A story about Victor Jara, Chilean folk songs and….Condoleezza Rice

victor-jara

He was Chile’s Bob Dylan, the folk singer whose music provided the soundtrack to the Sixties and early Seventies, and whose brutal killing after the 1973 military coup has made him a legend. In her memoir of their life together, Joan Jara describes how she went to the Santiago morgue and walked past a long line of bodies on the floor  and found her husband’s body with “his chest riddled with holes and a gaping wound in his abdomen. His hands seemed to be hanging from his arms at a strange angle, as though his wrists were broken.” But more than four decades after his death, his accused killer has gone on trial in Orlando, Florida.

That’s right. Retired Chilean army officer Pedro Pablo Barrientos moved to the United States in 1989, a year before the military dictatorship grudgingly handed over the government to an elected civilian president. The Los Angeles Times reports that Barrientos, who was indicted in Chile along with eight other former officials, is facing civil accusations brought by Jara’s family that he is the gunman who killed the singer. (For the record, Jara was not held in the National Stadium but in the smaller Estadio Chile).

Now Jara’s family has forced Barrientos into a U.S. federal courtroom, where he will face civil accusations that he was the gunman who killed the singer.

And here’s an account by my friend and colleague Lezak Shallat on singing one of Victor Jara’s songs in Santiago decades after his death:

“During the presidency of Ricardo Lagos (2000-2006), I sang in a choir (Bellas Artes) that was regularly invited to entertain visiting dignitaries at state dinners in La Moneda, Chile’s Presidential Palace. (After it was restored from having been bombed to bits in 1973, that is.) We sang for Brazil’s President Lula, Argentina’s Nestor Kirchner and Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, the presidents of Algeria, China and for all 30+ presidents of the Americas (everyone but Bush and Castro, including two from Costa Rica, outgoing and incoming. I have a great story about that event, but that would be a digression).

Anyways… one day we were called to sing at La Moneda for an event that we were not given the details of, just that we should show up and enter through the underground parking lot and install ourselves in the room next to the bank-vault-converted-into-a wine-cellar as we always did.

Since the wait between call and concert was always long, I happened to grab a newspaper on my way there. We changed into our concert clothes and were given our music to look over. We were going to be singing our standard two songs by folklorist Violeta Parra, in this case “Que he sacado con quererte”  and “Casamiento de negros.” This last song talks about a wedding where everyone and everything is black and then the black bride dies and even the wake is black.)

Nothing unusual there, so I opened my newspaper to wile away the time and saw a headline about a fancy state dinner in honor of a slew of visiting African heads of state, with special guest Condoleezza Rice (US Secretary of State under George W. Bush). Hmmm, I thought… that must be the event we are singing for, said I to myself. And maybe a song about the wedding and death of little black people isn’t really an appropriate choice of music…

So I took my concern to our choir director, Vicho, who looked at me like I was crazy and told me that I was being too, too gringa and how could I still be so gringa after all those years in Chile, where everyone loved and understood Violeta Parra and how could Chileans be viewed as racist if there weren’t even any blacks in Chile…

OK, OK, it’s your decision, I told him, but think about it. You might not agree with me, but somebody who understands something about protocol might.

About 20 minutes later, I noticed that Vicho had left the room and was returning with a new set of scores. “We’re not singing Casamiento de negros, We’re singing this…” and he passes out “Te Recuerdo Amanda.” This is, of course, the song that Victor Jara is most famous for. No explanation for the change, just a slight nod to me.

Finally we are summoned to sing, between the main course and dessert, as is usually the case. The dinner is taking place in the Patio de los Naranjos, a big indoor patio, with the guests seated in dozens of round tables and President Lagos and wife seated with the Chilean Foreign Minister (I think it was Ignacio Walker) and Condoleezza Rica at a long table at the front.

The choir lines up behind the Presidential table. There isn’t much space so we are literally inches behind the honored guests. I am right behind Condoleezza Rice. In fact, I am so close to her that I can see the backs of her clip-on earrings and I could have touched the back of her head by stretching out my hand.

And we start to sing…. “Te Recuerdo Amanda.”

At this point, Foreign Minister Walker, who is sitting next to Rice, leans over and starts to whisper in her ear. She nods to show she is taking in this information until Walker suddenly places one hand flat on the table and makes a gruesome chopping gesture with the other… like he is cutting off his own hand at the wrist. Rice pulls back in surprise and horror and says, softly, “oh no!”

I could tell that, as we are singing, Walker is explaining to Rice just who Victor Jara is and silently demonstrating to her what happened to him while he was in military custody, before he was killed. his hands were broken.

And we kept on singing. Except for me…. I was biting my tongue to keep from bursting out in laughter and tears.”

 

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s