Wednesday, 16 September 2020

Victor Lidio Jara ( 28/09/32 - 16/09/32) - A Martyr Remembered

What follows is a tribute to Chilean Political Singer and activist Victor Jara murdered by brutal dictator Augusto Pinochet's troops on  this day 16th September 1973. This followed the military coup on 9/11/73  which overthrew the democratically elected government led by Salvador Allende.

For the next 20 years, Pinochet suspended democratic rule in Chile, presisding over an oppressive, sadistic military junta that completely reversed Allende's  socialist economic programs, banning unions and privatizing state programmes such as social security, hunting down all manner of dissidents and imprisoning tens of thousands.

 Víctor Jara was born to a peasant family. His mother taught him to sing, but by age 15 he was orphaned and on his own. After a brief sojourn in seminary and a stint in the army, he turned to a career in music and theater. He became a director, putting on plays ranging in style from the classical to the experimental. Eventually, his love for music drew him away from the theater, and by 1973,  was one of Chile’s big music stars. A cross between Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie, he was unashamedly left-wing; writing popular protest songs about social inequality and the plight of the working man. He was an integral part of the  Nueva Canción movement (New Song) movement, a movement of Latin American musicians who blended Spanish and indigenous folk music to create a genuine music of the people.

With the folk boom in full swing in the United States, markets around the world were being flooded with commercialized versions of "protest music." Nueva Canción was a conscious alternative, folk in the truest sense. Among people increasingly angry about their country's rising poverty and subjugation to US interests, Nueva Canción found home. Jara himself summed it up the best: "US imperialism understands very well the magic of communication through music and persists in filling our young people with all sorts of commercial tripe. . . . The term 'protest song' is no longer valid because it is ambiguous and has been misused. I prefer the term 'revolutionary song'."

 So when the right-wing Pinochet regime seized power in a bloody coup, they made sure Jara, 40 at the time, was one of the first to be detained.  Transported to the Chile Stadium, Jara found himself in a vision of Hell. One of 60 torture centers that sprang up around Santiago in the days following the coup, the Chile Stadium was notorious for its cruelty. Detainees were forced to sit in the bleachers without food or sleep, watching as people were randomly pulled out and executed on the pitch. Occasionally, guards would turn their machine guns on the crowd and unleash a random spray of bullets, sending bodies tumbling down onto the playing field.

A lifelong rebel,  Jara responded to his incarceration by composing new songs and singing them to his fellow prisoners to keep their spirits up. Unsurprisingly, he soon came to the attention of the camp commander, who made a seemingly magnanimous gesture: Placing a guitar on a table in the middle of the stadium, he invited Jara to come down and play to the crowd. Naively, Jara agreed.

What happened next would be etched on the minds of those who saw it forever. The moment he sat at the table, Jara was pinned in place by the nearby guards. The commander then cut off his fingers and mutilated his hands to mush. Some witness claim he used an axe, others the butt of his rifle. The outcome was the same. With Jara’s hands a bloody pulp, the commander screamed at him: “Now sing, you motherf—er, now sing!”

In response, Jara pushed himself to his feet. With infinite calm, he reportedly walked to the nearest set of bleachers and said, “All right, comrades, let’s do the senor commandante the favor.” Then he began to sing.

He sung unsteadily, with a wavering voice, the anthem of the UP—the political party whose members lay in piles at the bottom of the bleachers. As his voice began to steady, an incredible thing happened. Across the stadium, prisoners who’d had no food or sleep, prisoners who’d been tortured or threatened with death, all rose to their feet and began to sing with him. For a fleeting moment, the guards could only watch in amazement as their charges joined in with Victor Jara for his final song. A volley was fired and Jara fell dead. Then another was aimed into the bleachers at those who’d accompanied him in song and bodies tumbled down the inclines.”

Allende was last seen on the 15th of September when he was left abandoned by a roadside , only for his body to be discovered a day later. When his wife Joan went to identify his dumped body, it was riddled with 44 bullets.  Over 3,000 other political prisoners would suffer a similar fate, during Pinochet's murderous, CIA - supported tenure, Chileans suspected of being dissidents would be similarly rounded up and "disappeared" never to bee seen or heard from again.

 Such was Victor Jara's power though  his voice will never die. It resonates through the ages, a beacon, that we should not forget, standing strongly against oppression. In his lifetime, the Chilean folksinger Victor Jara became the voice of Chile's dispossessed. He became a symbol for their aspirations of equality and a figure of hope to progressive movements worldwide.

 He has also been remembered not only in Latin America's folk tradition,  but by artists the world over. The Clash, U2, and even 80s popsters Simple Minds who have paid tribute to Jara in their songs.  Here in Wales  there has been a festival (El Sueno Existe) of music and dance every two years in memory of Jara.  Whose incarceration, mutilation, and brutal murder has come to symbolize the tragic cruelty of the Pinochet regime.

And faced with the emnity of the world, and the unending resistance of the Chilean people, Pinochet's distatorship withered away in the late 1980's and with democracy  restored to Chile, Victor Jara, could finally be properly remembered by his compatriots, which  saw  the stadium in which he was murdered being renamed after him  and on 3rd December, 2009, Jara,  at last given a full funeral in Santiago.  

Chile’s junta might have silenced Jara’s voice, but not his music or legacy. He has been remembered not only in Latin America's folk tradition,  but by artists the world over who have paid tribute to Jara in their songs. Only recently James Dean Bradfield, the former leader of the band Manic Street Preachers, dedicated his new album, Even in Exile, to the life of Victor Jara. If you just focus on his (Victor Jara) death, you ignore the journey, you ignore the ambition, you ignore the songs, and you kind of ignore Chile”, said the Welsh artist in a long and informative interview with BBC CultureBradfield discovered the Chilean artist through the music of The Clash and the movie The Missing, but when actually listening to Jara´s songs, he was struck by the way he delivered a political message. Here in Wales there has also been a festival (El Sueno Existe) of music and dance every two years in memory of Jara. 

  His wistful, Manifesto, the last song he wrote, released posthumously, feels like an eerie premonition of his death:

My guitar is not for the rich, no,
nothing like that.
My song is of the ladder
we are building to reach the stars.
For a song has meaning
when it beats in the veins
of a man who will die singing,
truthfully singing his song

The song is considered his testament, the manifesto of what it means to be a revolutionary artist.
 As tyrants fall away, history remembers the heroes and the martyrs. The military burned many of Jara’s master recordings, but Jara’s wife Joan Jara took some recordings out of the country.
American folksinger Phil Ochs, who had met Jara in Chile, was devastated by the killing.  He helped organize a memorial fundraiser called “An Evening With Salvador Allende” in New York in 1974. The same year, a Soviet astronomer named an asteroid after Jara.
Others paid tribute to Victor Jara, including Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie  who wrote and recorded a tribute to the singer-activist with the song, “Victor Jara,” from the 1976 album Amigo.  Guthrie wrote the music and Adrian Mitchell provided the lyrics with each verse focusing on Jara’s hands that officials would break:-

Victor stood in the stadium,
His voice was brave and strong.
And he sang for his fellow prisoners
Till the guards cut short his song.
His hands were gentle, his hands were strong.

What was so dangerous about Jara was that his songs were such a integral part of a struggle of millions who were fighting to win their basic human dignity -- the very same people over whom Pinochet ruled with an iron fist until his deposition in 1990. Scottish folk musician  Dick Gaughan said it very frankly: those who say that "music and politics should not be mixed . . . [should] tell that to the CIA and their thugs who murdered Jara because his repertoire didn't suit their interests."

Along with those killed by Pinochet's military rule which finally came to an end  in 1990,  and the thousands murdered,  28,000 people had been tortured. The details of Jara's torture and death were finally revealed by a Truth and Reconciliation Commission created by the new government of Patricio Aylwin. But it was not until July 2018 that eight former military officers were sentenced for killing Jara,  to just 15 years each.

 Pinochet  would  be cremated for fear of his grave becoming vandalized. With his remains, the notion of Pinochet as anything other than a ruthless tyrant were scattered to the wind, his  legacy that of a brutal dictator; Jara's,  though is that of  a people's troubadour. Pinochet ground thousands into poverty; Jara sought to lift them up. Pinochet's legacy  reminds us of just how vicious the force of reaction can be.  Victor Jara though is remembered  as an artist, martyr and hero  whose music has and will continue to inspire us to fight against it.  

Though Víctor Jara died a brutal death under a brutal regime, his songs are not all about the horror he witnessed. They are also about the hope and courage of people who stand up to those who use violence to sustain injustice. He said, Song is like the water that washes the stones, the wind which cleans us, like the fire that joins us together and lives within us to make us better people.  

 Here is Jara’s last poem, Estadio Chile/ Chile Stadium which was  smuggled out in the shoe of a friend.

Chile Stadium

In this small part of the city.
Five thousand.
How many of us are there in all
In the cities and in all the country?
Here we are, ten thousand hands
Who plant the seeds and keep the factories running. So much humanity,
hungry, cold, panicked, in pain,
Under moral duress, terrified out of their minds!
Six of ours lost themselves
In the space of the stars.
One man dead, one man beaten worse than I ever thought
It was possible to beat a human being.
The other four wanted to free themselves of all their fear.
One jumped into the void.
Another beat his head against the wall.
But all had the fixed look of death in their eyes.
What fear is provoked by the face of fascism!
They carry out their plans with the utmost precision, not giving a damn about anything.
For them, blood is a medal.
My God, is this the world You created?
Is this the product of your seven days of wonder and labour?
In these four walls, there is nothing but a number that does not move forward.
That gradually, will grow to want death.
But my conscience suddenly awakens me
And I see this tide without a pulse
And I see the pulse of the machines
And the soldiers showing their matronly faces, full of tenderness.
And Mexico, Cuba, and the world.
Let them cry out this ignominy!
We are ten thousand fewer hands that do not produce.
How many of us are ther throughout our homeland?
The blood of our comrade the President pulses with more strength than bombs and machine guns.
And so, too, will our fist again beat.
Song, how hard it is sing you when I have to sing in fear.
Fear like that in which I live, and from which I am dying, fear.
Of seeing myself amidst so much, and so many endless moments
In which silence and outcry are the tragets of this song.
What have never seen before, what I have felt and what I feel now
Will make the moment break out...

Christy Moore - Victor Jara

I think I am passionate because I am full of hope.
Víctor Jara


  1. I learned about Victor Jara because of the movie "Missing, about US citizen, Charles Horman, who was also murdered during the coup. I have several tapes of his music. I was able to find a copy of his bio, as well.

  2. Thank you so much for comment, was not aware of film or individual, will definitely check out, not one individual victim of this cruel period in history should be forgotten.