SANTIAGO – Today is an unhappy anniversary: 52 years ago, singer, songwriter, artist, and voice for the poor, Violeta Parra, committed suicide. She still touches lives today, and her final resting place in the Cementerio General de Santiago is visited by many who yearn for social equality.
From an early age, Violeta Carmen Parra Sandoval was exposed to poverty, and her early interactions with Chile’s marginalized populations were the foundation of her work and the inspiration for her life as an artist.
Born into a large, poor family on October 4, 1917, Parra was initially motivated by her father, Nicanor Parra, a dedicated music professor; and, by the age of 9, she could play the guitar, and was soon singing alongside her brother Lalo, charging kids in her neighborhood small prices.
These early “concerts” were prophetic. When Parra’s father fell ill a short time later, she had to leave school to earn money to help support her family. She did so by singing at restaurants, motels, circuses, and wherever else she could in the nearby poor towns.
Through this experience, she came to understand the injustices and harsh realities that hobbled the poor working class around her.
Dedicated efforts in the 1930s and 1940s.
When her father died in 1931, her family’s financial situation became dire, and she moved to Santiago to join up with one of her brothers, the well-known poet Nicanor Parra. Once in the big city, she was able to return to school, but she didn’t last long. This time, she left school because she preferred singing at bars and other stages alongside her sister Hilda. Together they formed the group Las Hermanas Parra (The Parra Sisters) in 1934 and succeeded in making a living. Soon after, her mother and other siblings arrived in Santiago to live with them.
In 1937, Parra began singing in the restaurant El Popular with her siblings Hilda, Clara, Eduardo, and Roberto. Here, she also met her first love, Luis Cereceda. With him, she had two children, Isabel and Angel, who are now prominent musical artists and took her last name.
After 10 years, Parra and Cereceda separated and she later got together with Luis Arce with whom she had two children.
Exponential growth in the 1950s
Parra dedicated much of her life to compiling folk music she found around the country. During her travels she met the grand poet Pablo Neruda. It was then that her brother, Nicanor, also pushed her to write her own folk music, and she created over 3,000 works, including Casamiento de Negros and Que Pena Siente el Alma, two of her most well-known songs.
In 1954, after she received a Caupolicán award (sometimes referred to as a “Chilean Oscar”) for her music, she was invited to play a festival in Poland. Her trip to Poland allowed her to travel throughout the Soviet Union, and ultimately landed her in Paris, France.
In Paris, filled with inspiration and creativity, she blossomed. Among the products was an album entitled Guitarre et Chants: Chants et Chants de Chili, which marked the international debut of Chilean folk music.
Parra’s “successful run through Europe,” however, was cut short by the death of her youngest daughter back in Santiago, and Parra returned to Chile in 1956.
Pursuing justice in the 1960s: Nueva Canción (New Song)
By the 1960s, Parra was known in many countries around the world and branching out into other media. For example, she gave recitals, and spoke on radio and TV programs in Argentina and Europe. In 1964, she was the first Latin American to exhibit a series of oil paintings and wire sculptures in the Decorative Arts Museum of the Louvre Palace. She wrote a book which she named Popular Poems of the Andes. And in Switzerland, she participated in a biographical documentary, Violeta Parra, Embroider of Chile.
She also met her greatest love Gilbert Favre, a Swiss anthropologist and musician. During her time with him, she would come to write her strongest and most compassionate work, songs like Miren Como Sonrien, which spoke about the electoral candidates and institutional authorities. She sang about their injustice toward the poor townspeople. Another song, Qué Dirá el Santo Padre, a song to the Pope at the time, spoke about the murder of the Spanish politician Julian Grimau by dictator Francisco Franco.
During the 1960s, Parra also initiated a movement with her songs, politically influencing all of Latin America, the Nueva Canción or “New Song” movement. Her songs spoke about folk traditions, as well as social conditions she had experienced her whole life. Britannica writes: “They were composed of several music styles, and were an emblem of the socially, economically, and politically marginalized people of Latin America and their struggle for social justice.”
During this era, which lasted much longer after she died, the socialist parties in Chile, and other countries, such as Cuba, had a loud voice to the public. It was used broadly by Salvador Allende during his campaign for the Unidad Popular. The movement blamed the church and the military for the vast inequality in Chile.
Along the way, it also inspired some of its most visible musical proponents, including Víctor Jara.
In 1965, Parra and her children, Angel and Isabel, set up a tent in Santiago’s La Reina neighborhood. The tent was meant to be an important center of folk culture, but it was unappreciated and a financial failure. This caused Parra tremendous stress.
In the meantime, Favre disappeared to Bolivia. Parra followed him a few months later and found him married. For him, she wrote a song called Run Run Se Fue Pal Norte, now among her most famous.
On top of all this, it is said that Parra was on pain killers to deal with the stress.
Then, on February 5, 1967, at the age of 49, Parra killed herself after several failed attempts. She shot herself in the head, inside her tent.
The last song she wrote, hours before killing herself, is named Gracias a la Vida, and it is her most memorable and famous song. It speaks about the gifts life gave her, such as her sight and hearing, but highlights the love for her lover.
Her songs never made it into any rankings in the music industry. Her style of music was not popular. It was only after she died that she became widely known. For example, according to biographer Victor Herrero, it was not until 1969 that this last song was made popular by a cover version sung by Cecilia.
The Violeta Parra Foundation, established by her daughter Isabel, celebrates her works and preserves her name as a folk artist. Thanks to this, the Museum Violeta Parra was also opened in 2015, with permanent exhibitions of her work. It is located in Santiago, and also hosts theatrical shows and workshops for the public of all ages. It is a place where folk music, art, and theatre come together.
Every year, people visit Parra’s grave and attend productions in her honor. Fifty plus years after her death, she is considered one of Latin America’s most universal artists. In the words of Herrero, “At a musical and cultural level, Violeta Parra has triumphed, because she became immortal, and that is a triumph that very few artists have. That puts her almost in the Beatles category.”
Maria Paz Rodriguez Zaninovic. Born in Santiago, Chile and moved to the US at a young age. Here she began noticing the differences between societies and her curiosity grew about how people think, how countries work, and how culture affects lifestyles around the world. Although professionally a dentist, her passion for writting and photography has always been a part of her everyday life.