Stadium's Renaming an Ode to Singer Martyred There

Times Staff Writer

He was killed here, the workers say, down this narrow hallway, where basketball players and boxers and rock singers exit the dressing room before a game, match or concert.

No one who works at the stadium now witnessed the execution of Victor Jara, the folksinger whose death during the 1973 military coup became an enduring Latin American legend. But over the years, workers at Chile Stadium have passed down the stories about how and where it happened.

"People say it happened in this place. Those are the rumors," said assistant administrator Gloria Sepulveda as she stood at one end of the hallway. "And it makes sense, if you think about it. This was a place where no one would see."

For a few days in 1973, Chile Stadium was transformed into a concentration camp and torture center, as soldiers rounded up activists and government officials loyal to deposed President Salvador Allende. The most famous detainee was Jara, a 40-year-old folksinger and committed leftist with a growing international reputation.

This Friday, Chile Stadium will be renamed Victor Jara Stadium as part of an official effort to recognize the victims of the coup and the life of the singer who performed there many times.

For Jara's widow, Joan Turner Jara, the dedication culminates a five-year effort that began on the 25th anniversary of the coup -- which occurred on Sept. 11, 1973 -- when thousands of people signed a petition requesting the change.

"For many years, everything from the government had been a blank wall," she said in the Santiago offices of the Victor Jara Foundation, which preserves the singer's recordings and funds cultural work. "Then, suddenly, it was very easy."

President Ricardo Lagos called her last month with the news. Francisco Vidal, a spokesman for Lagos, said renaming the facility "was a gesture of reparation" toward one of Chile's most respected artists.

The Victor Jara Foundation will have preferential use of the arena, which is operated by the Chilean sports federation.

"Only foreign stars can afford to sing there now," said Joan Jara, who runs the foundation. In recent years, the arena has been rented by rock groups such as Megadeth and Latin pop acts like Christian Castro. "We're hoping to offer the facility to Chilean performers."

Victor Jara was born to a humble family in a village outside Santiago, where his mother taught him to sing and play guitar. He studied theater at the University of Chile, which was where he met his future wife, an expatriate British dancer. He worked at a musical club where he also met singer-songwriter Violeta Parra, who encouraged his musical career.

Jara songs such as "I Remember You, Amanda" and "Prayer to a Farm Worker" celebrated the lives of Latin American working people and became leftist anthems. He joined the Communist Youth and sang at Allende's rallies during his successful 1970 presidential campaign.

On the morning of the coup, Jara left his wife and two daughters to go to the university, where he worked at its radio station. Army troops surrounded the campus, and thousands were detained. They were taken to Chile Stadium, one of dozens of temporary detention centers established throughout Chile.

"Victor Jara was held up there, in the red seats," says Juan Carlos Gonzalez, the current administrator of the indoor arena. "That was where they kept the 'dangerous' prisoners."

Jara and the prisoners spent at least four days in the stands. At one point, he asked his companions for a piece of paper and wrote a poem titled "Chile Stadium."

In the poem, he described stands filled with 5,000 people--"So much humanity, suffering hunger, cold, fear and pain!"--and the death of six comrades in the coup, including one who was "beaten like I never thought a human being could be beaten."

Another prisoner would later smuggle out the poem. Jara was last seen alive on Sept. 15, when he was pulled out of a line of prisoners who were being transferred out of the stadium.

A week after she had last seen Victor, Joan learned that his body had been dumped at a morgue. Among hundreds of corpses, she found his body, the face disfigured.

"At least I had the truth," she said. "I had to live many years with the nightmares. But so many other people never knew what happened to their loved ones."

According to the official autopsy -- made public in 1990 as part of a post-dictatorship government inquiry -- Jara was shot 44 times. His hands were not severed, as one legend has it, but they were badly mangled.

The judicial investigation into Jara's death remains open. Like other cases from the era of dictator Augusto Pinochet, it has gained momentum in recent years thanks to the appointment of special judges to try human rights cases.

Nelson Caucoto, a lawyer representing the Jara family, said several witnesses have stepped forward in closed court sessions to name the man they say was responsible for the atrocities at Chile Stadium, a mysterious officer known as "the Prince."

In the years after the coup, an official silence surrounded Jara's name in Chile. His music was banned from music stores and radio stations. Abroad, however, his death only heightened his fame, with his widow traveling around the world to attend tribute concerts to her husband and the rest of the more than 3,000 people killed in the coup.

The arena will be officially renamed with a ceremony on the anniversary of the day prisoners were first brought there -- the day after the Sept. 11 coup. A plaque will be installed remembering those who died there.

"When you come in here for the first time, you feel the weight of what happened," said Gonzalez, the administrator. "This whole place was filled with suffering.

"It's right that the stadium carry the name of Victor Jara," he said. "The Chilean people owe a debt to that name."

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