Víctor Jara remembered how his mother sang. In between raising five children, his mother would play the folk songs of the Mapuche, one of Chile’s indigenous peoples of which she was a proud descendant. “There was always a guitar in the house,” Jara would recall in a 1970 interview. From his mother he not only developed an interest music, but also gained a wealth of Chilean folklore.
Many years later he would become a celebrated folkloric singer in his own right, but not before stints in the seminary and the military, after which he entered the theater school at the University of Chile. Homeless at the time, he slept near the school. In 1955, a few months before his 23rd birthday, he joined the music ensemble Cuncumén. He also worked with a theater company, directing plays and traveling throughout Latin America and as far away as the Soviet Union. Gradually we began working on a solo music career, releasing his first album Víctor Jara (Geografía) in 1966.
By the time Salvador Allende ran for president in 1970, he had already failed to win the presidency three times before, the earliest in 1952. The CIA considered it one of its chief goals in Latin America to see to it that Allende and the left-wing Frente de Acción Popular never gained much traction in Chile, spending millions in support of Eduardo Frei’s successful presidential bid in 1964 and on anti-Communist, anti-Allende propaganda. After Allende won the contentious election of 1970 — which included the U.S.-orchestrated assassination of Chile’s commander-in-chief — he placed his country on the path toward socialism by nationalizing the powerful mining industry and greatly expanding the land distributions begun under Frei.
Jara had been an outspoken supporter of Allende’s campaign in 1970 and quickly became something of a cultural liaison for the new president. Then, on the morning of September 11, 1973, after years of U.S. instigation, the Chilean military launched a coup against the Allende administration; barricaded inside La Moneda, Allende delivered an impassioned farewell over the Chilean airwaves before taking his own life. The next morning the golpistas swarmed the University of Chile where Jara and other pro-Allende professors had gone to defend the students. The captives were taken to Estadio Chile (now named Estadio Víctor Jara), which had been converted into a death camp. On the 16th of of that month Jara was killed by firing squad and his body was tossed into a pile at the Santiago morgue.
During his detention Jara had sung songs to boost the morale of his prisoners, even composing a new one during the second night of his imprisonment. When guards heard Jara singing, they removed him from the crowd and proceeded to torture him, tearing off his fingernails, smashing his hands, and then forcing him to play his guitar. The song he wrote, known as either “Somos cinco mil“ or “Estadio Chile” (the song’s first line and its setting), ends with a prediction:
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
Remembering Jara — and the thousands of other Chileans who died alongside their democracy in 1973 — is how we celebrate our culture.