The Tragic Tale Of Victor Jara’s Last Song

“The term ‘protest song’ is no longer valid because it is ambiguous and has been misused. I prefer the term ‘revolutionary song.’ ” —Victor Jara

In A Nutshell

On September 11, 1973, residents of Santiago, Chile awoke to chaos. Fighter jets were bombing the president’s palace, tanks had taken to the streets and ordinary Chileans were being rounded up and tortured in the city’s sports stadiums. One of those detained was folk singer Victor Jara, whose incarceration, mutilation, and brutal murder would come to symbolize the tragic cruelty of the Pinochet regime.

The Whole Bushel

In 1973, Victor Jara was one of Chile’s big music stars. A cross between Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie, he was unashamedly left-wing; writing popular protest songs about social inequality and the plight of the working man. So when the right-wing Pinochet regime seized power in a bloody coup, they made sure Jara was one of the first to be detained.

Transported to the Chile Stadium, Jara found himself in a vision of Hell. One of 60 torture centers that sprang up around Santiago in the days following the coup, the Chile Stadium was notorious for its cruelty. Detainees were forced to sit in the bleachers without food or sleep, watching as people were randomly pulled out and executed on the pitch. Occasionally, guards would turn their machine guns on the crowd and unleash a random spray of bullets, sending bodies tumbling down onto the playing field.

A lifelong rebel, Jara responded to his incarceration by composing new songs and singing them to his fellow prisoners to keep their spirits up. Unsurprisingly, he soon came to the attention of the camp commander, who made a seemingly magnanimous gesture: Placing a guitar on a table in the middle of the stadium, he invited Jara to come down and play to the crowd. Naively, Jara agreed.

What happened next would be etched on the minds of those who saw it forever. The moment he sat at the table, Jara was pinned in place by the nearby guards. The commander then cut off his fingers and mutilated his hands to mush. Some witness claim he used an axe, others the butt of his rifle. The outcome was the same. With Jara’s hands a bloody pulp, the commander screamed at him: “Now sing, you motherf—er, now sing!”

In response, Jara pushed himself to his feet. With infinite calm, he reportedly walked to the nearest set of bleachers and said, “All right, comrades, let’s do the senor commandante the favor.” Then he began to sing.

He sung unsteadily, with a wavering voice, the anthem of the UP—the political party whose members lay in piles at the bottom of the bleachers. As his voice began to steady, an incredible thing happened. Across the stadium, prisoners who’d had no food or sleep, prisoners who’d been tortured or threatened with death, all rose to their feet and began to sing with him. For a fleeting moment, the guards could only watch as their charges joined in with Victor Jara for his final song.

Reality came back with a gunshot. Peppered with rifle fire, Jara fell lifeless to the floor. Before anyone could react, the guns were turned on the bleachers and dozens of singers killed, their bodies tumbling down onto the pitch below. For those in the stadium, it was more than just the death of a popular singer: It was the death of hope. Although Jara’s killers would ultimately be brought to justice, it would be another 20 years before the UP anthem was sung publicly in Chile again.

Show Me The Proof

The Guardian: The life and death of Victor Jara
LA Times: Soccer on Chile’s killing field
The Guardian: Ex-Pinochet army conscript charged with folk singer Victor Jara’s murder
Listverse: 10 Disturbing Facts About Latin America’s Cruelest Dictator