Violeta Exists: Violeta Parra, deciphered by her grandchildren

The songs of Violeta Parra (1917-1967) were not played in the childhood home of her grandchildren Ángel and Javiera. The two children of the famous musician Ángel Parra were born on dates close to the suicide of the Chilean artist, whose name became a sort of taboo in the family. “We did not have the image of the entire Parra family under a vine playing instruments or hearing that Violetita was like this or like that,” says Javiera Parra Orrego (Santiago, 1968).

The Parra Orrego brothers have been weaving the memories of their grandmother through research, the anecdotes told by the public at their concerts -both are musicians, with independent careers-, and what their father and uncles shared with them when they were older. But it was Marta Orrego, her mother, who, just as she dedicated herself to rebuilding Violeta’s arpilleras, rebuilt her greatness: “My mom never stopped telling us about her, much more than my dad.”

The brothers Ángel Parra and Violeta Parra in the house of the Parra Orrego, Santiago, 1964.Parra family archive.

The interview takes place in the house of Ángel Parra Orrego (Santiago, 1966) in the commune of La Reina, located in the foothills of the capital. “Everything is crossed by the military coup (1973). There all relationship with the Parra family is severed, the relationship between our parents is severed, the relationship with our roots, our identity is severed, [en el exilio] we became Mexicans for three years. We returned to Chile and found ourselves in a fascist country where Violeta could not be played on the radio. There was no Violeta anywhere, ”says Ángel, the artist’s grandson, in the living room of his house surrounded by compact discs, vinyl records, instrument cases and oriental decoration.

Together with his sister Javiera they are promoting the documentary violet exists, directed by Rodrigo Avilés, which was screened at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles and has recently been released in theaters on a cultural circuit in different cities in Chile. The tape shows the behind the scenes of the re-recording of the album The Latest Compositions by Violeta Parra, the last album released by this woman icon of Chilean culture, with which she closed her work. The musical project was led by Ángel, with the participation of a handful of prominent Chilean artists, including her sister Javiera, and her father, who died three months after recording in the studio.

Javiera and Ángel review photos from the family archive.
Javiera and Ángel review photos from the family archive.Christian Soto Quiroz

“I wanted to delve into the text and the reason for its existence, its rigor, its decision to commit suicide, its generosity in giving information to people without thinking so much about inheritances, which are so controversial,” says Ángel. At the end of her life, he adds, “she surely begins to feel that the world is neoliberal, selfish, that it was going the other way than she wanted, and that is why she decides to approach the indigenous people. So she says: ‘I’m going to live in a ruca with the Mapuches and I’m going to learn what I have pending before doing the last compositions’. There she learns the latest codes that decipher all of her methodology and there is the album that we made, ”says Ángel.

The documentary also addresses the framework of the rights to the album -the original master legally belongs to the electrical engineer Pedro Valdebenito- and the historical context in which Violeta recorded it 15 days before her death. In the voices of the album’s engineer, Luis Torrejón, and the artist’s musicologist and friend, Gastón Soublette, among others, the film is a window into the intimate process of the artist, and of the new generation of singer-songwriters who perform it in this version, visibly nervous and self-conscious before such a challenge. “You don’t want to copy him, but he appears to you,” acknowledges Manuel García in the documentary.

“The invitation of the documentary is to sow the seed of curiosity for the person of Violeta, not only for the character. That together with all those who have information about her, we rebuild it, ”adds Javiera, who on her back has an immense burlap embroidered by her grandmother and repaired by her mother. In 2017, on the artist’s centenary, various collections were created to investigate the life and work of Violeta Parra. Thanks to those works of hers, her own granddaughter learned anecdotes about her from her adolescence that she had not known until then. “Our idea is to continue spreading it, so that more people sing it, and from there they find out that she also made upholstery, and painted, and wrote tenths, and they know the encyclopedia of Violeta Parra,” says Ángel.

Salvador Allende and the Parra Orrego family at the house of the former Chilean president in Santiago, 1971.
Salvador Allende and the Parra Orrego family at the house of the former Chilean president in Santiago, file

Violeta’s image has had a heyday in recent years as a result, mainly, of her centenary, but also of the feminist wave and the social revolts of 2019, where her songs were heard in the marches and her face was seen printed on t-shirts and murals. “Violeta exists”, affirms Javiera. “La Violeta lives in a way that she has nothing to do with Ángel, nor with me, nor with the foundations, nor with the museums. She has to do with the living spirit of a libertarian, courageous, visionary, consistent, denouncing woman,” she adds. A recognition in the land of hers that she did not see.

“In her last period few people were going to see her because thousands of people rejected her, some even found her unbearable. She was angry with the world because they did not pay attention to her, ”says Ángel. Her sister complements: “There was a very big ‘bow down’ to her genius. I attribute it to a wounded patriarchy that she was not capable of accepting that a kind of lava jet was coming from the earth that plain and simple was capable of reaching the Louvre in two kicks”.

Violeta Parra playing the chords of
Violeta Parra playing the chords of “Gracias a la Vida” to her grandson Ángel Parra Orrego in 1966.courtesy

Javiera also believes that Violeta is still “a stone in the shoe” for the same people that she was in the sixties, when she was alive. And she points out: “That can be reversed because there are new generations that take it as a banner of struggle, as a feminist woman power. Everyone sees it that way, but it’s not easy to keep spreading it and that’s crazy.”

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