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Chile pays homage to Joan Jara

GINA KALLA looks at the life of the British-born dancer who lived to see her fight for justice succeed decades after Pinochet’s regime killed her folk-singer husband

THOUSANDS filed past her coffin in the Centro de Danza Espiral in Santiago, including President Gabriel Boric alongside many artists and politicians. They left messages of gratitude and expressions of love for the artist, human rights activist and widow of the singer Victor Jara.

Boric praised her as “a woman who struggled half a century for justice, who leaves us an imperishable legacy in arts and the defence of human rights.” And Camila Vallejo, the government spokeswoman said of her: “Your fight and resistance for the truth, justice and reparation will stay in our memories forever.”

Joan had been awarded Chilean nationality in 2009 by the government of Michelle Bachelet for her human rights work and role in helping rebuild Chilean democracy. In 2021, Joan was awarded Chile’s national arts prize.

Born in 1927 in London, Joan Alison Turner Roberts moved to Chile in the ’50s as a young dancer, to join the Chilean National Ballet Company. She also taught at the University of Chile’s Theatre School and set up, becoming director, a centre for the teaching of dance to children at the university.

One of her students was a young folk singer called Victor Jara.

In 1960 Victor and Joan married. He came from a poor family, was a communist, and expressed his passion for justice, peace, and socialism through his songs, travelling all over the country with his group. His songs became immensely popular and strongly associated with the political left.

When Joan first came to Chile she was shocked by the gulf between the extremely wealthy and the poor, to an extent she had not encountered before. It came naturally to her to take part in the many progressive, grassroots cultural activities of the time and they both supported the new socialist government of Salvador Allende.

Pinochet’s violent military coup of September 11 1973 tore Chile apart.

Victor was soon arrested and taken to Stadio de Chile, where standing among thousands of others arrested he hastily wrote his last poem and gave it to a friend before they took him away. In a basement under the stadium on September 16 they tortured him, broke his hands so that he could no longer play his guitar, then riddled his body with bullets.

Joan had spent days in despair, not knowing where he was. Someone, though, had recognised Victor on a heap of bodies in a morgue near the stadium and guided her there. She found his body in the pile among so many others and with the help of friends she managed to smuggle the body out and give him a proper burial.

Days later she left Chile with her two daughters, Manuela and Amanda, to exile in London.

Within days she found the strength to take part in a moving documentary film about Victor, produced by Martin Smith and Stanley Forman, called Companero Victor Jara of Chile. Talking about her recently murdered husband was extremely harrowing for her but she did so to ensure her story reached a wider public.

She wanted to tell the world about Victor’s life, but most of all but also about his murder. But this wasn’t just about him, she wanted the world to learn who was behind the murderous coup which had destroyed not only so many lives in Chile but democracy itself. So began her lifelong battle for justice and human rights.

In the 80s Joan was finally able to return safely to Chile, and, together with others, she created a new dance group in Santiago and Concepcion, the Centro de Danza Espiral which became an important training centre for Chilean ballet dancers.

In 1993 Joan established the Victor Jara Foundation, dedicated to preserving his work. And for over 40 years she sought to find those who had murdered her husband.

Finally, in December 2012 eight former military officers were charged and found guilty of Jara’s murder and were sentenced to up to 15 years jail. Their leader Pedro Barrientos, however, who fired the shots that killed Victor had fled to Florida and had been granted US citizenship. He resisted extradition to Chile, but the battle in the courts continued.

Days before she died Joan received the news that her husband’s killer would at last be extradited to Chile on November 28. He will now face justice in a Chilean court.

It would have been satisfying for her to know justice would be done at last.

Shortly before she died, she said: “I was lucky that I found my husband’s body and was able to bury him. He didn’t become one of the disappeared. So many families are still searching for their loved ones.”

She is survived by her two daughters, Amanda Jara and Manuela Bunster (from her first marriage).


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