Chileans to know: Violeta Parra

Thanks to life, which has given me so much
It gave me laughter, it gave me tears
So I could distinguish between joy and sadness

The irony that the message of Violeta Parra’s most famous song should so vividly juxtapose her tragic end is lost on few of those who honor her legacy.

Chile's most famous folksinger and its most beloved musical ambassador was a tortured soul beneath her famous persona. Her wide range of experiences were expressed through a dazzling variety of mediums: Violeta Parra was a poet, a musician, a painter, a sculptor, and a folklorist. Above all, however, her work captured Chile’s history, its heart, and its soul. It is this aspect of her work that propelled her from a simple folk singer to a Chilean icon.

Violeta Parra was born in San Fabian de Alico on October 4th, 1917. Her full name at the time was Violeta del Carmen Parra Sandoval and she was part of a family that was not short on talent. Her brother Nicanor Parra became a renowned poet; another brother Roberto Parra was, like Violeta, a well-known folklorist; both her daughter, Isabel, and her son, Angel, would follow in her musical footsteps and continue the movement she began known as Nueva Cancion Chilena. Violeta’s early years were spent bouncing around from town to town but by 1927 they had settled in Chillán where she began to develop her musical talent for the first time.

The Parras were a musical family and much of Violeta’s adolescence was spent singing in popular Santiago nightclubs with her siblings. This was really her first experience with performing before an audience (though it would obviously not be her last). In 1934, after living in Santiago for a few years, she met her first husband Luis Cereceda, a railway driver whose political ideals would lead to Violeta’s involvement with the Communist Party of Chile and the presidential campaign of Gabriel Gonzalez Videla in 1944. At the time, her musical career was still just beginning to take root and her musical repertoire was mainly comprised of Spanish and Argentinian ballads.

In 1952 Violeta Parra's career took a turn that would define her artistic identity. After the birth of her daughter Rosita, Violeta began to travel across the country, collecting, recovering and organizing Chilean folk music. She began to compose in a more traditional folk style, abandoning her previous repertoire in favor of her new passion. At this point, she began to make a name for herself throughout Chile – she gave recitals at universities, taught courses in folklore, and recorded two singles with EMI-Odeon label:

At the height of her career, Violeta Parra’s name was known not just in Chile but around the world. In 1955, she was invited to perform at the “World Festival of Youth and Students” in Warsaw, Poland. Soon after she moved to Paris where she would become a regular fixture at the nightclub L’Escale. She rubbed elbows with preeminent European intellectuals and artists and even managed to record at the National Sound Archive of the "Musée de l'Homme" La Sorbonne in Paris. Her successful run through Europe, however, was cut short as her daughter Rosita Clara died back in Santiago. Violeta would eventually return to Chile in November of 1956.

Back in Chile, Violeta picked up where she left off as she performed in major cultural centers in Santiago, all the while traveling across the country to continue her research on Chilean folklore. The bulk of her research was summed up in her book “Cantos Fokloricos Chilean.” It was at this time that her interests began to branch out into other fields – she began to try her hand at painting, arpillera embroidery, and ceramics. Much of her work would be exhibited at the Louvre during her second trip to Europe in 1964. It was also around this time that Violeta Parra wrote and recorded what would go on to become one of her most famous songs:

Towards the end of her life, with her popularity now waning, Violeta would set up a tent in the La Reina municipality of Santiago. The tent, known then as “La Carpa de La Reina” would be Violeta’s final venue. The idea was to establish a community center for the arts and political activism where artists from all walks of life could exhibit their work and perform their music. From 1965 until her death in 1967, she would perform for anyone and everyone who came to her tent. In 1967, Parra committed suicide, thus ending the life of a Chilean icon.

Though her life ended in 1967, Violeta Parra’s legacy lives on to this day. In 2011, her life was immortalized in the critically acclaimed biopic Violeta Went To Heaven. Her legacy lives on through the “Nueva Cancion Chilena” Movement that her children continued to promote after her untimely death. Much of Chile’s current appreciation for its culture and traditions can be attributed to Violeta Parra’s contribution to its preservation.

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