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Chilean Musician Victor Jara's Rethinking of Power Lives on Long After His Murder


Mural for Víctor Jara, painted on the house that bears his name. Barrio Brasil, Santiago, Chile. Photo shared under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.

During the week of September 14, Chile commemorated 42 years since the death of Victor Jara, a Chilean singer-songwriter murdered after a coup d'état overthrew Salvador Allende‘s presidency and brought dictator Augusto Pinochet to power.

Victor Jara was murdered 42 years ago, justice now!!!

But despite the passage of time and the political changes that Chile has undergone, rumination on his music's significance has not faded.

Jara was the face of the Chilean New Song, a musical genre that challenged the country's deeply conservative ruling class. Through his compositions, the communist artist took on the Vietnam War and the plight of Chile's working men and women. For example, below is one of Jara's songs called A desalambrar (Let's cut the wires):

Yo pregunto a los presentes
Si no se han puesto a pensar
Que esta tierra es de nosotros
Y no del que tenga más;
Yo pregunto si en la tierra
Nunca habrá pensado usted
Que si las manos son nuestras
Es nuestro lo que nos dé.

I ask those present
If they have not stopped to think
That this land is ours
And not that of someone who has more;
I ask if on the land
You have never thought, sir
That if the hands are ours
Ours is also what it gives.

Jara, critical of the unequal division of power in Chilean society, vocally supported Salvador Allende, who won the country's presidential election in 1970. Allende's was considered the first socialist government to be openly elected in the West in the middle of the Cold War; with his policies of nationalization and redistribution of resources, he made many enemies among Chile's and the United States’ political elite.

An untimely end

The opposition to Allende culminated in 1973, when Pinochet ousted him from power in a military coup. Allende killed himself as troops approached his residence. The next day, Jara was rounded up with thousands of others at a sports complex to the west of Santiago city, where military forces tortured and killed the singer-songwriter.

The impact of Jara's music on Chile was such that every September, Chileans and non-Chileans alike remember him on social media. But interest in Jara's story was particularly reawakened this year after former Chilean soldier Pedro Barrientos was ordered in April 2015 to stand trial in the US as one of the perpetrators of the murder, 25 years after the end of Pinochet's brutal military dictatorship.

According to Barrientos, when Jara was detained:

fue reconocido por el personal militar instalado al interior del Estadio Chile, siendo separado del resto de los prisioneros, para ser llevado a otras dependencias ubicadas en los camarines, ocupadas como salas de interrogatorios y apremios, donde fuera agredido físicamente en forma permanente, por varios Oficiales.

[he] was recognized by military personnel positioned inside Chile Stadium, and was separated from the rest of the prisoners to be taken to other facilities located in the dressing rooms that were used as interrogation rooms, where several officers would assault him physically and permanently.

Boris Navia, who was detained alongside Jara, recounted these events in a speech he read in 2006:

Y llegamos al fatídico sábado 15 de septiembre de 1973. Cerca del mediodía tenemos noticias de que saldrán en libertad algunos compañeros. Frenéticos, empezamos a escribirles a nuestras esposas, a nuestras madres, diciéndoles solamente que estábamos vivos. Víctor sentado entre nosotros me pide lápiz y papel. Yo le alcanzo mi libreta, cuyas tapas aún conservo. Y Víctor comienza a escribir, pensamos en una carta a Joan su compañera. Y escribe, escribe, con el apremio del presentimiento. De improviso, dos soldados lo toman y lo arrastran violentamente hasta una de las casetas de transmisión…

And we arrived on that fateful Saturday, September 15, 1973. Around midday we get news that some of our friends would be released. Frantic, we begin to write our wives, our mothers, just telling them that we were alive. Victor, seated among us, asks me for a pencil and paper. I reach for my notebook, whose cover I still have. And Victor begins writing, we think it was a letter to Joan, his partner. And he writes and writes, with the rush of feeling. Suddenly, two soldiers take him and violently drag him to one of the transmission booths…

His testimony described the abuse and torture that Jara underwent as well as his encounter with the singer-songwriter's lifeless body and those of other detainees. Navia offered his vision for what good could come of the tragedy:

Esa misma noche y al buscar una hoja para escribir, me encontré en mi libreta, no con una carta, sino con los últimos versos de Víctor, que escribió unas horas antes de morir y que él mismo tituló “Estadio Chile”. Inmediatamente acordamos guardar este poema. Un zapatero abrió la suela de mi zapato y allí escondió las dos hojas del poema; antes yo hice dos copias de él […] Sin embargo […] descubren los versos de Víctor y bajo tortura obtienen el origen del poema, llegan a mí y me llevan al velódromo, transformado en recinto de interrogatorios […] Mi suerte estaba echada. Y comienzan las torturas destinadas a saber si existían más copias del poema […] ¿Por qué a los fascistas les interesaba tanto el poema? Porque a cinco días del golpe en Chile, el mundo entero, estremecido, alzaba la voz levantando las figuras de Salvador Allende y Víctor Jara y, en consecuencia, sus versos de denuncia había que sepultarlos.

That very night, upon looking for a sheet of paper to write on, I found in my notebook, not a letter, but the last verses that Victor wrote hours before dying, which he entitled “Chile Stadium“. We immediately agreed to save this poem. A shoemaker opened the sole of my shoe and there I hid the two sheets with the poem; before, I made two copies of it […] Still, […] they discover Victor's verses and learn the origin of the poem through torture, they get to me and take me to the racetrack, transformed into an interrogation room […] My fate was sealed. And the torture starts, meant to extract from me if more copies of the poem exist […] Why were the fascists so interested in the poem? Because five days before the coup in Chile, the entire world, shaken, raised their voice, lifting the figures of Salvador Allende and Victor Jara and, consequently, their verses of protest had to be buried.

‘My song is a free song’

Recalling this violence, many Latin Americans can't help but wonder how much harm a musician who sings about social change could really cause a government. But music is powerful. With its sophisticated hold over people's imagination, it can promote liberation from all kinds of oppression — dangerous qualities for ruling classes clinging to their power over a people.

Philosopher Antonio Negri explained these ideas as thus:

La emancipación es la lucha por la libertad de la identidad: la libertad de ser quien verdaderamente [ya] eres; la liberación apunta a la libertad de la autodeterminación y autotransformación: la libertad de determinar lo que [nunca fuiste y]  puedes devenir.

Emancipation is the fight for freedom of identity: freedom of being who you truly [already] are; liberation points to freedom of self-determination and self-transformation: the freedom to determine what you [never were and] can become.

Jara's themes of liberation and power touched on the issues most central to people throughout Latin America: worker’s rights, equality, the value of the land, the revitalization of local languages. His music not only described the fight for freedom that everyday people faced, but also invited listeners to think beyond the status quo, to dare to dream of a future in which the old conventions of power did not exist.

Jara compared these individual calls for freedom as links in a chain in his Canto Libre (Free Song):

Mi canto es un canto libre
que se quiere regalar,
a quien le estreche su mano,
a quien quiera disparar,
Mi canto es una cadena
sin comienzo ni final
y en cada eslabón
se encuentra el canto de los demás.

My song is a free song
that wants to be given,
to he who holds its hand,
to he who wants to shoot,
My song is a chain
without a start or finish
and in each link
everyone else's song can be found.

Jara's memory lives on

Jara's way of seeing the world would deeply bother Pinochet's dictatorship, which sought stability in the unequal separation of power between the political and social elites and the lower classes. His message resonated despite time and censorship, according to Joan Jara, the singer-songwriter's partner and head of the Victor Jara Foundation, created in 1993:

[… La memoria] de Víctor nunca se fue de Chile. Pero en el fondo pasó 20 años absolutamente clandestino aunque de alguna forma muy presente. Fueron los jóvenes que no habían conocido a Víctor que mantenían su memoria. Me quedé impresionada cuando visité Chile en los años 80 por la presencia de Víctor entre los jóvenes: conocían sus canciones a pesar que no se escuchaban en las radios. Seguía la censura, una censura en los medios de comunicación. Una especie de autocensura.

Victor's [memory] never left Chile. But it basically spent 20 years totally underground though very present somehow. It was the young people that had not known Victor who kept his memory alive. I was impressed by Victor's presence among the youth when I visited Chile in the 80s: they knew his songs despite not having heard them on the radio. Censorship still remained, a censorship in the media. A kind of self-censorship.

Even now, Jara's music continues to echo in many parts of Latin America for its incredible ability to musicalize a future that has yet to come. An annual tribute known as A Thousand Guitars for Victor Jara pays homage to him and his message every year:

Jara's dreams of a more just world are part of a long legacy of ideas that oppressive governments have tried to snuff out. With these annual tributes to Jara, Chileans take back what Pinochet's dictatorship thought it could rob from them — and prove just how transcendent the power of his music is.

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