Victor Jara, the voice that defeated death

Victor died 50 years ago, murdered by Pinochet's henchmen. His contributions to music and activism have left an indelible mark on Chilean culture and the global struggle for justice.

Sep 16, 2023 - 13:05
Victor Jara, the voice that defeated death
Image by Antonio Larea

Victor Jara, a prominent Chilean folk singer, songwriter, and political activist, was among the victims of the early days of the military coup that brought Augusto Pinochet to power in September 1973. His tragic death became a symbol of the brutality and repression that characterized the early stages of the Pinochet regime.

After the coup, Victor Jara was arrested along with thousands of others who were perceived as supporters of President Salvador Allende's government or who were involved in left-leaning political activities. Jara was taken to the Chile Stadium (Estadio Chile), which in 2003, after restauration of democracy, was  renamed the Estadio Víctor Jara in his honor.

During his time in detention, Victor Jara was subjected to severe physical and psychological torture. He was brutally beaten, tortured, and subjected to various forms of humiliation by the military personnel who had taken control of the stadium. Despite the torture, Jara reportedly maintained his spirit and continued to sing songs of resistance to boost the morale of his fellow detainees.

Tragically, Jara's resistance and iconic status as a singer and activist made him a target of the regime's repression. On September 16, 1973, just a few days after the coup, Victor Jara was executed within the confines of the stadium. His hands were broken as a symbolic gesture to prevent him from playing the guitar or continuing to sing defiantly.

Victor Jara's death and the manner in which he was killed became a symbol of the brutality and human rights abuses committed by the Pinochet regime. His legacy has lived on through his music, which continues to inspire people around the world, and he is remembered as a cultural and political icon of resistance against oppression.


Life and works

Jara was born on September 28, 1932, in Lonquén, Chile. He grew up in a working-class family and showed an early interest in music, particularly folk and traditional genres. He began his musical career in the 1950s and was influenced by various folk and protest music traditions, including the Nueva Canción Chilena movement that emerged in the 1960s. This movement combined folk music with politically charged lyrics that addressed social issues.

His music was characterized by its simplicity, emotional depth, and focus on human experiences, often drawing from his own observations and interactions with ordinary people. He released numerous albums throughout his career, including "Pongo en tus manos abiertas" (1969) and "Canto libre" (1970). His songs often touched on themes of love, solidarity, social injustice, and resistance.

Victor Jara was deeply involved in left-wing politics and was an ardent supporter of President Salvador Allende's socialist government. He used his music as a tool for social change, singing about the struggles of workers, peasants, and marginalized communities. He believed that music had the power to inspire and unite people in their fight for justice. His and activism aligned with the broader movement for social justice and human rights in Chile and Latin America during the 1960s and early 1970s.

Jara was also involved in theater, and he worked as a theater director and educator, using the arts as a means to engage and empower marginalized communities. He established and directed a traveling theater troupe that performed for workers, peasants, and rural communities, often addressing issues of social relevance.


Jara after Jara

Death was not enough to silence Victotr Jara, and his songs continue to be sung and celebrated, serving as a reminder of the power of art to challenge oppression and promote social change.

After his tragic death, numerous tribute musical groups and artists emerged around the world to honor his legacy, spread his message of social justice, and keep his music alive. These tribute acts often perform his songs, share his stories, and raise awareness about the broader issues he stood for.

Inti-Illimani, a folk music ensemble, founded in 1967, was closely associated with the Nueva Canción Chilena movement. They were friends and collaborators of Victor Jara. After the coup, they went into exile and continued performing Jara's music and the music of other Chilean folk artists, becoming ambassadors of Chilean culture in the international arena.

Like Inti-Illimani, Quilapayún was another influential Chilean folk group associated with the Nueva Canción Chilena movement. They were friends of Victor Jara and carried on performing his songs and those of other socially conscious artists during their exile.

Another Chilean folk and Andean music group is Illapu. Formed in 1971, the group also participated in the Nueva Canción Chilena movement. Illapu's music often carries political and social themes similar to Jara's, and they have performed tributes to him in their concerts.

A fellow singer-songwriter and activist, Manns was a contemporary of Victor Jara. He worked closely with Jara and the Nueva Canción Chilena movement. Manns continued to perform and write music that reflects the spirit of resistance and social commentary, carrying forward the legacy of his friend.

Beyond Chile, musicians and groups around the world have paid tribute to Victor Jara by performing his songs and spreading his message. These acts include artists from various countries who were inspired by Jara's music and the cause he stood for.

The most enduring of these bands is perhaps the Brigada Victor Jara, formed in Portugal, in homage to the Chilean artist's impact and the global resonance of his music and activism. The band's formation reflects the international reach of Jara's influence and the inspiration he provided to artists and activists worldwide, and is a testament to the enduring impact of Victor Jara's music and the resonance of his message far beyond his native Chile. 

While these groups and artists perform tribute concerts and carry on Jara's musical legacy, they also often engage in broader social and political activism, reflecting the ethos of justice and human rights that Jara embodied. Through their performances and actions, they continue to celebrate his life, remember his sacrifice, and promote the ideals he held dear.

Camila Cienfuegos Member of EA Coordination Team