Víctor Jara, a murdered Chilean folk singer who became an international icon of resistance.


Víctor Jara: The Haunting Echoes of His Final Song

Víctor Lidio Jara Martínez was a Chilean teacher, theatre director, poet, singer-songwriter and socialist political activist tortured and killed during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. 

Víctor Jara named his last song after the place where he spent his final days: Estadio Chile, an indoor sports complex in Santiago. He wrote it on 16 September 1973, five days after a military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet brought down the socialist government of Chile’s president Salvador Allende. Jara had been arrested the day after the coup and held in the stadium that had become an ad hoc detention centre for around 5,000 supporters of Allende’s Popular Unity alliance.

There are many conflicting accounts of Jara’s last days but the 2019 Netflix documentary Massacre at the Stadium pieces together a convincing narrative. As a famous musician and prominent supporter of Allende, Jara was swiftly recognised on his way into the stadium. An army officer threw a lit cigarette on the ground, made Jara crawl for it, then stamped on his wrists. Jara was first separated from the other detainees, then beaten and tortured in the bowels of the stadium. At one point, he defiantly sang Venceremos (We Will Win), Allende’s 1970 election anthem, through split lips.

On the morning of the 16th, according to a fellow detainee, Jara asked for a pen and notebook and scribbled the lyrics to Estadio Chile, which were later smuggled out of the stadium: “How hard it is to sing when I must sing of horror/ Horror which I am living, horror which I am dying.” Two hours later, he was shot dead, then his body was riddled with machine-gun bullets and dumped in the street. He was 40 years old.

How A Folk Singer’s Murder Forced Chile to Confront Its Past

Remembering Víctor Jara

Folk singer and activist Víctor Jara’s murder during the Chilean military coup in 1973 remains a haunting scar in the nation’s history. Decades of silence followed his brutal death, but the Jara family’s relentless quest for justice has yielded significant developments in recent years.

Every year, a poignant tribute to legendary Chilean folk singer Víctor Jara takes place, remembering a man whose life was violently extinguished during a military coup in 1973. In the heart of this tragedy, Jara’s widow, Joan, and their family have stood unwaveringly, seeking justice and closure for almost five decades.

Víctor Jara wasn’t just a musician; he was a committed political activist who believed in the power of music to communicate ideas and effect social change. Born to humble beginnings, he rose to prominence as a prominent figure in Chile’s left-wing artistic movement during the 1960s. His songs championed workers’ rights, social justice, and political causes, making him a significant supporter of socialist President Salvador Allende, who was elected in 1970.

However, the political landscape was fraught with tension. The U.S. government and certain factions within the Chilean military were determined to destabilize Allende’s government. The stage was set for a tragic turn of events.

On September 11, 1973, while the world was watching, the Chilean military, backed by the United States, launched a coup against Allende’s government. Víctor Jara had been scheduled to perform at the Technical University that fateful day, where President Allende was also expected. Obliged by his convictions, he decided to go, despite the brewing turmoil.

Jara (pictured right) wrote the song Venceremos, a Chilean socialist anthem that means ‘We Will Win’ (Credit: Getty Images)

The military coup was swift and brutal, leading to the bombing of the Moneda Palace and the immediate suppression of any opposition. Thousands of individuals were herded into Chile Stadium, which quickly transformed into a prison camp. Within this grim environment, Jara’s fate took a sinister turn.

The circumstances surrounding Víctor Jara’s death have long remained obscured by a veil of silence and evasion. The truth was hidden, buried beneath layers of fear and complicity. Yet, slowly but surely, cracks began to appear in this wall of silence.

Low-ranking military conscripts and eyewitnesses gradually came forward with their accounts. In 2015, Chilean judge Miguel Vázquez charged nine army officers with Jara’s murder, signaling a monumental step towards justice. A criminal trial was ordered, marking a significant breakthrough in a long-fought battle.

However, one piece of the puzzle remained elusive: Pedro Pablo Barrientos Nuñez, a former Chilean military officer residing in the United States. Barrientos, now an American citizen, faced Chile’s request for his extradition to stand trial for his alleged involvement in Jara’s murder.

In tandem with the legal proceedings, the Jara family filed a civil lawsuit against Barrientos in Florida, resulting in a landmark victory in 2016. A jury awarded the family $28 million, although Barrientos lacked the means to pay.

The wheels of justice continued to turn, and in July 2018, eight military officers on trial in Chile were found guilty and sentenced to 15 years in prison. It was a momentous occasion for Chile, a reaffirmation that justice could indeed be served, even after decades of waiting.

However, Barrientos remains a fugitive from Chilean justice, and his extradition to Chile hangs in the balance. He adamantly denies any involvement in Jara’s murder and asserts that returning to Chile voluntarily would be foolish due to the politicized nature of justice in the country.

For the Jara family, this arduous journey has been both a quest for truth and a tribute to Víctor’s enduring legacy. His music, which transcends the boundaries of time, continues to inspire and connect with people around the world.

Víctor Jara’s unwavering belief in the power of love and the need for social justice remains embedded in his songs, providing a lasting testament to a man whose voice still resonates, calling for a world made better through music and understanding.

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