Violeta Parra danced a beautiful solo cueca. A Chilean artist, singer and songwriter, Parra drew on all the traditions of Chilean folk artistry from Patagonia to the arid north, never confined to just one medium. She played her guitar and sang folk songs; wove, sculpted, and painted; and worked with textiles, colours and sounds.
Photo courtesy the Violeta Parra Foundation
An image of Parra as an artist and reflections on her philosophies unfold in interviews with friends, family and contemporaries in Luis R. Vera’s 2003 documentary “Viola Chilensis”, commemorating her life and art.
Vera, a Chilean director with documentaries on Pablo Neruda and Gabriel Mistral, among others, already to his name, explores the inspiration and influence Parra had on the arts and the individuals who crossed her path.
The significance of Parra as a pioneering woman cannot be overstated, according to Vera.
“Las dos mujeres mas importantes de Chile son Violeta Parra y Gabriel Mistral, en la historia de todo el pais,” (The two most important women in the entire history of Chile are Violeta Parra and Gabriel Mistral) he says. “Creo que Violeta Parra es la madre del musica actual Chilena,” (I think Violeta Parra is the mother of Chilean music today).
Parra is a unique figure in Chile’s cultural history, standing alone in her creative diversity and always infusing her work with the presence of everyday Chileans — the people who inspired her and informed the way she saw the world.
Picking up folk guitar from her mother as a child, Parra’s music is steeped in the traditional melodies and rhythms of Chilean music, exuding a sense of pride, of empathy and sometimes struggle.
“Violeta Parra no es solo una folklorista o una cantanta, era una mujer profundamente con su epoca,” (Violeta Parra is not only a folklorist or a singer, she was a woman deeply of her era) said Vera. "Los derechos de mujeres, pobres, la gente indigenas... una mujer muy adelantada en su epoca.” ([A woman who spoke out for] the rights of women, the poor, the indigenous people... a woman very advanced for her era.)
A haunting, heart-felt version of a Mapuche song of lament is part of the striking soundtrack to the documentary, interspersed with footage of Parra and the interviews with those affected by her and her work — interviews punctuated in equal parts by laughter and tears.
The documentary follows the course of Parra’s childhood in Chillan, where she first picked up a guitar and learned craftwork skills from her mother. It follows her travels with her own children through the countryside of Chile, and examines her life in the Latin American barrio of Paris.
Parra was born in 1917 in San Fabián de Alico, a province of Ñuble, and died at the age of fifty in La Reina. Vera’s interviews with musicians, poets, writers and friends she encountered along the way paint the picture of a pioneering woman with a strong presence, someone who demanded respect through the strength of her convictions and devotion to her Chilean heritage.
Vera set out to create a more complete record of Parra’s life and art and bring younger generations closer to an understanding of Parra, “La tremenda personalidad de un personaje, una de la mujeres mas interesante de la historia de Chile” (The tremendous personality of character, one of the most interesting women in the history of Chile).
“Ella tiene un musicalmente muy amplio, desde los acordes mas modernos, que parten en primer parte un instinto musical absolutamente de genio aritsitco que solo se encuentran en algunos figures mundial,” said Vera. (She has a very comprehensive musical mind, according to the latest opinions, that is split, in the first part a musical instinct absolutely of artistic genius that is only seen in some global figures.)
Once asked by a documentary maker which form of expression she would choose if she could have just one — painting, weaving, sculpting, or singing — Parra quietly replied “Eligiria quedarme con la gente” (I would choose to stay with the people).