On Sept. 11, 1973, the Chilean president, a socialist named Salvador Allende, was forcibly removed in a military coup led by the brutal general Augusto Pinochet. For the next 20 years, Pinochet suspended democratic rule in Chile, presiding over an oppressive, sadistic military junta that completely reversed Allende’s socialist economic programs, banning unions and privatizing state programs such as social security. Moreover, his regime hunted down all manner of dissidents, imprisoning tens of thousands and executing thousands, with little to no pushback from the international community.
Victor Jara was an artist who transcended the world of arts and culture. He is remembered as both a martyr and hero for social activists in Latin America and beyond. In addition to being an immensely talented songwriter, he was also a university professor and theater director. In general, Jara was a symbol for progressive politics in the era of Pinochet, despite being killed before Pinochet’s reign. He was a vanguard in the Latin American “nuevacanción” movement and genre, which took influences from traditional folk songs but focused less on reinterpretation and more on invention of more modern styles.
His 1971 album El Derecho de Vivir en Paz is the best place to start with his impressive discography. Jara has the smooth ability to span a wide variety of sonic ranges. The first and title track is a meditation on the conflicts in Southeast Asia and a hopeful plea for all humans to have “the right to live in peace.” He takes a more playful tone in songs like “Las Casitas del Barrio Alto” and a more restrained one in songs like “Abre la Ventana.” While there’s nothing musically groundbreaking, the combination of Jara’s songwriting and clever, socially aware lyrics make the album an enjoyable listen.
Unfortunately, his championing of progressive causes through his music and other avenues led to his tragic demise at the hands of the Pinochet regime. By the time the dictator took power, Jara was famous throughout the Americas, even in the folk circles of the United States. Due to his fame and his lack of restraint in lambasting conservatives, he was rounded up — along with thousands of other activists and socialist party members — and herded like an animal into the national soccer stadium in the capital Santiago shortly after Pinochet’s coup. After being beaten, military guards smashed his fingers, cruelly taunting him by saying he would never play the guitar again and forcing him to sing for his fellow prisoners. Not long after, his body was found in a Santiago street, riddled with bullet holes. This year, a ninth soldier responsible for killing Jara was sentenced to time in prison, two years after a former Chilean officer living in Florida was found liable for his death.
Jara’s slaughtering by the hands of the Pinochet regime was not forgotten, and ever since, he has become a Chilean hero and a symbol worldwide for the continuing struggle for human rights and progressive politics. His story has been invoked by countless artists, including U2 and Bruce Springsteen. Jara was not simply a political artist. He was not just a preacher of “peace and love,” but one who bravely put his heart and soul into political activism in addition to his music. His story, while tragic, is a reminder of the very real social impact the arts can have.