While Bob Dylan is continually hailed as one of the most influential songwriters of all time (and rightfully so), there is another social-justice musician whose significance has been hidden in the shadows: Victor Jara.
When I first discovered Jara, I thought of him as the Bob Dylan of South America. It seemed appropriate—both men wrote politically-pertinent lyrics, put those lyrics to traditional folk music and played influential roles in their country’s social movements.
However, to call Jara the “Bob Dylan of South America” gravely takes away the significance of his own lyrics and their impact against dictatorships that ran rampant across South and Latin America.
As a third world country in the midst of the Cold War, Chile, Jara’s homeland, was politically divided as parties on the far left and far right vied for power. What had once been a relatively peaceful nation was in deep political and social strife: 75 percent of the rural population lived without sewage services, 90 percent lived without ready drinking water and thousands lived in decrepit shacks outside Santiago.
Intense class divisions and social injustice set the stage for Cancion Nueva to emerge, a folkloric musical movement that spoke for the working class, united divided communities, inspired resistance and celebrated Chilean culture.
Victor Jara was a central figure of the movement and his songs deeply resonated with people all across Latin and South America.
Jara and the Cancion Nueva movement rallied around the socialist candidate Salvador Allende, who created the phrase “no hay revolución sin canciones,” or “there is no revolution without song.”
In 1971, Allende won the Presidential election. And by 1973, he had proceeded to fulfill socialist promises he had made during the campaign—nationalizing American-owned copper mines, building homes with electricity and running water for the peasants on the outskirts of Santiago, raising salaries for the working class and providing half a liter of milk per day for school children.
However, 5,000 miles away, the United States was watching Chile with close eyes. Rattled by the red scare, Nixon and the CIA disapproved of Chile’s path towards socialism, fearing it would lead to communism. This set the stage for “the first 9/11.”
Funded and backed by the U.S., right-wing political actors staged a violent coup on September 11, 1973. They killed President Allende and installed Chile’s most infamous dictator, Augusto Pinochet.
Pinochet ruled for 17 years, committing brutal acts against human rights, including the killing, torturing and banishing of hundreds of thousands of political opponents.
One day after the 9/11 coup, 5,500 people (mainly professors, students and activists) were put in a makeshift military prison inside the Chile’s National Stadium. Among them was Victor Jara.
Identifying Jara as the famous musician, military officers tortured him by fracturing his hands and mocking him saying “Will you play the guitar now?”
Despite the targeted tortures, Jara scribbled one last poem describing his outrage and disbelief. He wrote, “We are 5,000- / here in this little part of the city… / 10,000 hands / which could seed the fields / make run the factories. / How much humanity / now with hunger, / pain, panic, and terror… / All with gazes fixed on death / How terrible the face of fascism!”
Days later, guards shot Jara to death.
They had intended to extinguish any flame Jara’s songs had fanned, but their plan backfired. Victor Jara became a martyr for the Cancion Nueva movement and remains the movement’s most iconic symbol to this day.
Jessica Ruf is a junior English and journalism major from Sioux Falls, S.D.