Chilean folksinger Victor Jara (1932–1973) was the voice of his country's dispossessed, an internationally admired songwriter, and one of the founders of a new genre of Latin American song. He was killed by Chilean security forces during the coup that deposed the country's elected president, Salvador Allende, in September of 1973.
Grew Up in Rural Poverty
Victor Lidio Jara Martínez was born on September 23, 1932. His parents were farm workers with minimal resources who lived on a plantation near the Chilean town of Lonquen. Jara and his older siblings had to collect firewood, cutting down small trees with an ax, and haul grass back to the house for the pigs the family raised. His mother, Amanda, went out to the neighboring hillsides to gather herbs to sell. Sheer poverty and the alcohol abuse and violence of Jara's father, Manuel, placed the family under great strain, and among Victor's few positive memories of his childhood were the folk songs his mother liked to sing, accompanying herself with a guitar. To earn extra money the family rented a room to a local schoolteacher, who also played the guitar and showed Victor how to produce a few chords.
No matter how difficult things got for the Jara family, Amanda insisted that the children go to school. Jara moved with his mother and siblings to the Chilean capital of Santiago, where his mother found work in a small restaurant. Their neighborhood was chaotic, filled with street gangs and noise, but Victor Jara and his brother Lalo always showed up on time at the local Catholic school. Victor got additional guitar lessons from a neighborhood resident who noticed that he was unusually talented at making up new songs. Jara rarely saw his mother, who worked at one job or another for almost the entire day, and she died when he was 15. He was deeply upset by her death and sought help from a priest, who encouraged him to enter a seminary in the town of San Bernardo, near Santiago. As quoted by his wife, Joan, in her biography Victor: An Unfinished Song, Jara said that he hoped "to find a different and more profound love which perhaps would compensate for the lack of human love" in his life.
Jara enjoyed the music he heard and sang at the seminary, but he was not cut out for the requirements of the priesthood, particularly that of celibacy. Students had to whip themselves while taking a cold shower if they experienced sexual desire, and Jara complained (according to his wife) that during the two years he spent at the seminary, "everything healthy, that implied a state of physical well-being, had to be put aside. Your body became a sort of burden that you were forced to bear." In 1952 Jara left the seminary, by mutual agreement with its instructors, and 10 days later he was drafted into the Chilean army.
The future revolutionary singer and poet acquitted himself well in the military, rising to the rank of sergeant first class and earning a glowing final report that praised his leadership qualities and identified him as officer material. But he returned to Santiago after his discharge and lived rather aimlessly for some months, staying with friends and working as a hospital porter. His path toward the artistic activities of his later life began when he tried out for the choir at the University of Chile after seeing a newspaper advertisement for the auditions.
Joined Mime Group
His audition was successful, and he appeared on stage in Carl Orff's musico-dramatic work Carmina Burana, dressed as a monk. By late 1954 he had made friends among the choir's membership, traveled with them to the north of Chile to learn about the folk music of the region—the one from which Jara had originally come. He joined a mime group consisting of Santiago theater students who were all much better off financially than Jara but accepted him as part of the group. One of them, Fernando Bordeu, gave him cast-off clothes and encouraged him to apply to the theater program at the University of Chile.
The sporadically educated Jara did poorly on the reading portion of the audition but impressed the judges with his stage movements, and he was admitted on a scholarship. Appearing in several plays, he gravitated toward those with social themes, such as Russian playwright Maxim Gorky's The Lower Depths, a depiction of the harshness of lower-class life. In the late 1950s Jara met two women who would alter the course of his life. One was an instructor, Joan Turner Bunster, a British-born dancer and dance teacher who was married to a Chilean ballet star. After her marriage broke up, she and Jara slowly moved toward a romantic relationship. They married in 1965 and raised a daughter, Amanda, along with Joan's daughter from her previous marriage, Manuela.
The other major influence on Jara in the late 1950s was Chilean folksinger Violeta Parra, whom he heard and met at Santiago's Café São Paulo in 1957. It was Parra who steered folk music in Chile away from the rote reproduction of rural materials toward modern song composition rooted in traditional forms. Parra tried to incorporate folk music into the everyday life of modern Chileans, establishing musical community centers called peñas. Jara absorbed these lessons and joined a folk group called Cuncumén, with whom he continued his explorations of Chile's traditional music.
Jara maintained his interest in theater, studying stage direction at the university, frequently directing plays in Santiago (with sharper and sharper political content) in the 1960s, and even attending rehearsals of the Royal Shakespeare Company on a trip to Britain. He worked for nine years as a stage director at the Theatre Institute of the University of Chile. But music began to occupy more and more of his energy. He left Cuncumén in 1962 and, inspired by Parra's example, began writing songs of his own. At first his songs were personal and autobiographical, but as he began to perform in the peñas that opened in Chile's cities and university neighborhoods his subject matter became more varied. "As I grew closer to him," Joan Jara wrote, "I realized how profound was Victor's necessity for music and how important his guitar was to him. I could have been jealous of it, because it was almost as though it were another person with whom he conversed…. He always seemed to have two or three songs inside him. As he had said to me in one of his letters, 'Something seems to take root in me and then has to find a way of getting out.'"
Stirred Up Scandal with Comic Song
Jara released his first album, Canto a lo humano, in 1966. Early in his recording career he showed a knack for antagonizing conservative Chileans, releasing a traditional comic song called "La beata" that depicted a religious woman with a crush on the priest to whom she goes for confession. The song was banned on radio stations and removed from record shops, but the controversy only added to Jara's reputation among young and progressive Chileans. More serious in the eyes of the Chilean right wing was Jara's growing identification with the leftist social movement led by socialist politician Salvador Allende. After visits to Cuba and the Soviet Union in the early 1960s, Jara had joined the Communist Party. The personal met the political in Jara's songs about the poverty he had experienced firsthand.
Jara's songs, many of them reflective stories whose music drew on traditional Chilean forms, were given the label of nueva canción or "new song"; the genre developed on parallel courses in the 1960s in various Latin American countries, but Jara was among its most prominent practitioners. Jara's songs spread outside Chile and were known to and performed by American folk artists such as Joan Baez. His popularity was due not only to his songwriting skills but also to his exceptional power as a performer. Jara took a decisive turn toward political confrontation with his song "Preguntas por Puerto Montt" (Questions About Puerto Montt, 1969), which took direct aim at a government official who had ordered police to attack squatters in the town of Puerto Montt. The Chilean political situation deteriorated after the official was assassinated, and right-wing thugs beat up Jara on one occasion.
Jara composed "Venceremos" (We Will Triumph), the theme song of Allende's Unidad Popular (Popular Unity) movement, and he welcomed Allende's election to the Chilean presidency in 1970. Jara and his wife were key participants in a cultural renaissance that swept Chile, organizing cultural events that supported the country's new socialist government. He set poems by Chilean writer Pablo Neruda to music and performed at a ceremony honoring Neruda after the famous writer received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1972. Throughout rumblings of a right-wing coup, Jara held on to his teaching job at Chile's Technical University.
On September 11, 1973, however, Chilean troops under the command of General Augusto Pinochet mounted a coup against the Allende government. Jara was seized and taken to the Estadio Chile, a large sports stadium. There he was held for four days, deprived of food and sleep. He was tortured, and his hands were broken by soldiers who told him to try to keep on playing the guitar with his damaged hands. But Jara continued to sing "Venceremos" and began writing a new song describing the carnage going on in the stadium, as many of those imprisoned were killed; the words of the new song were smuggled out by a prisoner who survived. At some point, probably on September 15, Jara was taken to a deserted area and shot. He was taken to the city morgue in Santiago, where his wife was allowed to retrieve the body and bury it on the condition that she not publicize the event.
Tributes to Jara began with an anonymous Chilean television technician who played an excerpt from Jara's "La plegarí a un Labrador" over a Hollywood film soundtrack the night his death was announced in a one-paragraph newspaper item. For many years, however, Jara's recordings were virtually silenced in Chile. Even after the country's politics began to liberalize in the 1990s, there was the problem of locating the master recordings, which had been given to a group of Swedish television technicians by Joan Jara as she fled the country. (She returned after 10 years and became one of the activists whose efforts eventually led to the restoration of democracy in Chile.) In the early 2000s, however, Jara's recordings were reissued by AOL Time Warner in a handsome box set, and he also became the subject of several rock tribute albums by young Chilean musicians who venerated his courage. "They could kill him," Joan Jara told BBC News, "but they couldn't kill his songs." In 2003 the stadium where Jara spent his last days was renamed the Estadio Victor Jara.
Contemporary Musicians, volume 59, Thomson Gale, 2007.
Jara, Joan, Victor: An Unfinished Song, Bloomsbury, 1983 (reprinted 1998).
Austin American-Statesman, May 17, 1998.
Gazette (Montreal, Quebec, Canada), September 10, 2003.
Guardian (London, England), October 22, 1998.
Independent (London, England), September 4, 1998.
New York Times, December 23, 2002.
"'They Couldn't Kill His Songs,'" BBC News, World: Americas, http://www.news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/165363.stm (January 16, 2007).
"Victor Jara," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (January 16, 2007).
Victor Jara started out as an actor, theater student, and part-time collector of Chilean folk music. By the time he was murdered by Chilean security forces during a military coup that deposed the elected socialist government of President Salvador Allende, he had become a symbol for the aspirations toward equality of the Chilean poor, a founder of a new genre of Latin American song, and an influence on progressive movements internationally. During the years of military dictatorship that followed Allende's overthrow, Jara's music was largely banned in Chile but circulated clandestinely on cassette tapes. Three decades after his death, his influence in Chile and elsewhere continued to grow.
Victor Lidio Jara Martínez grew up among the Chilean rural laborers whom he helped mobilize with his music. He was born on September 23, 1932, to parents who lived on a large plantation near the town of Lonquén. His parents were farm workers. Jara's mother, Amanda, who liked to sing traditional songs, insisted that her children attend school. The family drifted apart under the pressures of poverty and his father's alcohol abuse, and Amanda moved her children to the Chilean capital of Santiago in hopes of finding work and bettering their situation. In the crowded Jotabeche district where they lived, Victor encountered a musician who taught him to play the guitar.
Jara's mother died when he was 15, and he began to study for the priesthood after seeking help at a local church. But although he loved the musical aspects of Catholic worship, he was repelled by the restrictive aspects of life at the seminary, in particular the requirement of celibacy. Students had to whip themselves under a cold shower if they felt any hint of sexual desire. "During those two years," he was quoted as saying by his wife, Joan Jara, "everything healthy, that implied a state of physical well-being, had to be put aside. Your body became a sort of burden that you were forced to bear." Jara left the seminary (and soon the Catholic faith) and was soon drafted into the Chilean army, rising to the rank of sergeant first class.
At loose ends after his discharge in 1953, Jara auditioned for a spot in the choir of the University of Chile (Universidad de Chile) after seeing its newspaper advertisement. He made friends with a group of music and theater students, who recognized his talents as a performing artist and steered him toward additional opportunities. At the urging of a well-connected friend, he applied and was admitted to the university's theater school in 1956, winning a small scholarship because of his total lack of financial resources. He began performing in plays, and he and other students interested in music sometimes traveled to the region where he had been born in order to learn more about the local folk music.
One of Jara's teachers at the theater school was Joan Turner Bunster, a British-born ballerina who had come to Chile after marrying Chilean dancer Patricio Bunster. After her marriage dissolved, she and Jara began dating in 1960. The two married in 1965, raising their daughter Amanda and another daughter, Manuela, from Joan's previous marriage. Joan Jara became a partner in her husband's musical, theatrical, and political activities.
Those activities always involved theater. Jara directed plays in Santiago and, as his political activism deepened, he and Joan set up theater troupes around Chile's rural districts. But after he met legendary Chilean vocalist Violeta Parra in a café in 1957 his interest in music grew stronger. He joined a folkloric group called Cuncumén, a forerunner of the politically active Chilean ensemble Inti-Illimani, and he began to write songs of his own. Accompanying himself with his own guitar, and sometimes joined by one or two other musicians playing traditional Chilean instruments, Jara created a new type of song, rooted in present-day political realities. Jara was not the only practitioner of this so-called nueva canción (new song), but he was one of its key creators as well as one of its most popular figures. Nueva canción was shaped by the traditional Chilean song and dance form called the cueca, which allowed the singer freedom to tell a story over the music.
Handsome, charismatic, and possessed of a rich singing voice, Jara released his first album, Canto a lo Humano, in 1966. It was the first of seven albums to appear during his lifetime; an eighth, Manifiesto (Canciones Postumas), contained some of his last compositions and was released outside Chile after his death. Jara's music was spread beyond Chile by other artists; leading folk artists in the United States, including Joan Baez and Pete Seeger, championed his work. He was sometimes compared to U.S. folksinger Woody Guthrie, who came from similar modest origins and whose music, like Jara's, took on political themes.
Partly the political qualities of Jara's songs were due to the increasing polarization of Chilean society, as landless peasants and industrial workers began to resist the control of the country's traditional oligarchy of the wealthy. Jara became affiliated with the Communist Party after visits to Cuba and the Soviet Union in the early 1960s, and he and his family were closely watched by the right-wing Chilean military. Jara's 1967 song "El Aparecido" Che Guevara, a key figure in the Cuban Revolution, without mentioning him directly. Scrutiny increased after the appearance of Jara's song "Preguntas por Puerto Montt" (Questions About Puerto Montt) in 1969; the song attacked Chilean interior minister Edmundo Pérez Zucovic for ordering police to attack a group of squatters in the town of Puerto Montt. Jara was beaten up by thugs connected with the rightwing Partido Nacional (National Party).
Jara supported the aspirations of socialist politician Salvador Allende and wrote the theme song of his Unidad Popular (Popular Unity) movement, "Venceremos" (We Will Be Victorious). Allende was elected to Chile's presidency in 1970.
Jara's problems and those of the Chilean election only became worse after Allende's election, however. Jara and his wife were involved in the attempts strengthen the position of Unidad Popular, organizing cultural groups and events all over the country. Jara performed at a ceremony honoring Chilean writer Pablo Neruda, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1972; he had earlier set some of Neruda's poems to music. Right-wing forces soon began a campaign to destabilize the Allende government, and conditions in the country worsened. Jara, who held a teaching post at Chile's Technical University, remained committed to the socialist cause.
The Chilean military, headed by General Augusto Pinochet, overthrew the Allende government on September 11, 1973. Jara was taken into custody on the campus of the Technical University and transferred to the Estadio Chile (Chile Stadium), a sports facility renamed Victor Jara Stadium in 2003 after Chile had returned to civilian rule. He was tortured for four days, but continued to sing "Venceremos" after his hands were broken and he was taunted by soldiers who told him to try playing the guitar in that condition. He began writing a song ("How hard it is to sing/When I must sing of horror") describing conditions in the stadium; it was smuggled out by a sympathetic prisoner and became well known after his death. The exact date of Jara's death is not certain; he was shot, probably on a road outside Santiago, and taken to the city morgue, where his wife was permitted to retrieve his body for burial. A report by Chile's Truth and Reconciliation Commission stated that he was last seen alive on September 15, 1973.
Joan Jara left Chile and traveled the world, speaking about her husband's death and about the epidemic of torture that had began to occur in Chile. After nine years of exile she returned and established the Victor Jara Foundation to promote Jara's memory and music Her biography, Victor: An Unfinished Song, appeared in 1983 and was reissued 15 years later. The Pinochet government destroyed the master tapes of Jara's recordings, but copies were assembled and refined throughout the 1980s and 1990s. By the early 2000s, they had all been reissued and compiled into box sets, and young Chileans continued to revered the music and memory of Victor Jara.
For the Record …
Born on September 23, 1932, in Lonquen, Chile; married Joan Turner Bunster (a dancer and dance teacher), 1965; children: Amanda (also daughter Manuela from wife's previous marriage); died September 15 or 16, 1973, after being tortured by Chilean security forces. Education: Studied theater at University of Chile, Santiago.
Began performing with group Cuncumén, late 1950s; began writing songs and performing solo; released debut album, Canto a lo Humano, 1966; released seven albums during lifetime; involved in community organizing and in campaigns of Unidad Popular socialist political party; composed leftist anthem "Venceremos"; taken prisoner after military coup, 1973.
Canto a lo humano, 1966.
Victor Jara, 1967; reissued, 2003.
Pongo en tus manos abiertas, 1969; reissued, 2003.
El derecho de vivir en paz, 1971; reissued, 2003.
La población, 1972.
Canto por travesura, 1973.
Manifiesto (Canciones postumas), 1974.
En México, WEA International, 2003.
En la aula magna de la universidad de Valparaiso, WEA, 2004.
Habla y canta: en vivo en la Habana Cuba, WEA International, 2003.
Jara, Joan, Victor: An Unfinished Song, Bloomsbury, 1998.
Austin American-Statesman, May 17, 1998, p. G1.
Guardian (London, England), October 22, 1998, p. 12.
Houston Chronicle, September 10, 2003, p. 14.
New York Times, December 23, 2002, p. E1.
Times (London, England), October 21, 1998, p. 17.
"They Couldn't Kill His Songs," BBC News, http://www.news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/165363.stm (June 25, 2006).
"Victor Jara," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (June 25, 2006).