Singing Of Hope Against Hope

Victor Jara

I first heard about Victor Jara from Arlo Guthrie’s song about him. I loved the song and added it to my own repertoire. I had known about U.S. complicity in the 1973 coup that brought down Salvador Allende’s democratically elected government in Chile and replaced it with a brutal military dictatorship. My proudest memory of a congressperson was when my own U.S. Rep., Michael Harrington from Massachusetts, revealed information to the American public about the CIA’s involvement in that coup, information he learned in secret briefings of the House Intelligence Committee. Harrington was censured by Congress and his political career ruined, but I wrote a letter telling him how proud I was that he had represented me in that way. Learning about Victor Jara gave me another hero in the tragic story of Chile—a hero who would not be silenced even by death. I’ll keep singing his song even with tears in my eyes.
Daniel Buttry

Victor Jara (1932-1973)

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

Víctor-JaraThe old arena is now called Victor Jara Stadium—named after a man who died there along with hundreds of other Chileans. He had performed in that stadium many times as one of Chile’s leading folk musicians. His last burst of creativity was there, too, writing his poetry with a battered face, broken ribs and broken hands that would never again hold a guitar. He slipped his final poem to a friend just before the sadistic officer who had taunted him led him away to be shot.

Victor 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 he became one of the leading figures in the Nueva Canción Chilena (New Chilean Song) movement. Singers and songwriters of this movement incorporated Chilean folk traditions into music that spoke to contemporary contexts and struggles.

In 1970, the socialist Salvador Allende ran for President. Jara had been active in many justice movements, singing with miners and peasants. He had joined the Communist Party in Chile, one of the parties in Allende’s Popular Unity coalition that was seeking nonviolent, democratic change in Chilean politics. Allende won the election, and soon elements in the Chilean military—with the support of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency—began an intentional program to destabilize the country. Paramilitary brigades were formed that would beat people aligned with Allende, often with the support of the police. “Bosses’ strikes” shut down many industries, crippling the economy. Students and other volunteers rushed to help out, trying to keep the country functioning.

Jara inspired people with his songs during Allende’s campaign. Then, as the industries were being destabilized, he joined the volunteers and sang to them. The American activist folk-singer Phil Ochs traveled to Chile and joined him singing to the miners such songs as Pete Seeger’s “If I Had a Hammer.” Paramilitary gangs chased Jara a number of times and threatened him repeatedly as he had become a nationally recognized figure through his music.

On September 11, 1973, the Chilean military launched a violent coup. Fighter planes rocketed the Presidential Palace and Allende was killed in the ensuing battle. Jara had left his wife Joan earlier that day to go to the university where he was on the faculty. The military surrounded the university with tanks, keeping all students and faculty inside. Jara sang to those trapped to keep up their spirits. The next day the army moved in and arrested everyone.

Joan Jara heard about the arrests and tried to find Victor, afraid to identify him because she knew he was a marked man. After a few days, she traced him to the Chile Stadium where about 5,000 people had been taken, but the soldiers surrounding the stadium made it clear that nobody would be able to get inside. A week after the coup, a stranger saying he was a friend took her to the city morgue. She saw hundreds of bodies piled up like cordwood. Most of the bodies would never be identified and would be buried in a common grave. But Victor’s face had been recognized by one of the workers in the morgue, and so Joan had been found and taken to him. His body bore the marks of severe beatings. He had a head wound, and his wrists were clearly broken. His torso had been riddled with machine gun bullets. Joan and the friend loaded his body on a trolley cart and pushed it across the street for quick burial before the military disposed of it.

Over the years, Joan Jara pieced together the story of what happened to her husband. She interviewed survivors of the siege at the university and those detained at the stadium. She found that Victor had been recognized quickly when taken to the stadium and pulled out for special attention by the torturers. He was mocked and beaten severely, as were most of the other detainees. After three days with no food, no heat, loss of blood and broken bones, Jara wrote his last poem as he huddled with his university friends amid the stadium seats. He wrote with borrowed pencil and paper:

The poem was unfinished, for the guards came to take him away as he was still writing. The paper was surreptitiously shoved into the sock of a professor from the university. Jara was taken away, tortured and then shot. His body was dumped outside with five others in a cemetery where they were found and taken to the morgue. A brief notice of his death appeared in one of the papers, then the military ordered that no mention be made of him in the media. Someone risked their life to play a few bars of one of his songs on a TV station in his honor.

Victor Jara’s death crystallized the brutality of the military regime in Chile under General Augusto Pinochet. Through his bold music and through his death, he became a symbol for all those in Latin America suffering under the dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s. Folk musicians from around the world sang about him. Rock bands such as The Clash and U2 told his story.

The vision of the Popular Unity government under Allende was violently overthrown, but it did not die. That vision was renewed through a nonviolent campaign that eventually brought down the Pinochet dictatorship in 1990. Then in 2006, Michelle Bachelet, a socialist like Allende, was elected president through a democratic process. Her father had been tortured to death during the 1973 coup. Her mother and she were both detained and tortured in the notorious “Villa Grimaldi” center.

Those supervising the torture and executions in the stadium have never been brought to justice. General Pinochet was the first person in history arrested under the doctrine of “universal jurisdiction,” which holds that those who commit certain human rights crimes can be arrested any time in any country. Pinochet was arrested in the United Kingdom under orders from a Spanish judge. He was returned to Chile. However, he died from failing health while under house arrest before standing trial for the massive crimes committed under his authority.

Though Victor 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.”

Among the last songs Jara wrote was “Vientos del Pueblo,”(Winds of the People) with a refrain that echoes long after his death:

Winds of the people are calling me, winds of the people are bearing me, they scatter my heart
and blow through my throat.
So the poet will be heard
while my heart goes on beating along the road of the people, now and forever.



Arlo Guthrie Singing “Victor Jara”:

(Originally published at, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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