh, Puerto Montt,
You will have to answer
Mr Pérez Zujovich
why were defenceless people
replied to with guns.
Mr. Pérez your conscience
is now buried in a coffin
and all the southern rains
won't clean your hands.

During that period Victor Jara was a Communist Party activist and he had for a long time played in concerts in favour of the Popular Unity together with other artists in the movement. It is the period in which he gradually realized the need to bring himself closer to the workers’ movement. This is why he started to organize concerts and to perform in factories during the union assemblies. Music became a weapon of revolution; a weapon that became the people’s property, that amplified the force of its demands until they became hegemonic.

This is how Plegaria a un Labrador was composed. With this song, Jara exhorts the peasants to join the struggle for the winning and building of a fairer society. In Chile, land was still entirely in the hands of a few owners and large numbers of peasants lived in extreme poverty. Traditionally very catholic, the peasants tended somehow towards passivity, in contrast to the feelings of unrest of the factory workers, and tended to regard the Christian Democracy as their point of reference. Even Victor Jara in his youth had been an activist of the Catholic Action and had even followed for two years the path to priesthood. He explains:

“In Plegaria a un Labrador I put together both prayer and a call to fight; I know the mystique of my people and I know that most of them are deeply attached to religious beliefs. This is why I use this combination, which is a good way of getting along with these comrades.”

The prayer, however, was not addressed to god but to the entire peasant community: “release us from those that dominate us in misery”, “give us your strength and your courage in the battle” and “Thy will be done here in Earth”.

In September 1970, Salvador Allende won the presidential elections. Jara’s wife wrote:

“It was as if after having knocked over and over again at a closed door it had suddenly opened and we found ourselves on the other side, wavering but free at last. It was wonderful, but it took us some time to get used to it, […] After having protested and denounced for so long, to finally find something real to celebrate and such a huge numbery of tasks to accomplish, was somehow bewildering”.

This explains why Victor Jara’s music went through a short period of crisis as did that of many other artists. Explaining these difficulties, evident from some of his less successful songs, he stated:

“this victory and this combination of common ideas, have awakened in many artists the hard question of what to do now. That thing that was spontaneous impulse before, today must become organized and planned action. It is useless to say that the people yearn for everything related to culture. It is necessary to give people the weapons for them to become creators. Now singing belongs to everyone”.

After having overcome these initial creative difficulties, Victor Jara wrote songs such as Abre la ventana in which he encourages Maria to “open the windows and let the sun in” now that “the cruellest moment is over” and her eyes could finally “be filled with light and her hands with honey”. Maria was the symbol for all those humble people that, used to a passive role in society, at the beginning found it hard to move and to take action in the social changes taking place.

The Popular Unity government that had just taken office introduced many measures that gave immediate relief to the Chilean people. Together with the most important reforms, such as land reform or the nationalization of key industries of the country, plans for the spreading of culture were also put in place. Among these, the programme “Art for everyone” regularly organised concerts, dance and theatrical events in the working class neighbourhoods of Santiago. These activities were important because they spread culture and art such that they ceased being a privilege only for the élite. These activities, however, also had their limitations inasmuch as they still contained elements of paternalism towards the people, typical of many artists and intellectuals of that time.

Victor Jara’s idea, on the other hand, greatly avoided paternalism which he had always criticized. Addressing the artists, he stated: “In every place we perform we should organize creative workshops, and allow them to develop by themselves. It is we who should rise up to the people and not stoop down towards them. Our task consists in giving them what belongs to them, in other words their cultural roots, and the means to satisfy their thirst for cultural expression which we witnessed during the election campaign.”

In fact, the Chilean masses, actively committed to the struggle for a socialist society, demanded a greater role for themselves in the artistic field. This immense creative enthusiasm also affected Victor Jara. Time seemed too little for the quantity of work that had to be done on a daily basis: “We have this wonderful opportunity of creating a socialist society by peaceful means and we can’t waste it... the world is watching us to see if it is possible.”

For the first time in history a revolution was taking place through a government elected within the rules of bourgeois democracy. The “peaceful road to socialism” appeared to be possible in the eyes of many. There was the illusion that the bourgeoisie would accept letting go of the reins of power if they had been taken from them by a “legitimately elected” government. In actual fact, Victor Jara had already clearly seen the signs of the violence that the bourgeoisie was capable of if its interests are threatened. Since the 1960’s his revolutionary songs had been noted by the Chilean ruling class. The release and the popular success of Preguntas por Puerto Montt were to trigger a series of threats and pressure against him. He was in fact physically injured during a concert in a school for the children of the rich.

During Allende’s presidency, the press, 70% of which was still in the hands of the bourgeoisie, launched its most violent counter-revolutionary campaign. All sorts of slanders were directed at Victor Jara, including the accusation that he was a paedophile! The aim was to defame the most-beloved artist of the Chilean people. However, the campaign failed in its objectives and Victor Jara publicly declared that the attack, which he considered an indirect attack against the Popular Unity and against his party (the Communist Party), was clearly a response to the fact that his songs had hit the mark and this only served to strengthen his resolve to continue writing his songs.

In the winter of 1972 the album La población was released. It fully expressed his deep desire to look into social conditions and his eternal mission to tell the stories of the most humble layers of society, together with his idea of the people’s participation in art. Invited by a friend who lived in a shanty town, he stayed for three weeks in several villages, among them Nogales – where Victor Jara had lived – and Herminda de la Victoria. He recorded the sounds of that environment and the stories of the people who lived there. The album contained some recordings and songs inspired by those stories. For the first time, in this album Victor Jara mixed songs with theatre technique, especially in Luchin, the beautiful song about one of the many children of the shanty towns and in Herminda de la Victoria. The latter tells the story of a village which took the name from Herminda, the newborn that died in the arms of its mother shot during a land occupation:

Herminda de la Victoria
died without having time to struggle
She went straight to the glory
with her chest riddled with bullets.

It would be too lengthy to list all of Victor Jara’s songs, all of them containing a deep human, social and political meaning. His was a constant commitment which was evident from every speech he made, from every gesture and from every new composition. To what degree his own life matched the things he did is evident from two of his songs, both written when the threat of a coup and the encroaching counter-revolutionary violence made clear what was about to happen in the near future: Vientos del Pueblo and Manifiesto. Vientos del pueblo is a song influenced by the verses of another people’s artist, Miguel Hernández, a soldier and poet of the Spanish civil war:

Winds of the people are calling me,
winds of the people are bearing me,
they scatter my heart
and blow through my throat.
So the poet will be heard,
until death takes me away,
along the road of the people,
now and forever.

Manifiesto, written shortly before Victor Jara’s death and released posthumously, is considered his testament. It is in effect the “manifesto” of what it means to be a revolutionary artist according to the thinking of Victor Jara:

I don't sing for love of singing,
or because I have a good voice.
I sing because my guitar
has both feeling and reason.
It has a heart of earth
and the wings of a dove,
it is like holy water,
blessing joy and grief.
My song has found a purpose
as Violeta would say.
Hardworking guitar,
with a smell of spring.

My guitar is not for the rich no,
nothing like that.
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.

My song is not for fleeting praise
nor to gain foreign fame,
it is for this narrow country
to the very depths of the earth.
There, where everything comes to rest
and where everything begins,
song which has been brave song
will be forever new.

Towards the end, Victor Jara was busy in a project in which he could finally try to embody his idea of “popular art”, a theatre and musical show, in which it was the people who acted, who took the stage to tell their story. The first and successful experiment was in 1972 during the celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary of the Chilean Communist Party. On this occasion he directed dozens of workers and peasants who performed the History of the Chilean workers’ movement, their own story.

Victor Jara was tirelessly working to take the project to every Chilean region, involving in the experience local artists. It was a project that would have made clear to everyone his deep belief that the people are capable of actively participating in cultural movements if given the necessary tools. His project, however, could not be accomplished. The CUT (the most important union in the country) had given precise orders, in case of a coup everyone was to go to their workplaces to defend them. On September 11, therefore, Victor Jara rushed to the Universidad Técnica. The masses, even though they were disarmed, thought that there was a plan of common defence and weapons, in case of necessity, would be provided. But none of this materialised.

Those who were defending the Universidad Técnica, as in every other workplace, were attacked by the army and after strenuous resistance were arrested or killed on the spot. It is believed that in the first few days following the coup between twenty and thirty thousand people were arrested and killed. This was class vengeance against the working class carried out in a systematic manner. When people were arrested the first thing they did was to check if they had calloused hands. Anyone with calloused was considered a factory worker, and to be a factory worker was equal to being Marxist, such was the support of the working class for the revolution.

For the same reason Victor Jara, who belonged to the working people and had sung with so much passion, was treated with the same hatred. Locked together with thousands of other people in the Stadium of Santiago de Chile, he was identified and his hands were smashed so that he could never play for his class again. Before being tortured and murdered, he was able to place in the hands of a fellow prisoner his last words:

There are five thousand of us here
in this small part of the city.
We are five thousand.
I wonder how many we are in all
in the cities and in the whole country?
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?

Six of us were lost
as if into starry space.
One dead, another beaten as I could never have believed
a human being could be beaten.
The other four wanted to end their terror
one jumping into nothingness,
another beating his head against a wall,
but all with the fixed stare of death.
What horror the face of fascism creates!
They carry out their plans with knife-like precision.
Nothing matters to them.
To them, blood equals medals,
slaughter is an act of heroism.
Oh God, is this the world that you created,
for this your seven days of wonder and work?
Within these four walls only a number exists
which does not progress,
which slowly will wish more and more for death.

But 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.
Let Mexico, Cuba and the world
cry out against this atrocity!
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!

How hard it is to sing
when I must sing of horror.
Horror which I am living,
horror which I am dying.
To see myself among so much
and so many moments of infinity
in which silence and screams are the end of my song.

What I see, I have never seen
What I have felt and what I feel
Will give birth to the moment...

Last year, 39 years after the event, eight retired army officers were charged with the murder of Víctor Jara. Two former officers, Pedro Barrientos and Hugo Sánchez, were named as committing the murder together with six other accomplices. Barrientos has also been sued in a Florida court for human rights violators. Barrientos, now 64 years old, had moved to the USA back in 1989, taking up US citizenship, no doubt as a precautionary measure should justice ever be sought against him.

Workers carrying Victor Jara's coffin at a 2009 memorial. Photo: Cosmopolita.Workers carrying Victor Jara's coffin during
the 2009 memorial. Photo: Cosmopolita.
Although he even denies ever having set foot in the stadium back in September 1973, soldiers who were in his regiment at the time have confirmed that Barrientos was actually in charge of operations there. One of the soldiers has testified that he saw Barrientos and others beating and torturing Jara.

Apparently Barrientos, who was a Lieutenant at the time, eventually ended the torture when he decided to play Russian roulette with Jara, in the end shooting Víctor Jara in the neck as he stood handcuffed. Then the other officers fired as well. In fact Jara was found with over 40 bullets in his body when his body was dumped on a street after his death.

However, the Chilean government has still to send the actual extradition request to US officials, as the paper work is still being translated. And in case anyone may have illusions about today’s Chilean officer caste, his wife Joan has explained that, “All of the information that has been dug out about the officers who were in the stadium has been discovered without the help of the army." Real justice for Victor Jara and the thousands who died with him will only finally come when his dream of a socialist Chile becomes a reality!

Sources: JOEL JARA, Victor Jara, una canzone infinita, Sperling & Kupfer editori, Milano, 1999; SAVERIO TUTINO, Dal Cile, Mazzotta, 1973; GUZMÁN PATRICIO, La Batalla de Chile I, II, III,, Fundación Victor Jara