During the 1950s, mainstream Chilean folk music functioned as a sonic postcard of the country’s valleys, oceans, and deserts. Many popular folk songs, such as “Banderita Tricolor,” boasted about the vastness of the land and the beauty of the copihue (the national flower), while blissfully avoiding social realities. As these tourist-trap-turned-songs thrived, the ancient dance known as cueca and the folklore of the Chilean countryside were fading away – until Violeta Parra came along. The singer archived a dying breed of folk styles like cuecas and tonadas and composed her own reflections on the sociopolitical struggles of the time, eventually becoming a strong-willed icon of the Chilean musical tradition known as nueva canción.

Violeta Parra was born in 1917 in the region of Ñuble into a family of musicians, poets, and artists. From the age of 12, she started composing and playing the guitar to help her family survive after her father’s passing. In 1932, she followed her brother Nicanor to the capital of Santiago, where she performed in nightclubs and bars. During the 1950s, with one failed marriage and two children in tow, Parra embarked on the arduous journey of traveling across the vast Chilean landscape, interviewing folklorists along the way. In this voyage, Parra was able to recover songs like “El Sacristan” and “El Palomo” and grasp the marginalization of Chile’s rural communities and deep-seated class differences that divided the country. Through her songwriting, Parra tackled every aspect of Chilean public and private life – the unjust treatment of miners, the struggles of indigenous Mapuche communities, the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church, as well as the drama of her own personal relationships. In “Yo Canto a La Diferencia,” Parra declares that she doesn’t make music for fame or praise, but to expose what’s right and what’s wrong.

“ […] no tomo la guitarra

Por conseguir un aplauso

Yo canto las diferencias

que hay de lo cierto a lo falso

De lo contrario no canto” 

“Arriba Quemando el Sol” is one of Violeta Parra’s starkest compositions. Accompanied by a guitar and bombo drum, she narrates the realities of an overworked and undervalued miner’s life underground. In the song, she shines a spotlight on the dehumanization of saltpeter miners and their oppression in the industry. Many were paid not with Chilean pesos, but a made-up currency of tokens, rendering them into a sort of legal slavery. In “Arauco Tiene Una Pena,” Parra tackles the issue of Mapuche expatriation and the Spanish colonization of indigenous peoples.

“Entonces corre la sangre

no sabe el indio qué hacer

le van a quitar su tierra

la tiene que defender

el indio se cae muerto

y el afuerino de pié

levántate Manquilef.”

Throughout the song, she summons Mapuche spiritual leaders of the past and tells them to rise up against mistreatment from the Chilean government and community.

While Violeta Parra was married twice, many consider her most important love to be Swiss flautist Gilbert Favre, the paramour she lovingly nicknamed her “chinito.” Their relationship was passionate, and together they were able to tour Europe and even exhibit Parra’s embroidery at The Louvre in Paris. When Favre stayed in Bolivia to pursue his own music career, the relationship ended. The result was one of Violeta’s most popular songs, “Run Run Se Fue Pal Norte,” where she mourns the distance between them and the death of their romance.

Parra finally settled down with her children and set up a circus tent in La Reina, Santiago. She played her cuecas and tonadas to people who came to see her, and there, she wrote her last song “Volver a los 17.” The song is a melancholy poem in which she compares the innocence of her teenage years with the wisdom of her old age. That same melancholy may have driven her to take her own life in 1967 at the age of 49. Few have a repertoire as diverse and extensive as Parra’s, and her talent for confronting everything from Chilean society, politics, and her love life is bar none. She found a way to preserve the nation’s folklore while reinventing it at the same time. Even though Parra didn’t live to see the extent of her impact, her legacy in Chilean music remains powerful to this day.