From Chile to the Ends of the Earth

The culture of the Chilean movement and government that was cut down in 1973 still lives in Scotland and across the world, writes Chris Dolan.

The presence of refugees from Pinochet’s regime has gifted Scotland with a special awareness of Chilean, and by extension South and Central American, arts we might not otherwise have had. Novels from authors like Isabel Allende (the name and family connection alone made her a must-read in the 1980s) to Roberto Bolaño, poems by Pablo Neruda, plays by Ariel Dorfman – all examples of works that have made it from high art niches into popular, and political, culture.  

The relationship between the arts and progressive politics has seldom been so markedly intertwined as in Latin America from the Cuban to the Nicaraguan revolutions. The New Chilean Song Movement had much in common with folk revivals around the world – a search for community, connection with the land, tradition, solidarity, and a need for meaning beyond cruel and hollow capitalism.

Víctor Jara, son of a poor tenant farmer, was a successful theatre-maker before becoming increasingly drawn to work being done by Isabel Parra and others, collecting songs from every corner of the country, with a particular interest in indigenous music. Swapping careers in the late ‘60s, Jara became a thrilling Latin mix of Pete Seeger, Dylan and Paul McCartney – and, by writing his own songs, blending traditional forms with contemporary innovation, Jara was a folk-rock trailblazer.

More important still were his lyrics. The New Chilean Song movement coincided with the rise of the democratic Popular Unity movement, culminating in the election of Salvador Allende in 1970. Jara, with bands like Inti-Illimani and Quilapayún provided the soundtrack to a period full of hope and purpose. In particular, the stirring words of the Popular Unity’s anthem, Venceremos. 

Oscar brings home in this article how that hope was brutally quashed precisely three years later by the CIA-backed coup of General Pinochet. Víctor was killed, as were thousands more, at the start of Pinochet’s murderous regime. But his music, and the determination of all those who gave their lives for democracy and freedom, live on. Wherever the refugees from Pinochet went they not only kept alive the memories and aspirations of their struggle, but informed and enriched the culture and politics of their new homes.

Many of Jara’s songs have been translated – most notably the beautiful Te Recuerdo Amanda – and are performed by the likes of Carlos Arredondo. The film Nae Pasarán and the events it chronicles – workers at Rolls Royce refusing to service Pinochet’s aeroplanes – come out of a 50 year relationship with Chilean Scots. Latin influence, in art and politics is, thankfully, everywhere to be found. Víctor puts it perfectly himself in his song Manifesto:

My song is not for fleeting praise

nor for foreign fame,

but from my slender country

to the ends of the earth

Chris Dolan is a Glasgow-born writer and dramatist.