Remembering Violeta Parra
By Sergio Reyes
SURROUNDINGS AND BIRTH
Violeta was one of twelve million Chileans who lived squeezed between the Pacific Ocean and the Andean Mountains. The majority of these people have always lived in poverty. However, the sacrifices of the Chilean workers have translated into increased wealth for businessmen within and outside the country. Chile has been blessed with exceptional resources: fertile land, rich coast lines, boundless creativity. If it were not for capitalist greed Chileans could live a life "more beautiful than the sunrise."
To this land was born Violeta Parra. "Violeta entered the world from the door of San Carlos, a tiny town located on the periphery of Chillán, on October 4th, 1917." (Manns p.30)
- The Center of Injustice
- Under the Burning Sun
The daughter of an elementary teacher and a peasant woman, Violeta's childhood was filled with more pain than happiness surrounded by her brothers and sisters, who eventually numbered nine.
My father was a man of letters
studied to become a teacher
and to each new city arrived
to teach others the misteries of the dictionary.
My mother like a bird
was born onto a hill of flowers
like a wet nightingale
grew up amongst the candle lights
learned all about threshing
grinding, and kneading.
Carrying one kid under our arms
the other six following behind
we descended on our new place like a wave
happy as clowns
almost tripping on the footsteps
of our worried pa
thus we discovered this mysterious house
which I thought more beautiful
than the priest's chapel.
Testimony of Hilda Parra, her sister.
"At that time, my dad was working as a teacher and my mother helped with her sowing — with the flock of kids she had, more than that she couldn't do, don't you think! So, our situation was no good. The Parra family, our grandparents, they were the wealthy ones. They owned Chillán, almost the whole city. Mi mother came from a peasant family in El Huape. They were always poor."
One of the many trips Violeta's father was forced to make in search of work brought them to Santiago. At this point, when Violeta was only three, she came down with small-pox, an epidemic sweeping the cities and countryside. The scars left by the illness would stay with Violeta for life.
Not even the cattle escaped
from this terrible spear
that struck the little Violeta
without any consideration
Three months she spent fasting
with those terrible soars
that made her nails fall
from fingers and toes
Her body was so diseased
nothing more than a horrible scar.
In 1927, Chile elected Carlos Ibañez del Campo president. His administration evolved into a virtual dictatorship. In an effort to recover the ailing economy to benefit both foreign and domestic capitalists, Ibañez unleashed a ferocious wave of repression against every kind of opponent. Violeta's father shared the fate of thousands of teachers who where fired for political reasons. As refuge from his misfortune, he turned to songs, the guitar and wine.
In those days, such was the destiny
unleashed upon Chile
that thousands upon thousand fell
prey to an evil man.
Explained the cunning wolf
he's building our economy
while sewing unemployment
staining our national flag
with blood and dishonor.
The dictatorship this devil practiced
was so cruel
that teachers throughout the country
could no longer function.
There were penalties all over
penalties for trash
penalties for walking at night
penalties for quietness or noisiness
the name of the uniformed police changed
while taking prisoners
whether fat or skinny
whether walking or driving.
People trembled in their houses
nobody could sleep
always awaiting the moment
the guards woulobreak in.
The prisoners number in the thousands innocents and guilty alike
and Mr. President so proud
behind weapons and bullets.
Ibañez handed Chilean resources over to American capitalists, including the copper mines and the telecommunications industry. Violeta's father fell deeper and deeper into alcoholism. In an effort to get his family out of poverty, her grandparents decide to give him his inheritance. But, the man traded this wealth for alcohol.
I celebrate this event
because in one way or another
I would have been a calf
unable to produce milk
I suffered, it's true,
but that gave me direction
my wings were growing
to become a singing bird
who not even Satan could silence.
Violeta's independence began at the death of her father. At the age of 7 she started on her own to study guitar and singing. With her brothers and sisters she joined the local circus to sing and dance. In 1934, at the age of 17, Violeta left the countryside and went to Santiago to join her brother Nicanor. She enrolled in the school of education but stayed only a year.
Next she formed a duo with her sister Hilda called "Las Hermanitas Parra" and went from bar to bar singing popular songs. In 1938, she married a railroad worker, Luis Cereceda. That same year the progressive administration of Pedro Aguirre Cerda came to power. Violeta contributes to government policies to limit price increases by seting up a food distribution center in her home.
Her marriage lasted ten years, ending in 1948. From this marriage remain two children, Isabel and Angel, who have carried on in their own style the musical legacy of their mother.
On exactly our tenth anniversary
the ties were cut loose
three times around my poor frame
the rope tied my tight
and to save myself from going crazy
once again I seized my guitar"
and with all her strength Violeta Parra
hauling her kids
went to Maitencillo
to rid herself from all ties.
In 1949, Violeta marries again, this time an opera singer by the name of Jorge Cereceda. The following year her daughter Cármen Luisa was born.
In the early 1950's Violeta seriously embarked on her research of Chilean folklore. She travelled to the central valleys interviewing, recording, writing, and memorizing old folk songs, stories, poems in danger of extinction. Her collection of folk songs, poems and refrains amounted over 3,000.
- Dance for the Little Angel
- Exile in the South
In the process of her work, Violeta met renowned poets Pablo Neruda and Pablo the Rhoka. By this time, she was no longer singing the commercial hits she used to perform in order to survive. She had now made a definite commitment to folklore, to the music of the people and to protesting the social conditions of the Chilean people.
All the while, Violeta continued her work in tapestry, painting and sculpture. In 1954, she was awarded the Caupolicán prize for folk singer of the year. As a result, she was invited to represent Chile at the International Youth Festival in Poland. She performs throughout the Soviet Union and decided to reside in France for two years. It was in France that she recorded her first L.P.
Just as the world began to recognize Violeta's talent, her little daugther, Rosita Clara, not yet a year old, died in Chile.
Testimony of her husband, Jorge Arce.
"It was 28 days since Violeta had left Chile when our Rosita Clara died. Somebody sent her a letter about it, but it seems they didn't explain her exactly what happened, so she thought it was all my fault... Since then I received two letters a week where she systematically blamed me for our daughter's death. Later on she learned the truth — our baby had died of pneumonia."
When I left this place
I left my baby in her crib
hoping our nanny the moon
was going to take care of her
but it wasn't like that
a letter would reveal to me
breaking my heart to pieces
that I would never see her again
the world is a witness
that I will pay for this sin.
Violeta overcomes her pain and continues her performances in French theaters and cafes, always longing for her motherland. At the end of two years she returned to Chile.
- The Gardener
- I Curse the Heavens
- Singers who Ponder
Testimony of her friend Enrique Bello.
"I think she stayed in Europe a little to change the destiny of Latin Americans in a world so closed to them as Paris. There Latins are considered underdeveloped — both economically and mentally. She didn't go to Paris like the gentlemen of the 19th century to learn about the latest in fashion. No. She went there to popularize the Chilean music. That was her challenge. She wanted to try it, to test herself. It was a hard task for her given that she knew neither the place, the language nor the audiences..."
Violeta returned to Chile in 1956. In 1957 she persuaded the academic world of the University of Concepción to create the Museum of Popular Art. There she clashed with the arrogance of academicians. Violeta was too good, too honest, too authentic for these book researchers to understand her potential contribution to the popular art. In 1958, she resettled again in Santiago. That same year she extended her folklore research to the South, reaching the Big Island of Chiloé.
- La Pericona
- The Black Wedding
In the early 1960s, Violeta meets the Swiss anthropologist Gilbert Favré, whith whom she will commence a turbulent romance that brought her many happy moments but also many heartbreaks. Her way of loving, the betrayals, the emotions — all fill Violeta's songs.
By this time, all throughout Latin America, but especially in Chile, the New Song Movement began to take shape. This movement denounced the unfair and miserable living conditions of the working class and supported the struggle for liberation from capitalist exploitation. New Song musicians like Quilapayún, Inti-Illimani, Rolando Alarcón, Patricio Manns and Victor Jara entered the airwaves by popular demand.
Violeta decided to go back to France, this time in the company of her children Angel and Isabel. In 1964 the Louvre of Paris presented an exhibit of her "arpilleras" tapestries, painting and wire sculptures.
Testimony of her daughter Carmen Luisa:
"The only time I went in the coffee houses where my mother worked was when my mother was in France for the second time. I remember when she sent for me: It was a terrible trip because I ended up in the wrong airport and, of course, there wasn't anybody waiting for me. She had already been there for three months and was very sad about our separation, so as soon as she had enough money she bought me tickets. There she was awaiting me with a new song, "Absent Dove." With all the tension of the airport mix-up our encounter was so emotional: she hugged me a hundred times, crying and asking a thousand questions, and in between all this she sang the song she had composed for me."
- Absent Dove
Back in Chile in 1965, Violeta joined her children Isabel and Angel in their "peña" —a coffee house where folk music had preemenince— located in Carmen 340 in Santiago. That same year se set up her own "peña" in the outskirts of Santiago, La Reina county, under a giant tent.
Interview with René Largo Farías, 1966.
"I believe that every artist must have as a goal to merge with her audience. I am so happy to havo come to a point in my work in which I don't want to do tapestry, or poetry, or painting just by myself. I'm satisfied working in this tent this time with human beings, with an audience very close to me so I can feel them, touch them, speak with them, incorporate them to my very soul."
However, business at La Reina tent wasn't going too well. The audiences Violeta wante to share everything with didn't come to her nest. The tent, in turn, was frequented mostly by tourists and intellectuals, both progressive and conservative. Sometimes nobody came. Deep psychological depression overtook her and she tried to kill herself.
Her friend, the folksinger Héctor Pavéz helped her to overcome these difficult times by promising to work with her in the tent. Around that time and Uruguayan, Alberto Zapicán, came in search of work as a carpenter, carrying the typical South American drum, "bombo," on his shoulder but without any artistic ambition.
Testimony of Alberto Zapicán:
"Whenever Violeta wasn't around I would grab my "bombo" and would start doing those yells I learned in the Uruguayan countryside... One day I was inmersed in my session of yelling, thinking there was nobody around... But Violeta was there all along listening. She said, "From now on you will give up the hammer, pick up the "bombo" and play with me." It was very clear that she appreciated my brutish style!"
- El Albertío
Violeta's relationship with Favré worsened. The «gringo» decided to leave her, another blow to the heart of Violeta. It was 1966/ Once again she fell into deep depression.
- Eye of the Eagle
- The Man who Went Back North
In an attempt to get her our of her depression, friends, relatives and comrades decided to encourage Violeta to join a national tour. For the first time Violeta reached the southernmost extreme of the country and the South American continent, Punta Arenas. The tour was organized by radio announcer and folk music promoter René Largo Farías. The name of the company was "Chile Sings and Laughs." Amidst the warm welcome of the inhabitants of the cold lands of Magallanes, Violeta bloomed again.
Testimony of her brother Lautaro Parra:
"A few months ago Violeta had gone on a trip with "Chile Sings and Laughs" all throughout the South: together with more than 20 artists she performed in Punta Arenas and she came back in a way that was difficult to recognize her, radiant, without wrinkles, full of energy."
However, on February 5th, 1967, Violeta stopped singing forever.
Testimony of her daughter Cármen Luisa:
"I was tidying up in the tent, it was around six p.m. and suddenly I heard a shot... I run into my mother's bedroom and there I found her, laying on her guitar, holding a shotgun. I talked to her, moved her, but she didn't answer. Then I realized that blood was dripping from her mouth. I was shocked and paralyzed; don't know why but my first reaction was to take the shotgun from her hand. Then I went out and cried out for help. The tent was soon full of people, the police... an ambulance took her away."
On February 8th, 1967, Violeta Parra of Chile returned to the earth.
From "In Defense of Violeta Parra," by Nicanor Parra:
Why don't you rise up from your grave
on your guitar?
Sing me an unforgettable song
a song without ending
only one song
is all I ask from you.
It isn't much to ask woman,
you, a tree all in bloom,
rise up in soul and body from your tomb
and make the rocks explode with your voice
This what I wanted to tell you
keep on crafting your wires
your ponchos araucanos
your mugs from Quinchamalí.
Keep on polishing day and night
your wooden totems
without useless tears
or if you prefer
with fiery tears
and remember that you are
a little lamb in wolf clothes.
- My Thanks to Life