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Victor Jara: My Song Has Found a Purpose

Edith Moody

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For a song takes on a meaning
When it beats in the veins
Of a man who will die singing

“A people united shall never be defeated.” These were the words that united a movement of song that swept through Chile and brought in the first democratically elected socialist government. This movement, known as La Nueva Canción, “the New Song,” had its roots in Argentina during the dictatorship of Juan Perón, when artists such as Atahualpa Yupanqui and Mercedes Sosa worked to reclaim the traditional music of their country. The well-known Chilean folksinger Violeta Parra brought these songs to Chile.

In 1965 Violeta’s two children – Angel and Isabel – started a small café where folk artists could meet, sing, share ideas, and write songs. The Parras introduced songs from other Latin American countries, as well as the indigenous instruments of the Altiplano – the quenas, zampoñas, charangos, and bombos. The songs written at the Parras’ café told of the difficulties the poor faced, but also of their hopes and dreams. One artist who visited their café was Victor Jara.

Jara was born in 1932 in a small village fifty miles south of Santiago, Chile’s capital city. The village and all its surrounding land belonged to an estate – owned by a single family – on which his parents were laborers. In order to survive, peasant families had to work long hours. Jara remembered lying on the ground looking at the stars while the men worked and his mother played her guitar and sang, passing on to him the folk music of her country.

As an adult, Jara became a theater director in Santiago, writing music on the side. When asked by a journalist why he gave so much of his time to singing, he answered:

I am moved more and more by what I see around me … the poverty of my own country, of Latin America and other countries of the world. I have seen with my own eyes … the disintegration that war causes to human beings …

But I have also seen what love can do, what real liberty can do, what the strength of a man who is happy can achieve. Because of all this, and because above all I desire peace, I need the wood and strings of my guitar to give vent to sadness or happiness, some verse which opens up the heart like a wound, some line which helps us all to turn from inside ourselves to look out and see the world with new eyes.

After the election of Salvador Allende on September 4, 1970, it seemed to many Chileans that a window had opened for them to let in the light. At last the great majority of working people could take possession of and enjoy their own country.

The next three years saw a veritable explosion of culture in Chile. New Song artists, actors and dancers traveled to the poblaciones and villages all over the country to participate in enormous song festivals.

But such a dramatic political shift had its difficulties. Internally, there was an undercurrent of resentment from those who had lost much under the new government. Unrest, strikes, and rioting grew. Despite the idealism that had attended Allende’s election, his new government did not have the means to quell the unrest, and the speed and radical nature of his reforms made him enemies among Chile’s most powerful citizens.

Jara knew what he could expect if Allende were to be violently overthrown: his own death. This can be felt in all his last songs, but his wife Joan remembers that, far from being sad or depressed, he was full of energy and even happiness – as well as a sense of urgency.

Jara felt he had to finish a song he was working on before it was too late. It is his testimony to what he believed in and would die for:

I don’t sing for love of singing,

Or because I have a good voice
But for the statements made by my honest guitar—
For its heart is of the earth
And like the dove it goes flying
Tenderly, as holy water
Blessing the brave and the dying.

So my song has found a purpose
As Violeta Parra would say.
Yes, my guitar is a worker
Singing and smelling of spring.

My guitar is not for killers
Greedy for money and power,
But for the people who labor
So that the future may flower.

For a song takes on a meaning
When it beats in the veins
Of a man who will die singing
Truthfully singing his song.

video of Victor Jara singing Manifesto

On September 11, 1973 tanks and trucks rolled through the streets of Santiago, as a military junta, led by General Augusto Pinochet took over the country.

Anyone who was known to have supported Popular Unity was rounded up. Thousands of people – workers, doctors, teachers and university students – were forced into the two large sports stadiums of Santiago. One stadium alone held between five and seven thousand people. Here people were beaten and tortured – among them Victor Jara.

In his last hours in the stadium, Jara composed a poem, which others memorized and smuggled out of the country:

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? …

How much humanity exposed to hunger, cold, panic, pain,
moral pressure, terror, and insanity? …
O God, is this the world that you created,
for this your seven days of wonder and work?

How hard it is to sing
when I must sing of horror.
Horror which I am living,
horror which I am dying …

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 …

On September 16, 1973, as Jara wrote down the last words of this poem, for which he already had a tune, he was taken away to be tortured. He was kicked and beaten and his hands and wrists were broken. Then an officer gave him his guitar, taunting him to sing. Jara did sing, raising his voice to sing a verse from the Hymn of Popular Unity – Venceremos! – We shall overcome. Then he was shot to death.

Victor Jara was one among the ten thousand killed before December.

In her account of her husband’s life, Joan Jara recalls going to the morgue to identify his mutilated body, and then leaving, with her two daughters, for England. She writes that, as she boarded the plane, “I was filled with a sense of an unfinished struggle, the struggle of people who were peacefully trying to change their society, obeying the rules that their enemies preached but did not keep. I felt as though I were not one person, but a thousand, a million … the agony was not only a personal one, it was a shared agony that linked so many of us, even though we were forced to separate.”

But it wasn’t only pain that bound all these people together. Most of all it was their love, for their country and for each other. Victor Jara’s love gave him the courage to sing and speak out in the face of danger, and hope in the face of impossible odds. He died a horrible death, but his song lives on: “My song is a free song. / It waits to give itself to anyone who holds out his hand. / My song is a chain, without beginning, without end. / And in every link you’ll find the song of all other people.”

Victor Jara
Contributed By

Edith Moody is a high school teacher and member of the Bruderhof. She lives in Australia.

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