Excerpt from Violeta Parra biography ‘The Restless Life’

Prologue of The Restless Life: Essential biography of Violeta Parra [La vida intranquila: Biografía esencial de Violeta Parra, Planeta Chile, 2017] by Fernando Sáez, printed here with the permission of the author.

Too many words have been spoken and written about the complicated relationship of Chile, that abstract entity for which no one takes responsibility, with its artists and creators. If one considers the subject in depth and with a degree of realism, it doesn’t appear completely obvious that the “Chilean payment” exists. [This national phrase refers to the idea that those who render a positive service suffer from ingratitude, and are not only ignored but punished and maltreated for their actions]. The two Nobel Prize winners, Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda, were each protected by appointments as consuls before they received recognition on the local and international stage. This allowed them, in addition to moderate though never sufficient economic relief, the much more valuable opening-up to other peoples and lands. This is essential when one is native to a small and remote country, almost hidden and hardly present to the rest of the world, due to its geographical location and its economic and social conditions.

These two elements, the economic and the social, appear especially complex and necessarily relevant in the development of these artists in their country. Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda came from the provinces. From the north and the south, from poor families that with extreme difficulty gained access to better education, better in the sense of what one expected given their objective conditions. One must not forget that we are referring to the first decades of the 20th century, when isolation, scarcity and desperation were the appropriate terms for understanding the feelings harbored by those living in the provinces of Chile. From these places the young Lucila Godoy Alcayaga transformed into Gabriela Mistral, and Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto came to be Pablo Neruda. By their own merits and the universal recognition of their value, these two poets obtained a noble place for their country’s name.

The story I propose to tell is that of a woman, Violeta Parra, whose origins had much in common with those of Lucila and Neftalí Ricardo. With the passing of time, her artistic achievements would also put her on a par with Gabriela and Pablo.

Fifty years have passed since the death of Violeta Parra. Since the suicide of Violeta Parra. Since that Sunday, 5 February 1967, when at a quarter to six in the afternoon, a shot was heard and she was found in her room, lying on her bed, a guitar by her side, a stream of blood on her right temple, dead.

Her intimates remember the impact of the news when it was heard on the radio, which shortly after the tragedy transmitted it with special news bulletins. Many people had escaped from summer heat and were outside of Santiago. Some had sent letters that her brother Nicanor would receive. Soon her brothers, Eduardo and Roberto, arrived at the tent in the neighborhood of La Reina, along with many journalists and curiosity seekers. “Why did she do it? Violeta was such a brave woman,” said her mother, Doña Clarisa Sandoval, incredulous and inconsolable. Close to eight at night the Homicide Brigade arrived, led by Inspector Rubén Araya, to write the death certificate and move the body to the Legal Medical Institute. Later, an ambulance came to attend to Roberto, who after a few drinks too many, could not bear the loss and took a number of sleeping pills that left him unconscious. Violeta’s children, Isabel and Ángel, arrived at night, back from the coast and filled with the desperation created by distance.

The next day, at one in the afternoon, the body was returned to the tent, for the wake. Hundreds of people paraded before the coffin mounted on the stage, until nightfall. Wreaths and bouquets of flowers from admirers and authorities filled the space. They came from the president of the Republic, Eduardo Frei; from the president of the Senate, Salvador Allende; from the Communist party; from the Syndicate of Folklorists; from the Circus Syndicate. Everyone wanted to make themselves present. “It’s always the same story. Now that my mother is dead, everyone recognizes her value,” declared Ángel Parra to journalists.

Even more impressive was the burial on Tuesday, 7 February. A crowd of ten thousand people accompanied the funeral procession, four hearses brimming with flowers, which advanced with serious difficulties. The police scattered here and there were not able to contain the masses. Everyone wanted to greet the relatives, get closer to the casket. Some women embraced it. “We understand you, Violeta,” they said, sobbing. Slowly the procession filed through Gallery 31 of the General Cemetery, preceded by the Municipal Choir, which as at all famous deaths, sang Chopin’s Funeral March. The throng continued to inundate the area, making it impossible for the orators to be heard; there was neither the space nor the conditions for words at her send-off.

To revise the press of those days seems an illuminating way to understand many themes in Chile and in the life of Violeta. The majority of the popular newspapers, El SigloClarínLa TerceraLa Última Hora, filled their covers and several inside pages with the news and abundant graphical material; testimonies and memories by family and friends appeared alongside details of the impressive farewell.

In contrast, the day after the death, the newspaper El Mercurio informed of the event on page 30 of the third section, in a brief three-paragraph column titled “Tragic death of folklorist Violeta Parra”. It was accompanied by a small photograph of her playing guitar, at the bottom of which read: “Doña Violeta Parra”. The tone of the article, which contained a sheen of sensationalist journalism, concluded: “The death was instant, the motives unknown.” In the following days, not a word more, no mention of the massive burial. This minimization appears even more surprising since the next day, Tuesday 7 February, the newspaper filled its first page with a color photograph and giant headlines, informing of the death of Martin Carol, a French actress who was known in that time as a sex symbol.

With reason, and without sparing these details, journalist Tito Mundt dedicated her opinion column for the newspaper La Última Hora to a piece called “What carried away Violeta Parra”. With her well-known acuity, she wrote of the existence of two Chiles, one superficial and illusory, the other authentic and real, to which Violeta belonged. She also remembered the words that Violeta had spoken to her some time before: “I’m missing something, I don’t know what it is. I look for it and cannot find it. I’m sure I never will.”

To confront the biography of Violeta Parra is to separate oneself from half tones. Given the way she put a voluntarily end to her existence, there is no room for sidesteps. Suicide can often come at the end of a psychic illness, as the act of someone unstable, but it can also be a dramatic decision by the lucid, the brave, the disenchanted, those who are not prepared to put up with anything else and choose to depart. It can be the culmination of a great pain, a great fury, a deep feeling that one is misunderstood. For that reason, respect and admiration spring forth in a spontaneous manner before the events in the life of this authentic and tenacious woman. Events that also include injustices and prejudices, which existed and remain as indivisible parts of a complex society, one that surely discovers in them the way to maintain an immobility that makes it secure and dangerous, suffocating and static.

— translated by Jessica Sequeira