Te Recuerdo Amanda (Victor Jara)

The Chilean coup was a palpable force in my house. My father was excited by Salvador Allende’s election and spent several weeks in Chile, meeting Pablo Neruda and others. So when the coup shattered that dream, it was a direct blow. Then I went with Eqbal Ahmad, a family friend who had fought in the Algerian revolution, to a concert/benefit for Chile featuring Joan Baez where Orlando Letelier, a friend of Eqbal’s, was the guest of honor, and spent most of the after-party hanging out with them… and a few weeks later Letelier was assassinated by Chilean government agents in Washington.

The Victor Jara albums came into our house during that period, as an expression of solidarity, though I don’t recall listening to them often before I spent some years in Europe and learned Spanish. Meanwhile, in 1974 Phil Ochs Victor Jara LPhad organized a Chile benefit concert in New York that included Bob Dylan and Dave Van Ronk, and asked Dave to sing “He Was a Friend of Mine” in memory of Jara. And then in 1976 Phil died, and Dave started singing the song in his memory, after telling the story of Jara’s murder in the football stadium in Santiago.

Thousands of people were rounded up in the days after the coup, and held in that stadium, and on the second or third day Jara was recognized by an officer, and publicly tortured. Descriptions differ as to whether the soldiers smashed or cut off his fingers before breaking his wrists with rifle butts, then asking sarcastically if he could still play and sing for them… and he responded by calling on the other prisoners and leading them in a song, before he was beaten to the ground and shot over forty times.

Dave told that story for years before singing “He Was a Friend of Mine,” and when I got back from Europe and booked a first gig at the Nameless Coffeehouse, I told it as well, then sang “Te Recuerdo Amanda.” It was the only song I sang in a language other than English, and I would first recite a translation:

Victor Jara LP2“I remember you, Amanda; the wet streets; running to the factory; where Manuel was working.

“Your wide smile; the rain in your hair; it didn’t matter; you were going to meet him.

“Just five minutes; life is eternal in five minutes; the siren blows; time to return to work; and you walking along; you light up everything; those five minutes; have made you flower.

“I remember you, Amanda; the wet streets; running to the factory; where Manuel was working.

“Your wide smile; the rain in your hair; it didn’t matter; you were going to meet him.

“Who went away to the mountains; who never harmed anyone; who went away to the mountains; and in five minutes was destroyed; the siren blows; time to return to work; many did not return; among them Manuel.”

For anyone who doesn’t know the history: the Chilean coup was actively supported by the CIA, part of the ongoing US policy of destroying any democratic government that potentially threatened the profits American businesses were extracting from the developing world. My father recalled with bitter amusement a huge sign outside the American Screw Company’s compound in the Chilean countryside: “American Screw Chile.”

Jara was one of the founding figures of the Latin American nueva cancion, or “new song” movement. And although he was murdered over forty years ago, that story goes on: in June a Florida court handed down a civil judgment against a Chilean military officer for his murder — like many henchmen of the right-wing dictatorships that decimated Latin America in that period, he is now a US citizen — but the US Department of Justice continues to reject the Chilean government’s requests for his extradition.