Latin American Figures – Victor Jara

Back in November 2019, I saw a viral video of an opera singer on her balcony during the imposed curfew in Chile brought on by protests, singing The Right to Live in Peace. When she was done, her neighbors cheered and clapped. The scene was magical and powerful. I had never seen anything in my lifetime like that. Here was an entire community on lock down who refused to stay silent. I had no idea what singing that song actually meant for those people.

Some months later I found myself on my Spotify account searching for that song as it was still on my mind to hear the original version. I found the artist, Victor Jara, and decided to start with an album called Manifesto. I was alone in the Andes mountains that day and played it on a little portable Bluetooth speaker paired with my phone. The acoustic guitar is one of my favorite instruments, so the first song had my immediate attention. He then began to sing, and I was immediately struck by how beautiful and gentle his voice was. The songs were all so simple and even haunting at times. I was so happy I had found this Latin American gem and I enjoyed his company for a few days before my curiosity piqued even more. Who is this man? Or, as I had come to sadly discover, who was this man?

As every cell in Chile will tell
The cries of the tortured men
Remember Allende, and the days before
Before the army came
Please remember Victor Jara
In the Santiago Stadium
Es verdad - those Washington Bullets again

Joe Strummer - Washington Bullets song by The Clash

Victor Jara is probably the most tragic figure in music I have ever discovered. When I read about his torture, execution and the final dumping of his body like trash, my heart broke. How could such a beautiful soul have gone out like that.

There are so many tragedies in Western musical culture like suicide, drug overdoses and gang violence, but I have never heard of anything quite like the story of Victor Jara. The equivalent would be if Richard Nixon captured Bob Dylan or Joan Baez, tortured them for political information, shot them in the head, hung their bodies up in public as an example and then dumped them in the streets. Could you imagine?

And in the world a heart of darkness
A fire zone
Where poets speak their heart
Then bleed for it
Jara sang, his song a weapon
In the hands of love
You know his blood still cries
From the ground

Bono - One Tree Hill song by U2

Victor was a very well-rounded artist who was involved in everything from theater, music, poetry and even teaching. Although he had no education in his early years and was orphaned at 15 years old, he found his education through a theater scholarship which he won on merit and some religious institutions in a bid for priesthood. His faith was jaded after personally witnessing the injustices and hypocrisy of the church. He was eventually politically aligned with communism and supported Che Guevara and socialist Chilean president Salvador Allende. All these alliances coupled with his powerful influence on Chilean culture is what sadly ended up costing Victor Jara his life.

Salvador Allende was the president of Chile from 1970 to 1973 until Augusto Pinochet overthrew him in an American backed coup d’état. Pinochet was a brutal dictator in charge of Chile from 1973 – 1990. He was responsible for over 3,000 disappearances, tens of thousands of tortures, over 3,000 executions and over 80,000 political imprisonments. Jara was imprisoned in the Chile Stadium on September 12, 1973, a few days after the coup. There the soldiers tore off his nails, smashed his fingers and hands and then asked him to play the guitar. He was shot in the head shortly after and had over 40 bullets fired into his body. He was then hung at the entrance of the stadium for other prisoners to see. His corpse was later discovered in the street and returned to his wife Joan for proper burial.

Santiago, Chile – September 09, 2017: Grave of Victor Jara at the General Cemetery of Santiago, Chile.

It wasn’t until 2016 that the first man, a retired army officer, was found responsible for Jara’s death. In 2018 eight additional officers were officially sentenced for his murder.

Victor wrote a poem on a piece of paper that he passed to a friend before his murder. That poem is named Estadio Chile, or Chile Stadium which is known today as the Victor Jara Stadium.

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…
Victor Jara
Estadio Chile
September 1973

Victor’s story has captured the hearts of so many people, including mine. It’s unfathomable how such a beautiful, intelligent and gentle spirit could come to meet such a horridly callous and brutal end. His last poem he wrote is said by some intuitive minds to be speaking of what survives after the body dies. You can kill a man, but you can’t kill an idea. And as his songs are still sung today in the streets and from balconies, with that infamous stadium now in his name and trials bringing justice after over 40 years of silence, The Right to Live in Peace is still alive and well. Just as he believed and wrote before his body was taken from this world, his ideas live on.

Posted by

Jenny Sine

Canadian living in Bogotá, Colombia giving private tours to share the natural beauty of South America, studying philosophy and growing food 3000 meters above sea level.

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