Gracias a la vida

Biography of Violeta Parra

The great Chilean artist brought the traditional music of Chile’s rural countryside to the halls of Europe, leaving a cultural legacy that endures today. This is Chile translates her biography from 

Thursday, August 11, 2011  
Violeta Parra Violeta Parra (Photo:Dibam)

Violeta Parra is recognized as one of the great artists of the 20th century, both in Chile and throughout the world. Her most famous songs are still hauntingly relevant half a century after her death, and her body of work included not just music but also paintings, ceramics, and tapestries. Her life has inspired a wealth of film, poetic, and musical tributes, including Andrés Wood’s newest movie, Violeta Se Fue A Los Cielos (“Violeta Has Gone To Heaven”).

The following is a partial translation of Marisol García’s biography of the great Chilean artist. The full-length Spanish original on is available here.

Violeta was born October 4, 1917 in San Fabián, Bío-Bío region, to a large, poor family. She spent much of her early childhood in Lautaro, Araucanía region, with her eight siblings and two half-siblings. Her father Nicanor Parra was a music professor and her mother, Clarisa Sandoval, was a campesina, or peasant. Violeta grew up to the rhythm of the Chilean countryside, with little interest in school and a love of music. She began playing music at nine and started composing her own songs at the age of 12.

Better just don’t speak of school / I hate it with all my heart … / And I start to love the guitar / and when I hear of a party / that’s where I learn a song. (Décimas)

After Violeta’s father died in 1929, Violeta and her siblings began playing street music, or canto callejero, in exchange for a few coins to take home to their mother, occasionally performing variety songs in local circuses.

It’s true that I suffered / it began to build up in me. / Later it began to split me open / like a singing zorzal1 / that not even the Devil can stop. (Décimas) 1Zorzal: Chilean songbird

Invited by her brother Nicanor, Violeta arrived in Santiago at the age of 15. While she was trying to finish her studies, she began to visit bars and local salons with her sister Hilda as part of the duo Las Hermanas Parra. In 1935, her mother and the rest of her siblings arrived in Santiago, moving to the peripheral neighborhood of Quinta Normal.

In 1938, the 21-year-old Violeta married Luis Cereceda, a railroad employee. The couple moved to Valparaíso and had two children, Ángel and Isabel, but conventional married life did not agree with Violeta. She had won a certain degree of fame singing variety songs, and she began to explore folklore circles, singing on radio shows and even joining a theater group. She was not, however, a model wife by the period’s standards, and her marriage ended in 1948. That same year, she recorded her first singles with her sister Hilda, particularly cueca songs. Violeta’s second marriage was short-lived, but she had two more daughters, Luisa Carmen and Rosita Clara.

In some ways, being a single woman allowed Violeta to explore the full scope of her artistic vocation. Many of those who knew describe her personality as overwhelmingly marked by one characteristic: her incapacity to let herself rest for even a moment. Violeta felt personally involved with the many cultural debts that Chilean society owed to the lower classes, and she made enormous sacrifices to support the music and art coming from the poorest and most peripheral sectors of Chilean society. She began to visit rural areas to tape and compile folklore music, which is when she met the poets Pablo Neruda and Pablo de Rokha. She compiled about 3,000 songs, which she presented in the book Cantos folclóricos chilenos (“Chilean Folklore Songs”) and later on the album Cantos campesinos (“Peasant Songs”), edited in Paris.

All the while, Violeta was honing her skill as a composer. Her verses were those of a woman who dared to denounce the abuses she found around her, and certain villains regularly crossed her lyrics: injustice, stupidity, mediocrity, bureaucrats, and the abuse of the least powerful. One of her first compositions, for example, was a song with the eloquent title, ¿Por qué los pobres no tienen? (“Why do the poor have nothing?”)

In 1953, Violeta recorded some of her most well-known songs, including Qué pena siente el alma (“My soul feels such a sorrow”). She received as a gift her first 25-string guitar, and started a radio program the next year, Canta Violeta Parra (“Violeta Parra Sings”). After winning the Caupolicán prize for folklore artist of the year, she was invited to Varsovia, Poland to perform at a youth festival. She took the opportunity to travel throughout the Soviet Union and part of Europe. During the trip, she received news by letter of the death of her youngest daughter, Rosita Clara. The news affected her profoundly, but she did not return to Chile immediately.

Instead, Violeta stayed in Paris for the next two years, where she recorded her first albums for the record label Chante Du Monde. According to her friend Enrique Bello, “she didn’t go to Paris like the ladies of the 19th century to learn about the latest fashion. She went there to impose Chilean song; that was her challenge. She wanted to submit herself to the test.”

Upon her return to Chile at the end of 1956, Violeta began to diversify as an artist, bringing her vision of the world to ceramics, oil paintings and tapestries. She traveled throughout Chile, and showed her oil paintings for the first time in Santiago’s Parque Forestal in 1960. “Tapestries,” she said, “are like songs that you paint.”

However, Violeta attracted much more attention and renown abroad than at home. Between 1961 and 1965 she returned to Europe, where she performed ceaselessly at everywhere from small bars to the halls of the United Nations. In 1964, Violeta became the first Latin American to show her work as a stand-alone exhibit in Parisian museum The Louvre.

This was also the period of Violeta’s most intense love affair, with the Swiss musicologist and anthropologist Gilbert Favré. Some of her most famous love songs are from this period (Corazón Maldito, or “Cursed heart”), as well as some of her political songs with the most biting criticism (¿Qué dirá el Santo Padre, or “What will the Holy Father say?” and Miren cómo sonríen, or “Look how they smile”). These formed the foundation for the Chilean music movement, the Nueva Canción Chilena, or “New Chilean Song.”

Violeta returned to Chile for good in 1965. She left behind her rich intercultural life in Europe, where she had become a valued artistic figure, to a society that frowned upon her lifestyle and did not yet understand her art. A year later, her relationship ended with Favré.

Violeta took her life on February 5, 1967. Her daughter Carmen Luisa found Violeta in the afternoon, with her guitar in hand. Upon hearing the news, her mother reportedly asked, “Why did she do it? Violeta was such a brave woman.” Violeta had recently told a reporter, “Something is missing in me, I don’t know what it is. I look for it and I never find it. Surely I will never come upon it.”

Her brother Nicanor, by then a famous poet, composed the Poema de despedida (“Poem of Farewell”).

Why don’t you rise up from your grave / to sing / to dance / to sail on your guitar?... / What does it cost you, woman, flowering tree / Rise up in body and soul from the tomb / and make the stones shatter with your voice, / Violeta Parra.