Violeta Parra: Ahead of Her Time
Introduction: Violeta Parra set in motion a fresh look at what it meant to be Chilean, fearlessly, shamelessly, and transparently. Her creative field was cultural memory. When she began her research, this memory had been rejected in Chile. Her role was, in one way, to discover and affirm this memory and, in another, to enrich it with her own musical compositions.
The concept of cultural memory was coined by German anthropologist Jan Assmann on the premise that we are all bearers of culture. Cultural memory is a knowledge that has been perfectly curated but acquired in an unknown way. It is a knowledge of implied experience, transmitted and recreated with language, in the different channels of communication. It is what each nation-culture knows or wants to know about itself. There are countries that have a richer cultural memory and countries that actively starve it. This was the case in Chile before Violeta Parra.
The composer was born in San Carlos, Ñuble Province, Chile, on October 4, 1917. She spent her childhood between her hometown and the recently-founded Lautaro, in the middle of the Araucanía Region. In 1934, when she was fifteen, she followed her older brother, future poet Nicanor Parra, to Santiago. He wanted her to study and get an academic degree. He saw his sister’s creative streak and intelligence and felt that he needed to guide her. But Violeta was more guided by her intuition. She left the Normal School, where Nicanor had enrolled her, and continued to do the usual, her main activity since childhood: singing in bowling alleys to earn a living.
The beginnings of Violeta Parra’s career as a compiler of folk music are thanks to a game of mutual influence with her brother Nicanor after he returned from a stay at Oxford. This was at the beginning of the 1950s. At that time, the paradigm of the Argentinian Domingo Faustino Sarmiento was still popular in the Southern Cone; in various articles and in his novel-essay Facundo, he claimed that the world of the Americas was divided between the barbarians and the civilized and that it was necessary to exterminate all the barbarians. In an article published in 1844 in the Chilean newspaper El Progreso, Sarmiento affirmed: “We will not include the savages, for whom we cannot help but feel an insurmountable repugnance, in any social issue of the Americas. To us, Colo Colo, Lautaro, and Caupolicán, even wearing the civilized and noble attire in which Ercilla clothed them, are no more than disgusting Indians who we would have hanged or would send to be hanged now if they were to reappear in the Arauco War against Chile.” It is important not to forget that the novel-essay Facundo, in which the Argentinian summarizes his segregationist thinking, is considered a founding text of the Argentine nation. Sarmiento and the misnamed Romantics of the Southern Cone did no more than prolong the divide that was created in the colonial period between the Spanish world and the indigenous and mestizo world. This deep divide stayed in existence thanks to them in the 19th century and continued still halfway into the last century. Chilean anthropologist Ricardo Latcham commented in the ‘50s: “The shortcoming of Chilean aristocracy is its cultural delusion, its disorientation regarding national problems, its backwardness regarding important contemporary issues.”
One of the fundamental contributions of composer Violeta Parra was the undermining of the Sarmientian paradigm. It can be said, in short, and that she and her brother Nicanor Parra showed the beauty that was born from the misnamed barbarism and, all the while, denied its existence. At the same time, they made clear that Sarmiento’s Romanticism was no more than a misrepresentation of its European namesake. For Herder, the father of German Romanticism, as well as Rousseau, the founder of French Romanticism, a culture is founded on poetry, wisdom, and the science of the people. Herder coined the concept of Volksgeist, which is translated as “national spirit.” The European Romantics saw this as the foundation of the cultures that civilization was responsible for corrupting. Every nation’s design should be founded on them. Herder and Rousseau did not distinguish between barbarism and civilization but instead between culture and civilization, with culture being the most genuine expression of the soul of a nation. The Grimm brothers were inspired by these ideas and searched for this national spirit in the stories that the people told. Archim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano did something similar with popular poetry and published their collections in the book Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn). Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, Esteban Echeverría, and other intellectuals of the Americas acted as a retaining wall that prevented these fresh German and French ideas from coming to Latin America. This is no small matter, since Romanticism and the Enlightenment were two fundamental schools of thought that, when they converged, paved the way for what was later called Modernity.
The Romantic numen comes from Kant. In his Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime, after referring to sublimity and beauty as spiritual qualities, affirms that these qualities are always called romantic. Three basic aspects characterize the aesthetic movement since called Romanticism: the belief that in every nation there is a genuine and authentic originating group (Volk), the idea that this group possesses a collective spiritual force (Volksgeist) that conforms to the national spirit, and the conviction that the originating group, inspired by the national spirit, has a cultural mission to carry out (Kulturauftrag). Human nature is, for the Romantics, the oracle that should be consulted. For them, there are no barbarian or civilized beings but, instead, human beings.
In Chile, as we have said, the national spirit had been rejected and disregarded by the intellectual elites. It was seen as something imagined by the poor, the uncultured, the ignorant, the broken, and the filthy. Using this crowd as an object of study was something that occurred to no one. This called German philosopher Rudolf Lenz’s attention in the last decade of the 19th century. Lenz arrived in Chile from Berlin in 1890. He was hired by the liberal President José Manuel Balmaceda to give modern language classes at the recently established Teaching Institute. He had studied comparative philology in Bonn and spoke three languages.
Rudolf Lenz was the originator of anthropological studies in Chile. In his classes at the Teaching Institute, he complained about the active ignorance of Chilean intellectuals with respect to what had been its civilizing process. He quoted Goethe, who in his Maxims and Reflections commented that making a goddess a witch or a virgin a prostitute was no art; however, on the contrary, it took art or character to give dignity to the rejected or make desirable the condemned. As soon as he arrived in the country, he was interested in studying the fusion of a European language and a vernacular language. His question was, “What happens to a European language when it is transplanted into a different setting and must adapt to a new environment?” He claimed that Spanish had evolved in Chile more than in any other region of the Americas and that it was of extraordinary phonetic interest due to its unique peculiarities of pronunciation. He concluded that the language in Chile was mostly Castilian with Araucanian phonetics.
It goes without saying that the German philologist’s Chilean contemporaries were not at all fond of his conclusions. It was as if he were saying that they themselves spoke with a barbarian intonation. An entire generation had to retire so that, in 1940, two years after Lenz’s death, his book El español en Chile [Spanish in Chile] could be published in the country.
Lenz also clarified in his classes that the language of Chile was spontaneously born in the cattle farms of the Central Valley during the course of the 17th century, where the mestizos already made up the largest part of the population. Just as Castilian Spanish evolved towards a new variant of the language, the Spanish ballad also mutated during colonial times into the song of the human and the divine. Lenz himself compiled many of these verses and published them in his book Versos populares de Chile [Popular verses of Chile]. In addition, he collected the newspaper La lira popular [The popular lira], which, in its time, was sold at the markets. It was comprised of commentary written in ten-line stanzas by street poets about national events. One of the students who listened eagerly in Rudolf Lenz’s classes was the young Nicanor Parra. Parra talked in several interviews about how important it was for him to be able to consult the twelve-volume collection of La lira popular that Lenz had gifted to the library at the Teaching Institute.
Two decades later, the poet encouraged his sister to deepen her pursuit of Chilean cultural memory. The first stage of Violeta Parra’s work as a compiler took place from 1953 to 1955, before her first trip to Europe. She visited the surrounding areas of Santiago, including Puente Alto, Pirque, Rancagua, and Central Chile, in search of popular songs, refrains, musical instruments, and traditional forms and styles. When she returned to Santiago after these trips, she and her brother shut themselves in her home in La Reina so that she could show him what she had compiled. These meetings, in which they both mutually influenced each other, could last for entire days. One of the fruits of these meetings was seen when Nicanor Parra published the book La cueca larga [The long cueca] (1958), in which he included the poem “Defense of Violeta Parra.” Another poem in this book, entitled “La cueca larga de los Meneses” [The long cueca of the Meneses], was set to music by Violeta Parra and was included in a long-playing record dedicated to the cueca (Odeón 1959).
For Violeta Parra, compiling and composing her own themes were two sides of the same coin. This is how the songs “La jardinera” [The gardeneress], “Casamiento de negros” [Black wedding], “Qué pena siente el alma” [What sorrow the soul feels], and many others came to be. She gained recognition quickly. After an invitation to go to Poland in 1955, she spent some time in Paris displaying her work at different concerts and as an in-house artist at L´Escale. When she returned to Chile mid-1956, she started a new stage of her compilations. This time, in the north and south of the country. As she grew deeper into the roots of Chilean popular culture, she was also becoming the great artist that we remember today. Even if that was not her intention, Violeta Parra embodied the most genuine Romantic spirit of Herder and Rousseau. Her work was not based on theories but instead her own strong intuition; she gained this role through her authenticity, by simply being herself: earnest, direct, and transparent.
Yo canto a la chillaneja si tengo que decir algo,
Y no tomo la guitarra, por conseguir un aplauso,
Yo canto a la diferencia que hay de lo cierto a lo falso,
De lo contrario no canto.
[I sing in the style of Chillán if I have something to say,
And I do not pick up my guitar, in order to hear applause,
I sing to the difference between what is true and what is false,
Otherwise I do not sing.]
The moment came to her in which the something that she had always searched for decided to make itself known. She knew it. She saw her work as a mission. A gesture otherwise purely Romantic. The fact that she completely identified with the themes of the tradition that she compiled is another Romantic gesture. Therefore, it should not be a surprise that the themes that she composed, inspired by her compilations, reached such a wide audience. Chilean radio offered her a weekly program entitled Así canta Violeta Parra [So sings Violeta Parra] that lasted the entire year of 1954 and gained a large following. The letters that she received she had to carry in a sack to her house of sticks in La Reina. Her song was and is the song of all people, and her pain was also the pain of all people. Pain, because the elites did not make things easy for her. Her popularity and international recognition were not enough for her to be offered a place at the institutions. The only institution that hired her was the University of Concepción. Her institution’s president, David Stitchkin, called her in 1957 to ask her to create a Popular Art Museum in that city. It was a good time in her career, but a bad one in her love life. In this capital of the south, she fell in love with painter Julio Escámez, and her love was not reciprocated as she had hoped. When she left Concepción, she took her autobiographical Décimas [Ten-line stanzas], which she had written there, to Temuco, Chiloé, Santiago, and, later, Argentina. From there, she went back to Europe, this time with a new love, the then-vagabond Swiss Gilbert Fabre, whom she taught to play flute and transformed into an internationally recognized artist.
Heinrich Heine, the German Romantic poet, says that “the world is torn apart in the middle of the heart of the poet.” Violeta Parra was criticized for her strong character and direct, sincere, and natural way. It is known that she did not restrain her reactions when something upset her. Even though, according to Nicanor Parra, she was no more than a little lamb disguised as a wolf. For him, the ultimate reason for the disputes between Violeta Parra and her contemporaries was her high sense of personal dignity. It was her self-awareness that made her feel misunderstood. Today, we know that she was too ahead of her time. While a great part of the population still lived in the paradigm of Sarmiento, she was already in the middle of the 21st century. In Chile, we still have not reached her time. Her contemporaries have yet to be born.
Translated by Vanessa Curless