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The facts of Victor Jara's tragic death are well documented. Arrested in the aftermath of a military coup d'état, Jara was one of many political prisoners led to the National Football Stadium where many were tortured, beaten, and executed. Although his hands were broken or, as many have claimed, amputated, Jara continued to sing a song supporting the ousted Popular Unity Party. After receiving many brutal blows, Jara stopped singing only when a machine gun fired by a military officer took his life. In the nearly three decades since, Jara's songs and spirit have been celebrated by numerous politically minded folksingers including Pete Seeger and Tom Paxton. Arlo Guthrie set Adrian Mitchell's words to music for the ballad "Victor Jara," recording the song on his album Amigo. Undoubtedly, although Jara's heart may have been forcefully stilled, his music has lived on.
The youngest of four children born to a ploughman (Manuel) and a semi-professional folksinger (Amanda), Jara grew up in severe poverty. Raised on a feudal-like farm, he lived on the bags of flour and occasional fruit that his father earned from his labors. By the age of six or seven, he was already accompanying his father to work in the fields. Family life was extremely difficult as his father increasingly began drinking to escape his woes. When a pot of boiling water fell on his sister, he joined his mother and moved to Santiago, the site of the only hospital equipped to treat his sister's burns. While in Santiago, his mother took a job at a food stand at an open market, but in March 1950, Jara received word that his mother had died from a stroke suffered while she was at work.
For the next three years, he struggled through school while sleeping at the homes of friends. At the age of 15, Jara left school and entered the Redemptist Order in San Bernardo, a small village south of Santiago. His quest to become a priest, however, lasted only a year. In 1952, he left the seminary and enlisted in the Chilean army. The following year, he was dismissed with honors. Jara's interests in theater and music soon became the dominant force in his life. Enrolling in the school of theater at the University of Chile, he studied acting. After completing his degree, he continued on to begin studies in theatrical directing. While at the school, he met his future wife, Joan Turner, a teacher from Great Britain. A turning point in Jara's musical career came when he met Violeta Parra, a traditional folksinger and artist and the owner of a small café in Santiago. Taken under Parra's wing, Jara began to sing more and more in the cafe. In 1966, he released his self-titled debut album. Four years later, he left the theater to devote his attention full-time to music.
From the beginning, Jara used his songwriting skills to supply a voice for Chile's working class and peasantry. Strongly supportive of the Communist Party, he was thrilled when Dr. Salvador Allende, the head of the Popular Unity Coalition, became the first socialist to be elected president of a Latin American country. Under Allende's leadership, the Popular Unity Coalition planned to strengthen educational support, increase low-income housing, and furnish free socialized medical care. Jara's dreams began to crumble, however, when on September 11, 1973, a military junta headed by Admiral Toribio Merino and Army General Augusto Pinochet, assisted by the United States via the Central Intelligence Agency, overthrew Allende and launched a brutal coup. Thousands of Popular Unity Coalition leaders and supporters were imprisoned with hundreds being subsequently executed. Jara was working at the State Technical University when it was surrounded by the military. Taken prisoner, he spent five days in a cold, dirty cell without adequate food or water, before being taken to the National Football Stadium. Although he was initially buried in a mass grave, his wife was permitted to provide him with a decent funeral and burial. She later left Chile in secret, taking many unreleased tapes of Jara's songs.