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.
Victor Jara’s last song: Chile Stadium – English Translation
There are five thousand of us here
in this small part of the city.
We are five thousand.
I wonder how many we are in all
in the cities and in the whole country?
are ten thousand hands which plant seeds
and make the factories run.
How much humanity
exposed to hunger, cold, panic, pain,
moral pressure, terror and insanity?
Six of us were lost
as if into starry space.
One dead, another beaten as I could never have believed
a human being could be beaten.
The other four wanted to end their terror
one jumping into nothingness,
another beating his head against a wall,
but all with the fixed stare of death.
What horror the face of fascism creates!
They carry out their plans with knife-like precision.
Nothing matters to them.
To them, blood equals medals,
slaughter is an act of heroism.
Oh God, is this the world that you created,
for this your seven days of wonder and work?
Within these four walls only a number exists
which does not progress,
which slowly will wish more and more for death.
But suddenly my conscience awakes
and I see that this tide has no heartbeat,
only the pulse of machines
and the military showing their midwives’ faces
full of sweetness.
Let Mexico, Cuba and the world
cry out against this atrocity!
We are ten thousand hands
which can produce nothing.
How many of us in the whole country?
The blood of our President, our compañero,
will strike with more strength than bombs and machine guns!
So will our fist strike again!
How hard it is to sing
when I must sing of horror.
Horror which I am living,
horror which I am dying.
To see myself among so much
and so many moments of infinity
in which silence and screams
are the end of my song.
What I see, I have never seen
What I have felt and what I feel
Will give birth to the moment…