Ryan Harvey

The Story of Victor Jara

In History, Music & Art on October 22, 2008 at 5:13 pm

from Even If Your Voice Shakes – Issue #2, Fall 2008

Throughout the late 1950s and 1960s the world was rocked by a wave of revolutionary movements, some successful, some successfully repressed. In Cuba, Vietnam, France, Thailand, Italy, Germany, Mexico, and even the United States, radical movements rose at historical levels. At the earliest stages of these movements, musicians played a key role in popularizing ideas, validating feelings among the people, and creating social and cultural space for popular protest. Chile was no exception, with an active population fighting off a fascist right-wing threat to bring in a socialist government under Salvador Allende.

One of the most recognizable figures on the cultural front of Chile’s revolutionary movements was Víctor Jara, a folk singer, playwrite, director, and activist born in the town of Chillán Viejo in the southern state of El Carmen. Moving to Santiago after his family left his abusive father, Víctor got involved in first the church, then the military, leaving both shortly after. Discovering the guitar with the help of a neighbor, Víctor became interested in Chile’s folk traditions and grew quickly with the guitar.

Travelling back to the south in the mid-1950s, Víctor studied the music of different areas and traditions, eventually coming across a theater and music group called Cuncumen playing in the Cafe Sau Paulo, where he soon joined Cuncumen. Cuncumen introduced Víctor to expressive movement and theater, and he rose quickly in the theater world to become a well-respected director. His plays soon started appearing in the main theaters of Santiago, and Víctor started becoming a figure in the art world.

Cuncumen eventually toured Europe, where Víctor’s songs and voice amazed both the other members of the group and the crowds they performed for. Other performers on the tour suggested he release a solo abum and Víctor followed the advice, releasing his self-titled album in 1966. Víctor’s first single, El Cigarrito, was the most popular songs of the year in Chile.

Nueva Canción Chilena

Víctor continued directing after returning to Santiago but became increasingly involved with the music scene. Taking a job at Violetta Parra’s Peña de los Parra, Víctor began organizing public music nights, bringing songwriters together at the peña from 10 PM until 2 AM 3 nights a week. The music coming out of the peña, by artists like Violetta Parra, Víctor Jara, Patricio Manns, Rolando Alarcon and others, became known as “Nueva Canción Chilena”, the Chilean New Song movement. New Song blended music and politics and created physical space, through its gatherings, for the exchange of information and networking among radicals. Victor believed in New Song because it was Chile’s own, far from the watered-down political pop music of the United States:

“The cultural invasion is like a leafy tree which prevents us from seeing our own sun, sky and stars. Therefore in order to be able to see the sky above our heads, our task is to cut this tree off at the roots. US imperialism understands very well the magic of communication through music and persists in filling our young people with all sorts of commercial tripe. With professional expertise they have taken certain measures: first, the commercialization of the so-called ‘protest music’; second, the creation of ‘idols’ of protest music who obey the same rules and suffer from the same constraints as the other idols of the consumer music industry – they last a little while and then disappear. Meanwhile they are useful in neutralizing the innate spirit of rebellion of young people. The term ‘protest song’ is no longer valid because it is ambiguous and has been misused. I prefer the term ‘revolutionary song’.”

The peña was an open-mic and performance space where artists could share their words. Víctor became well known through these events and helped manage Peña de los Parra for 8 years. By 1967, the peña movement had spread across Chile, helping grow the new radical culture of Chile beyond Santiago. Víctor went on to release 6 albums after his first, achieving a level of popularity comparable to Bob Dylan or Woody Guthrie.

Unidad Popular

Víctor was a major promoter of Salvador Allende and worked on his campaign, performing at free concerts and doing political work, as well as lending his voice to the theme song of Allene’s coalition, Unidad Popular, or Popular Unity. After Allende’s election in 1970, Víctor became a Cultural Diplomat, representing Chile’s new vision with his art, and began teaching at the Outeach Department of the Technical University. He also started composing music for Chile’s National TV station “Television Nacional”. Víctor’s involvement in the socialist movement and his outspoken critisim of right-wing forces in Chile earned him both massive support and admiration from the Left and harted from the Right.

Víctor campaigned for Popular Unity in 1973 in the working-class districts to the west of Santiago, where he had first picked up a guitar. Travelling in an old bus with fellow New Song band Inti-Illimani, he spent the summer campaigning for a woman candidate of the Communist Party, Eliana Arambar. They sang in factories and on building sites, in the street, schools and markets.

Actions by the Fascists

From 1970 onward, the Right made a concerted effort to take power, and by late summer 1973 The Washington Post was reporting publicy about CIA involvement in the effort. Attempts were made to impeach Allende but these efforts failed dramatically. In the streets, the letters SACO, System of Organized Civil Action, appeared as graffiti on the walls of Santiago, announcing a campaign of violence by the Patria y Libertad, who’s paramilitary units had tried sveral times to hurt or kill Víctor, each time producing a lucky escape. Another slogan rising from the right was ‘”Jakarta is coming”, referencing and alluding to the massacre of hundreds of thousands of communists in Indonesia in 1965. “We worked to a background of shouting in the street, the noise of breaking glass, the crunch of tear-gas grenades exploding, and their sickly, stifling fumes seeping up even to the seventh floor. Several times a week we would have to run the gauntlet of a street riot in order to get to work, taking refuge in shops or arcades until these too became so chronically full of tear-gas that the air never cleared.” (-Joan Jara)

In the winter the supervisors of El Teniente copper mine struck, under the guidance of the Christian Democrat Party, but many miners refused to recognize the strike and continued working. Students with technical skills boarded busses to the mines outside of Rancagua to assist in the efforts of the miners. In her biography of her husbands, “History is a Weapon”, Joan Jara recalls:

“Víctor went with them on more than one occasion. I remember driving him down to the Technical University early one morning to join the bus. As we waited for it to fill up with students, I got into conversation with two hippy-looking gringos with a guitar, who were sitting on the campus steps. They told me that they wanted to go to the mine to show their support for the miners and maybe sing a few songs to tell them that many Americans condemned the policies of the US government. Apparently the Chilean students didn’t trust them and hadn’t given them permission to get on the bus. As the conversation progressed, they introduced themselves as Phil Ochs and Jerry Rubin. I took them over to where Víctor was deep in conversation with the organisers of the expedition and he intervened to allow them to go with the group. They spent all day with Víctor, going into the mine with him. They heard him singing and talking to the miners and were impressed with his easy relationship with them and how much they appreciated his songs. Víctor gave them a chance to speak and to sing a few songs, translating for them, and then all together they sang Pete Seeger’s ‘If I had a hammer’. The three of them had such a good time together that in the evening, when they reached Santiago, Víctor took them to the Peña, where they were warmly received.”

Phil Ochs would later write one of his greatest songs, “When I’m Gone”, about his friend Víctor Jara.

“I Don’t Want My Country Divided”

On May 26th, Víctor’s friend and fellow artist Pablo Neruda appeared on the National Television calling on all artists and intellectuals, both in Chile and abroad, to join him in an attempt to alert the people to the dangers of fascism and to avert civil war. The cultural movement responded to Neruda’s call, organizing exhibitions and television programs and setting up the “cultural open-air I marathon” in the Plaza de la Constitución in Santiago, with hundreds of artists, poets, theatre and dance groups, musicians and song groups taking part and thousands of people coming out.

For his share, as well as singing, Víctor directed a series of programmes for the National Television Channel with a common theme: a warning, relating documentary material about Nazi Germany and the Spanish Civil War to the situation in Chile, to make people aware of the real dangers of the same things happening here and now. Víctor had put to music one of Neruda’s latest poems which had the refrain ‘I don’t want my country divided . . .’, and he sang it as the opening theme for each programme.

El Pueblo Unido

In the 1973 elections, despite the attempts by the right to destabalize the coalition, Popular Unity drew nearly 40 percent of the vote, bringing Allende the presidency through 1976. According to Joan, it was at this moment that forces on the right decided to overthrow Allende through a military coup: “Committees of defence were set up in factories, universities, schools, government buildings, to prevent sabotage or occupation by the opposition. Our Faculty had to be guarded twenty-four hours a day, with teachers, ballet dancers, students and all the staff taking turns to keep night-watch, sleeping on improvised camp beds in offices and studios.”

An attempted coup on June 29th, 1973 (called “Tancazo”) led by Colonel Roberto Souper, with the complicity and participation of Patria y Libertad, took 22 lives, but failed when elements of the military, most notably the Palace Guard, refused to turn on Allende. After Tancazo’s failure and the breakdown of attempted negotiations between the Popular Unity and the Christian Democrats, the Right put it’s full weight and attention on sympathetic officers in the military. Attacks began against members of the Popular Unity government and against union leaders and workers. The Right bombed electricity stations and cut power lines while their allies, the US Navy, brought warships to the coast near Valparaiso to run operations with the Chilean Navy.

On September 3rd, a march of over a million people gathered in downtown Santiago in support of Popular Unity and against the fascists. After a long march, Joan remembers, “we emerge, at last, into Plaza de la Constitución, it is already completely dark. Little by little we edge forward until it is our turn to pass the long platform where Allende is sitting with all the leaders of Popular Unity … they must have been here for hours already he looks tired … one by one we recognise and salute them, although we notice that the new Commanders-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, Merino, Leigh and Pinochet, are not among them. Everyone is shouting ‘Allende, Allende, el pueblo te defiende!’ and ‘El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!’ We feel the great power of all that mass of people and think that it will be impossible to kill us all … more than a million of us saluted Allende that day… The great march of 3 September 1973 turned out to be the people’s farewell to Salvador Allende.”

The Final Coup

On the morning of September 11th, Santiago woke up to the sounds of Salvador Allende’s last speech, the rising smoke and explosions visible to those downtown. The Chilean military, under the rule of General Augusto Pinochet, with the collusion and financial assistance of the United States CIA, were bombing the Moneda Palace. President Allende was to be appearing at the Technical University that morning to open an exibition on the dangers of civil war and fascism, where Víctor was to sing. He was killed that morning.

Expecting the big attack to come, Víctor and many others heeded the call of CUT, the Chilean Trade Union, to keep on life as normal, to not allow the fascists to take the city over, and went to work as normal, staying tuned to the radio. As Víctor and nearly a thousand students and teachers gathered at the Technical University, the military attacked, shelling the walls and attempting to enter the courtyard. Shots entering the university from the street produced one of the first casualties of the coup, a young student hit in the courtyard by a rifle bullet. Víctor sang songs that night to his comrades to keep up morale and spent most of the night with several others hiding out in a room near the road, having to evacuate in the morning as soldiers broke in through the doors.

The soldiers rounded up everyone at the univeristy and forced them to march to Estadio Chile, the Chile Stadium. As his group entered the stadium, Víctor was recognized by an officer who beat him and singled him out from the group. He was subsequnetly taken downstairs and tortured, his hands shredded, his eye swollen shut, ribs broken, his body beaten and torn. Later that night, friends of Víctor saw him in the basement being beaten by the rifle butts of soldiers, lying in a hallway where he had often prepared to sing.

Amid an atmosphere of terror, with soldiers firing their rifles over the heads of prisoners, spotlights shining day and night to disorient them, ongoing torture, suicides and murders, Víctor was able to escape several times to sneak upstairs where he met back up with the folks he’d spent the 11th with at the Univeristy. According to some of these prisoners, Víctor kept up their hope and commitment, not letting the terror of the soldiers destroy them. His comrades cleaned the blood from his face and tried to comfort him. During one of these meet-ups, on his last day at the Chile Stadium, Víctor penned his last poem on a small scrap of paper:

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…

The untitled poem, often called “Estadio Nacional”, was handed off to another prisoner to be smuggled out of the stadium, but it was discovered in his sock when the prisoner was strip-tortured at the National Stadium. Víctor’s comrades in the stadium tried to memorize it as well, to share it with the world. Somehow, the poem made it out and it found its way to Joan.

September 15th

By the 14th, hundreds of prisoners were being transferred to the National Stadium, where Víctor had sung his songs to large crowds in the past. As they were loaded onto over 200 busses, Víctor was separated from his comrades and tortured more. Joan tells us of a prisoner who witnessed one incident where Víctor was “publicly abused and beaten, the officer nicknamed the Prince shouting at him, on the verge of hysteria, losing control of himself, ‘Sing now, if you can, you bastard!’ and Víctor’s voice raised in the Stadium after those four days of suffering to sing a verse of the hymn of Popular Unity, ‘Venceremos’. Then he was beaten down and dragged away for the last phase of his agony.”

It was somewhere between here and the Metropolitan Cemetery that Víctor was killed. His thin body, littered with 34 machine-gun bullets, was discovered by a group of women on September 16th as they searched for identifiable dead.

On the morning of September 18th, a young communist came to Joan’s door to inform her of the news. Víctor’s body was lying at the morgue, along with the unidentifiable bodies hundreds of young people. Joan and the young man carefully made their way to the morgue to confirm Víctor’s death, where they realized the depth of the coup’s victims. Víctor was only one of over 3,000 registered dead, all murdered ruthlessly by the soldiers of General Pinochet. A small paragraph appeared in the newspaper several days later, saying the Víctor had died, not mentioning any of the circumstances, not mentioning that he had been killed by soldiers.

Aftermath

The Pinochet Coup ended Chile’s democracy and brought nearly two decades of U.S. directed dictatorship, complete with a new neoliberal economic system imposed by the International Monetary Fund. The IMF’s plan, which used Chile as a Guinea Pig for new aggressive economic policy overseen by Chicago University’s Milton Friedman, destroyed Chile’s economy and brought millions of Chilean’s into poverty.

In December 2004, Chilean judge Juan Carlos Urrutia prosecuted then retired Lieutenant-Colonel, Mario Manriquez Bravo, the highest commanding officer in charge at the National Stadium during 1973, for the murder of Víctor Jara. A year later a newsarticle appeared that traced Víctor’s murder specifically to Edwin Dimter Bianchi, the military officer known as “The Prince” mentioned earlier, a 1970 graduate of the U.S. School of the Americas, a trainnig ground run by the United States for Latin American officers, soldiers and death squads. then located in Panama, now at Ft. Benning in Columbus, Georgia. Dimter was eventually discharged but remained a military-government worker through the year 2000. He has never been charged for the murder of Víctor Jara or any of the other prisoners in the Chile Stadium.

Víctor’s Legacy

That Víctor’s music lives on is a strange and amazing story. Pinochet’s government ordered the destruction of Víctor’s records, along with the music and writings of many other artists. Soldiers raided the record label that housed Víctor’s masters and destroyed them. EMI Records followed Pinochet’s advice and destroyed their recordings of Víctor’s as well, and other record labels would not re-press his music.

But Joan Jara managed to preserve the records she had at her house, including some un-mastered originals that Víctor had been recording shorty before his death, and was able to smuggle them out of the country with the help of a Swedish TV crew. A month after the coup, Joan fled Chile in secret and headed to Europe, where she got Víctor’s records back. The group that stepped forward to preserve Víctor’s legacy and words was the Beatles, who made Joan new masters of the records she had at their studio in England.

Víctor’s story, his words, his voice and his contribution to the cultural and political Left are an inspiration across the world still today. He is reguarded as a hero in Chilean culture and a symbol of resistance against fascism. The Chile Stadium was renamed Estadio Víctor Jara, Víctor Jara Stadium, in September of 2003, 30 years after his death. We hold Victor’s memory close because he, like many others revolutionary musicians, participated directly in the movements he sang about and put his life on the line with other people in struggle.

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