If you want to fight to change the world, you have to use unconventional weapons, such as music and poetry. So did Violeta Parra, pencil and guitar, at war with life that spares no one, but punishes some more than others. The life of a woman, who chose music and love for her Chile, sings the songs of the campesinos. She does not contest. She disobeys. And this disobedience makes her free not to accept compromises, personal advantages, religious and social fetters.
A self-taught poet and singer-songwriter, Violeta is, first for Chile, and then for the whole world, the voice of human rights, a gesture before a word. All her life, she frantically tries to quench her thirst for love, for justice, for freedom. Restless. and endowed with an inexhaustible creative vein, in love with the people and social participation, she is melancholic and rebellious, and has to fight for the recognition of her work: daughter of the land of the gauchos drums of the Pampas, of the dusty, unpaved roads, of extreme poverty, of ostentatious wealth, of the oppression of the dictatorship, of the illogical joy of life, of the infinite expanses of land and ice, of the most total chaos, of the most vivid colours, of people who dance and smile despite everything.
She has a slender physique, eyes as black as night, severe and delicate as the tired face reclining on the guitar. She is the protagonist of the rebirth of popular music, the seed and inspiration of what was to become the Nueva Canción Chilena, the cultural movement that, through a recovery of tradition and adaptation to Latin American rhythms, with the artistic explosion of Victor Jara and the Inti-Illimani would use music as a political weapon against social injustice. Violeta first takes the struggles of the peasants to heart. The mere fact of recovering the popular songs, to defend the identity and pride of the Chilean peasants, has a revolutionary and anti-imperialist value, because the culture of power is infiltrated by the decadence and political corruption of the United States, of the transformation of the people from citizens to consumers. An impossible transformation for those who have no jobs, no water and light, and barely enough to feed themselves.
Profoundly restless, capable of going from irresistible gaiety to sudden depression, her most striking trait is her incredible energy, her passion, her ability to engage emotionally. She is a modern woman, constantly on the move to learn and experiment – and is punished with a painful love life in a country dominated by an archaic machismo that wants her relegated to domestic activities only. Her face scarred by smallpox, her petite body simply dressed, Violeta is beautiful because she is a force of nature, and because she loves with all of herself: a man, an idea, her people. And she is so advanced that, to achieve the enormous international success she enjoys, she has to die, and her children and grandchildren have to carry on her art.
Daughter of music and poverty
Summer 1934: Violeta, next to her brother Eduardo, has just turned 17
The third of nine siblings (including two half-sisters), Violeta Parra del Carmen Sandoval was born on 4 October 1917, in an undo of two Chilean villages: San Fabiàn de Alico , a small town in the province of Ñuble, and the neighbouring San Carlos , in the province of Chillán. She is the daughter of Clarisa del Carmen Sandoval Navarrete and Nicanor Parra Alarcón – humble and well-to-do people, whose only occupation is to make ends meet, working at the most varied jobs, especially with her mother as a seamstress. They host circus performers in their home, from whom their children learn magic and how to make it happen, and Mr Parra passes on to his children a passion for singing, the guitar and folklore.
At nine, Violeta plays the guitar, at twelve she composes her first songs, at twenty-three she graduates as an elementary school teacher and makes her debut in a theatre in the Chilean capital. Her brothers are no less impressive: Eduardo and Luis Roberto are two established songwriters, Oscar René (known as Tony Canarito) is a circus tightrope walker, and the eldest, Nicanor , who died at 103, is one of Chile’s greatest modern literary figures: a revolutionary poet, an anti-Neruda, who in South America Nicanor Parra is as much a legend as Che Guevara.
After two years in Santiago, in 1921 her father obtained a professorship in Lautaro, in the Araucanía region, a journey south of more than 650 kilometres, during which Violeta contracted smallpox. Six years later, in 1927, her father loses his job and starts drinking. The family is forced to set off again and settle in Villa Alegre. The serenity of childhood is opposed by the hardships of poverty. While Nicanor Parra gives private lessons, the children earn some money as dishwashers or at the cemetery, cleaning graves. Violeta sings in dive bars, on the streets, in restaurants, everywhere, even on trains, and when she discovers her mother’s guitar at the age of 9, she learns to move her fingers on the strings by herself.
With her older sister Hilda joins Eduardo and Luis Roberto, who live in a circus, but the already precarious economic conditions worsen. The year after her father’s death (1931), at the age of 14, Violeta decides to change her life: she leaves home with only the clothes on her back and her guitar, and leaves for Santiago, where she studies Nicanor. She sings in restaurants near the train station and along Avenida Matucana, a historic street in the centre, where the Circuito Cultural Santiago Poniente now stands. The streets are dominated by boleros, rancheras, Mexican corridos, and the Chilean cueca , popular and never squeamish music, the perfect place for an extraordinary teenager.
Violeta came into contact with intellectuals, writers, poets: she met Luis Oyarzún Peña, Pablo de Rokha, and Pablo Neruda, who dedicated the poem ‘Elegía para Cantar’ to her, calling her ‘Santa de greda pura’, Saint of pure clay. The first, Luis, a friend of Nicanor’s, is Violeta’s first love, but her encounter with the railwayman and trade unionist Luis ‘Pepe’ Cereceda is the one that shocks her forever. She meets him in the Tordo Azul restaurant, where the duo ‘Las Hermanas Parra’ (Violeta and her sister) perform a repertoire of Spanish music. Cereceda is a member of the Communist Party, involves Violeta in political activity, and they both participate in the presidential campaign of Gabriel González Videla. The two marry in 1938, and have two children: Isabel (1939) and Angel (1943), who will continue their mother’s artistic work and, during the Pinochet dictatorship, like the Inti-Illimani, will live in exile in Italy. But the couple soon entered a crisis: Violeta was not the housewife her husband thought she had married. Her political awareness, interest in people, culture and musical research grow stronger in her : too much for Cereceda’s conventional machismo.
Heart, answer, why does it throb, yes, why does it throb, like a bell is something that drives me mad, yes, that has gone mad. Why it throbs. Don’t you see that I spend the night awake, yes, I spend it awake, like a violent sea the caravel, yes, the caravel. You keep me awake. What is my sin To mistreat me, yes, to mistreat me, like the prisoner by the gendarmes, Yes, by the gendarmes. You want to kill me. But to you hide hard walls, yes, hard walls, And oppress my blood in the nets, yes, in the nets, Why do you not surrender? Damned heart without regard, yes, without regard, Blind, deaf and dumb from birth, yes, from birth. You torment me
In 1948 the two divorced. Violeta, in a Chile where divorce is madness (especially from an economic point of view), can no longer cope. And a year later, in 1949, Violeta met Luis Arce, who became her second husband. She has two daughters with him: Carmen Luisa and Rosita Clara. The latter dies in 1952, while Violeta is on tour in Europe. The drama of this death and the violent reproaches of her husband also bring this marriage to an end. For Violeta there is no alternative, as she is appreciated more abroad than in her own country. In 1956, in Paris, she has an affair with the young Spaniard Paco Ruz, to whom she donates her guitar. In 1958, while working for the University of Concepción, she befriended the painter Julio Escámez and, in 1960, she met what was to be her last and great love, the Swiss musician Gilbert Favre , to whom she dedicated some of her most famous love songs (such as ‘Corazon Maldito’, later performed by the Inti-Illimani).
1966: Violeta Parra with Gilbert Favre and the group Los Choclos in Peña Naira, Bolivia
The turning point in Violeta’s life occurred around 1952. Until then, the Parra sisters’ performances did not differ much from the folkloric shows of the time, and the only real distinction was in Violeta’s voice timbre, so far out of the ordinary: high-pitched, scratchy, slipping easily into wailing or lacerating screams. She declares: ‘To be able to sing like this my voice has been formed through forty years of suffering’. She is a kind of Frida Kahlo of music: she bends over her instrument as if washing blood-soaked cloths and history in black water.
It is the period in which Violeta wins a Spanish singing competition, records her first albums and demands that the covers feature the lyrics of the songs as proof of the importance she gives to the words that, according to her, come before the melodies. She designs the covers herself. It is thanks to her poet brother, back from England, who at that time was researching popular Chilean poetry of the 19th century, that she was inspired to look for her own way off the beaten track of traditional folklore and decided to set out on a journey. A small woman, armed with notebooks, pens and a tape recorder, who becomes her travelling companion and whom she will never abandon.
Alone, or accompanied by her children, she travels the country in search of the musical roots of her people. It is an enormous and exhausting task (imagine the streets of Chile in the 1950s), lasting years, in which she retrieves myriads of popular songs directly from the voices of the peasants. It is at this point that Violeta clearly perceives her cultural role: this work results in some collections of popular songs that are about to disappear from collective memory. She returns to it, fiercer than ever, to wage a relentless struggle for recognition, support and funding – a struggle that wears her down physically and spiritually.
She narrates the forgotten culture of the Indios of Patagonia, the Mapuche, and fights for the dignity and human rights of every marginalised people. When the duo with Hilda broke up, his repertoire changed: he incorporated newly rediscovered musical genres and began composing his own music and songs. In his lyrics there is the human being, death, pain, there is spirituality and earth, there is a pulsating life and instinctive wisdom. In these years of artistic maturity, he became close to Chile’s intellectual elite.
With Pablo Neruda she writes ‘El pueblo’, and he dedicates the poem ‘Elegía para cantar’ to her. The further she goes into the long journey to rediscover her roots, the more spartan and essential her outward appearance becomes. Dressed simply, without make-up, Violeta gives concerts in universities and works on the radio as a populariser, knowing that she has become a symbol. In 1954, when she receives the Caupolican prize, the Chilean Oscar, she is invited to the Youth Festival in Warsaw: an exciting new stage. She dreams of being a minstrel of world communism, and starts writing songs of extreme revolutionary and anticlerical rage.
To return to seventeen after living a century is like deciphering signs without being a competent sage, to suddenly become fragile again like a second, to feel deeply again like a child before God, this is what I feel at this fertile moment. Become entangled, entangled, like the ivy on the wall, and sprout, sprout, like the moss on the stone. Like the moss on the stone, Oh yes, yes, yes. My step back when yours advances, The bow of covenants has penetrated my nest, With all its colours it has passed through my veins, And even the hard chains with which fate binds us is like a precious diamond that illuminates my serene soul. It’s a tangle, a tangle, like ivy on the wall, and it sprouts, sprouts, like moss on stone. like moss on stone, Oh yes, yes, yes. What can knowledge sentiment do, neither the clearest course of action nor the broadest thought, everything is changed by the moment like a condescending magician, it gently turns us away from rancour and violence, only love with its science makes us so innocent. It becomes entangled, entangled, like ivy on the wall, and sprouts, sprouts, like moss on stone. Like the moss on the stone, Oh yes, yes, yes. Love is a whirlwind of original purity, Even the fierce animal whispers its sweet trill, Stops the pilgrims, frees the captives, Love with its care turns the old man into a child, And only affection for the wicked makes him pure and sincere. He becomes entangled, entangled, Like ivy on the wall, And sprouts, sprouts, Like moss on the stone. Like the moss on the stone, Oh yes, yes, yes. Open wide the window it opened as if by magic, Love entered with its mantle like a warm morning, At the sound of its beautiful alarm it made the jasmine bloom, Fly like a seraphim to heaven it put on its earrings and the cherub turned my years into seventeen the cherub turned them into seventeen. It tangles, it tangles, Like the ivy on the wall, And sprouts, it sprouts, Like the moss on the stone. Like the moss on the stone, Oh yes, yes, yes
She travelled around Germany, the Soviet Union, Italy, and finally France, where she stayed for some time, settling in Paris and working in the nightclub L’Escale. For the French intellectual scene, which is only now emerging from the mannerisms of a left wing brought to its knees by the Second World War, Violeta is a cloud of freshness. It was here that she met Paul Rivet , anthropologist and director of the Musée de l’Homme, with whom she recorded music and songs from her homeland and her first international album, ‘Cantos del Chile’ , at the Sorbonne National Sound Archives. In it Violeta combines not only local folklore, but also her own growing concern for the social conditions of the Chilean people and in particular the dramatic conditions of the peasants.
In Paris, she meets the great love of her life: Gilbert Favre, a Swiss anthropologist and musicologist, 19 years her junior. She refers to him ironically, calling him ‘el gringo’. She returned to Chile, to Concepción, a centre of great socio-cultural ferment. In 1957, she is hired at the University to carry out research on traditional music and is committed to the Museo Nacional del Arte Folclórico. Back in Santiago, she finishes writing her autobiography in verse. At the same time, he works hard on his own songs and devotes himself to painting.
During her convalescence from a severe form of hepatitis, which in 1959 forced her to stay in bed for months, Violeta began weaving tapestries out of jute, painting and later working with papier-mâché. She reproduces the same motifs as always: ‘tapestries are like painted songs’. His works are human and animal figures in naïf style with the vivid colours typical of Chile and Peru. In the same year, he participated in the Plastic Arts Fair and held courses in folklore, ceramics and painting in both Chile and Argentina. As soon as he recovered, he returned to France. In 1962 she left for Helsinki with her children, invited to the Youth Festival. Once the European tour was over, Violeta returned to Paris, to a small room in the Latin Quarter. At night, she performs in the usual clubs. By day, she writes, paints and weaves tapestries, then goes out in search of galleries where she can exhibit.
Gilbert is waiting for her in his Geneva home, where Violeta goes with Isabel and Ángel. In Geneva, the Parras organised folkloric concerts, but soon afterwards the singer returned to Paris with the titanic project of exhibiting her paintings in the Marsan Pavilion of the Decorative Art Department of the Louvre, which she did in 1964. She will be the first Latin American woman to exhibit in an individual exhibition in Paris. But even here, where she was greeted with curiosity, Violeta did not get on well: the progressive bourgeoisie were too rich and distracted, with little respect for her popular and fighting songs, and there were still no traces of the 1968 student movement.
She records a series of songs with a strong social content, published posthumously in 1971, participates in the L’Humanité party and writes the book ‘Poésie populaire des Andes’, which will be published two years later and, finally, exhausted, returns to Switzerland to Gilbert. In Chile, everything is changing: new ferments give rise to the Nueva Canción Chilena movement. In 1965 Violeta decided to return to Chile and, with Patricio Manns , wrote ‘Exiliada del Sur’, met the young Víctor Jara and, together with him, founded a record label called ‘Estampas de América’. for which the two wrote the great songs that would later be sung around the world by the Inti-Illimani. Their denunciatory repertoires shake up the old canons of popular music.
The arpillera, tapestry by Violeta Parra
In Santiago, La Peňa de los Parra opens, the beating heart of the new cultural movement, a community centre for the arts and political activism founded by Isabel and Angel Parra and later transformed into a record company. Amidst guitars, wine and empanadas, it becomes a meeting place for artists and intellectuals, such as Tito Fernández, Gitano Rodriguez, Patricio Manns, the bands Quilapayún, Illapu and Inti-Illimani: artists whose works are condemned, and who are forced to go into exile to escape persecution. These were the years of the bloody coup d’état against President Salvador Allende.
In September 1973, General Augusto Pinochet took power, opening the gates of hell wide. Victor Jara, captured and taken to the Estadio Nacional de Chile, had his hands broken and his tongue cut out before he fell under 44 gunshots. But that will come a few years later. In the meantime, Violeta performs in La Peňa de los Parra with her children and Gilbert, who, having perfected his knowledge of the quena, the Andean flute, creates the folk group Los Jairas. She began the gestation of her last and titanic project: the creation, on the outskirts of Santiago, of a great Popular Art Centre capable of welcoming and disseminating the best of Latin American folklore , of which the records “El folklore de Chile” (1957; 1961) are an exceptional testimony.
Violeta plunged into this new endeavour, committing all her strength and precarious economies: she took part in festivals, recorded several records, and performed on radio and television. In December 1965, she inaugurated the big tent La Carpa de la Reina , a circus tent in the suburbs of Santiago that was to become an important centre of folkloric culture, run together with her sons. Behind La Carpa he built his own house, a one-room apartment made of mud bricks, low ceiling and rammed earth floor – but the project turned out to be a failure: there was no popular support, and the costs proved too high.
Radio stations and record companies are reluctant to broadcast her music, as her sympathy for workers’ struggles and poverty are not appreciated by the government. This throws her into a deep depression, also aggravated by the break-up of her relationship with Gilbert, who leaves for Bolivia. She visits him to convince him to return to her but discovers him happy, married. For Violeta it is an irremediable wound. She returns to Chile and resumes work on new songs for the LP ‘Las últimas composiciones’, released in 1966, legendary, and not only because it contains the timeless anthem Gracias a la vida.
On 5 February 1967, after three previous failed attempts, Violeta killed herself. Alone, in her studio apartment, she shoots herself in the head. They find her sitting on a small chair that a fan had built especially for her, as she was just over five feet tall. Shortly before, she had performed on stage singing ‘Gracias a la vida’. Her testament.
Thanks to the life that has given me so much / It has given me two eyes, that when I open them / I distinguish perfectly the white from the black / And high up in the sky its starry background / And among the multitude the man I love / Thanks to the life that has given me so much / It has given me the hearing that far and wide / Records day and night, crickets, and canaries, / Hammers, whirlwinds, barks, downpours / And the voice so sweet of my beloved / Thanks to the life that has given me so much / It has given me the sound and the abecedary / With the words that I think and recite / Mother, friend, brother, and light that illuminates / The path of the soul of the one I’m loving / Thanks to the life that has given me so much / It has given me the step of my weary feet / With them I have gone into cities and puddles / Beaches and deserts, mountains and plains / And to your home, in your street and your yard / Thanks to the life that has given me so much / It has given me the heart that beats fast / When I see the product of the human brain / When I look at the good far from the bad / When I look deep into your clear eyes / Thanks to the life that has given me so much / It has given me the laughter and it has given me the weeping / So I distinguish the joy from the ruin / The two matters that make up my song / And your song that is my own song / And everyone’s song that is my own song / Thanks to the life that has given me so much
What remains of so much passion
A self-portrait of Violeta, which has become the poster announcing her daughters’ concerts
Latin America is full of martyrs killed by political power, and songs and poetry have always played a very important role in socio-political battles and in the cultural and political identification of citizens. Yet, the life of the greatest of all was not reaped by the murderous hand of power, nor was she the victim of any conspiracy. Exhausted by fatigue, illness and disappointments, Violeta no longer has the strength to fight: neither for a project, nor for love, nor for the rights of her people, and she suffers from the disinterest of the Chilean bourgeoisie.
But his untimely death gives birth to a mythical figure, whose songs are perpetuated by iconic bands like Inti-Illimani, but also by world-famous women like Mercedes Sosa and Joan Baez. Like Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, Violeta became a symbol after her death. Her portraits, posters depicting her charismatic face, are everywhere in Chile, testifying to the fact that her figure is rooted in the culture of the poorer classes, who consider her a symbol of social redemption.
Violeta has made her land known to the world, and her life has inspired several books and films over the years. To honour her, every 4 October, the day of her birth, the ‘Day of Chilean Music and Musicians’ is celebrated. In 2015, a museum was dedicated to her in the capital Santiago, inside which there is a building in the shape of a guitar called ‘La Jardinera’, in memory of one of her songs. For her to be mourned she had to die – for her songs to be remembered, which are a flag of Latin America. She was born, lived and left as a free woman, and a part of her rebellious soul remains inside every single South American: ‘Write as you like to write, use the rhythms that come out, try different instruments, sit at the piano, destroy metrics, shout instead of sing, blow on the guitar and strum the horn, hate maths and love vortexes, creation is a bird without a flight plan that will never fly in a straight line’. Like Violeta Parra.
 Corazón, contesta, / por qué palpitas, sí, / por qué palpitas, / como una campana que se encabrita, sí, / que se encabrita. / Por qué palpitas. / No ves que la noche / La paso en vela, sí, la paso en vela, como en mar violento / la carabela, sí, la carabela. / Tú me desvelas. / Cuál es mi pecado pa maltratarme, sí, pa maltratarme, como el prisionero por los gendarmes, sí, por los gendarmes. / Quieres matarme. / Pero a ti te ocultan duras paredes, sí, duras paredes y mi sangre oprimes entre tus redes, sí, entre tus redes. / Por qué no cedes. / Corazón maldito sin miramiento, sí, sin miramiento, ciego, sordo y mudo de nacimiento, sí, de nacimiento. / Me das tormento.
 Volver a los diecisiete después de vivir un siglo es como descifrar signos sin ser sabio competente, volver a ser de repente tan frágil como un segundo, volver a sentir profundo como un niño frente a Dios, eso es lo que siento yo en este instante fecundo. Se va enredando, enredando, como en el muro la hiedra, y va brotando, brotando, como el musguito en la piedra. como el musguito en la piedra, Ay si si si. Mi paso retrocedido cuando el de ustedes avanza, el arco de las alianzas ha penetrado en mi nido, con todo su colorido se ha paseado por mis venas y hasta las duras cadenas con que nos ata el destino es como un diamante fino que alumbra mi alma serena. Se va enredando, enredando,como en el muro la hiedra, y va brotando, brotando, como el musguito en la piedra. como el musguito en la piedra, Ay si si si. Lo que puede el sentimiento no lo ha podido el saber, ni el más claro proceder ni el más ancho pensamiento, todo lo cambia el momento cual mago condescendiente, nos aleja dulcemente de rencores y violencias, sólo el amor con su ciencia nos vuelve tan inocentes. Se va enredando, enredando, como en el muro la hiedra, y va brotando, brotando, como el musguito en la piedra. como el musguito en la piedra, Ay si si si. El amor es torbellino de pureza original, hasta el feroz animal susurra su dulce trino, detiene a los peregrinos, libera a los prisioneros, el amor con sus esmeros al viejo lo vuelve niño y al malo solo el cariño lo vuelve puro y sincero. Se va enredando, enredando, como en el muro la hiedra, y va brotando, brotando, como el musguito en la piedra. como el musguito en la piedra, Ay si si si. De par en par la ventana se abrió como por encanto, entró el amor con su manto como una tibia mañana, al son de su bella diana hizo brotar el jazmín, volando cual serafín al cielo le puso aretes y mis años en diecisiete los convirtió el querubín. Se va enredando, enredando, como en el muro la hiedra, y va brotando, brotando, como el musguito en la piedra. como el musguito en la piedra, Ay si si si.
 Gracias a la vida que me ha dado tanto / Me dio dos luceros, que cuando los abro, / Perfecto distingo lo negro del blanco / Y en el alto cielo su fondo estrellado / Y en las multitudes el hombre que yo amo / Gracias a la vida que me ha dado tanto / Me ha dado el oido que en todo su ancho / Graba noche y dia, grillos y canarios, / Martillos, turbinas, ladridos, chubascos, / Y la voz tan tierna de mi bien amado / Gracias a la vida que me ha dado tanto / Me ha dado el sonido y el abecedario; / Con el las palabras que pienso y declaro: / Madre, amigo, hermano, y luz alumbrando / La ruta del alma del que estoy amando / Gracias a la vida que me ha dado tanto / Me ha dado la marcha de mis pies cansados; / Con ellos anduve ciudades y charcos, / Playas y desiertos, montanas y llanos, / Y la casa tuya, tu calle y tu patio / Gracias a la vida que me ha dado tanto / Me dio el corazon que agita su marco / Cuando miro el fruto del cerebro humano, / Cuando miro al bueno tan lejos del malo, / Cuando miro al fondo de tus ojos claros / Gracias a la vida que me ha dado tanto / Me ha dado la risa y me ha dado el llanto / Asi yo distingo dicha de quebranto, / Los dos materiales que forman mi canto, / Y el canto de ustedes que es mi mismo canto, / Y el canto de todos que es mi propio canto / Gracias a la vida que me ha dado tanto