AN UNFINISHED SONG
Born Joan Alice Turner Roberts in London, her father was an antiques dealer. Her mother was the secretary of Labour MP Fenner Brockway.
During the war, her parents took her to a performance of Ballet Jooss, a modern dance company. Joan was so impressed that she decided she wanted to become a ballet dancer.
She applied to the Ballet Jooss and was accepted. They taught her all the skills and Joan became a very accomplished dancer. She even starred alongside Yul Brynner in the stage version of ‘The King and I’.
She had the stage name of Joan Turner.
On tour in Germany, she met the Chilean dancer and choreographer Patricio Bunster. They married and decided to move to Chile.
They had a daughter called Manuela and lived in the capital city of Santiago.
Together, they created the ‘Ballet Popular’, with the intention of taking dance around the country and away from the capital – spreading the word.
Joan also danced with the Santiago Ballet Company and taught dance at the University of Chile.
Their marriage fell apart and they were divorced in 1960.
Shortly afterwards, Joan met Victor Jara at the university. He was a theatre producer, actor, poet and folk musician. He came from a very humble background but was gaining popularity throughout the country.
Victor fell in love with Joan, despite the fact she was older than him.
Shortly afterwards, she was taken ill and was in hospital. Victor appeared at her bedside. “He came to see me with a little bunch of flowers that he probably stole from the park, because he never had any money.”
Victor got on extremely well with Manuela. Shortly after meeting, Joan and Victor were married. She kept her maiden name for professional purposes.
The couple were to have a daughter called Amanda.
They worked together on a project called ‘Neuva Cancion’ (New Song). It was a movement that bought folk music to the wider population. It was politically conscious and told the stories of the Chilean working class. Very soon, the movement was filling large concert halls and Victor became a household name.
Their house became the centre of the movement and was constantly filled with musicians and poets, all of a radical nature (Victor was a committed Communist). There were jamming sessions and feasts going on the whole time. “We organised processions round the garden, weaving in and out of trees and eventually out onto the street with dogs barking and children dancing around with joy.”
In 1969, Chile had a general election. Joan and Victor became actively involved in supporting the radical left-wing candidate, Salvador Allende and his Unidao Popular party.
Allende was victorious. Victor immediately abandoned his theatre work to concentrate on his music – and on spreading culture for the new government.
On September 11th 1973, Victor was to give a concert at the university. In the morning, they listened to the radio and heard President Allende give a speech. Little did they realise it was his last speech.
Increasingly, they noticed radio and televisions stopped their scheduled programmes and started playing military music.
They also noticed armed vehicles passing in the street.
Victor decided to go to the university early, to see what was going on. Joan said, “I didn’t look at him leave. It didn’t seem important. I said goodbye in an ordinary way. That was the last I saw of him.”
What was happening was a military coup by the army and navy. Troops stormed the presidential palace and executed President Allende, replacing him with army commander Auguste Pinochet.
The coup was backed by the CIA. It was later proved that US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger had planned American involvement in a military overthrow, from the day Allende was elected. He told US President Richard Nixon, “In the Eisenhower period, we would have been heroes.”
Troops were given orders to arrest any left-wing “subversives and radicals.” It was considered the university was a hotbed of such ideas, so the military stormed it, making many arrests, including Victor.
He was taken to the Estadio Chile, the national stadium, which was immediately transformed into a concentration camp.
When Joan heard of her husband’s arrest, she went straight to the British Embassy for help, only to find the doors locked. Other European embassies were open, enabling people to claim political asylum.
Joan was frantic, as she could get no news of Victor. It was a week later, when a neighbour contacted her and said she thought she had seen his body on the street outside the stadium.
Joan didn’t find him on the street but did find him in a pile of corpses in the nearby morgue. What she found was horrific.
His wrists and neck had been broken, he had been stabbed in the stomach and had 44 bullets in his body. She said, “I was lucky. I was able to kiss him goodbye.”
She was allowed to take his body and she buried it in the main cemetery in Santiago. Victor was one of the highest profile victims of the coup.
Shortly afterwards, the new government made it a criminal offence for people to put flowers on the grave of anybody the military had killed.
One month later, with the aid of the now open British embassy, Joan and her daughters left Chile, returning to the UK. She still considered herself lucky, as a known radical, being able to get away from Chile.
Later on, Joan reflected that even before the coup, Victor had received death threats. “His last songs are somehow strangely prophetic. Victor knew what was coming.”
In England, she changed her name to Jara. “I took on my husband’s name and felt I had a mission to perpetuate the memory of Victor and the meaning of his work and values.”
Joan became a symbol of opposition to Pinochet’s regime and was instrumental in raising international awareness of what was happening in Chile. It wasn’t always easy as some governments refused to listen to her, including her own.
She helped film maker Stanley Forman create a 50-minute documentary entitled, ‘Companero : Victor Jara of Chile’.
She also tried to rescue Victor’s music. Some of his recordings had been smuggled out of Chile at the time of the coup by the Swedish embassy.
Joan organised concerts of his music, including one at the Royal Festival Hall and had his records re-mastered and released in the UK.
In 1984, she published a book entitled ‘An Unfinished Song; the Life of Victor Jara’.
She then decided to return to Chile. Pinochet was still in power (and would be for another six years), but she felt she had a high enough profile to be safe.
She set up the Victor Jara foundation, dedicated to preserving his musical works and his poetry. She also opened the Centro de Danza Espiral, a dance school in a poorer part of Santiago.
When General Pinochet was arrested in London in 1998, Joan called for the opening of an investigation into Victor’s murder. It didn’t happen, but bit-by-bit, she was piecing together witness statements and testimonies about what happened to her husband.
Democracy returned to Chile in the year 2000. The new government set up a Commission of Investigation into the atrocities. There was initially a wall of silence around the Chilean military.
Gradually, people began to talk. It was usually the lower ranked soldiers, often conscripts, who were willing to talk and name names. They had been forced to commit horrific crimes by their superior officers.
One of them, Jose Paredos, named the officer responsible for Victor’s death. He was Pedro Barrientos Nunez (known as Barrientos).
Paredos described the death graphically. Barrientos tortured him in the locker room of the stadium, then made Victor participate in Russian Roulette before he, and others fired their bullets into him at random.
Joan was awarded Chilean citizenship in 2009.
In 2014, Michelle Bachelet became President of Chile. She was totally committed to human rights and started putting the criminals on trial. Eight officers were sentenced to 15 years each in prison for Victor’s murder.
However, Barrientos could not be touched. He was living in Florida and had gained citizenship of the USA by marrying an American woman.
Joan went after him by filing a lawsuit under the ‘Torture Victim Protection Act’ (USA), which allows US courts to try foreign human rights disputes.
Six other Chilean officers were tried alongside Barrientos. He said in court, “I do not need to face justice because I have not killed anyone.”
However, he was found guilty, and Joan and her daughters were awarded $28 million.
What she really wanted to do was extradite him back to Chile for trial – “For Victor and for everybody else in Chile who suffered.”
She was prevented from doing this by an obscure clause in the law which stated because his actions had not affected the USA or any of it’s citizens, it could not deport him.
Joan didn’t stop trying. In 2018, Michelle Bachelet stood down as President of Chile and became the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights, giving Joan her full support in her quest for justice.
In the meantime, Joan was awarded the Chilean National Arts Prize, in 2021.
The national stadium in Chile was renamed as Estadio Victor Jura.
It is estimated that 3,095 people were killed or ‘disappeared’ under the military junta.
On December 1st 2023, Barrientos was finally deported from the USA to Chile, to face trial.
Unfortunately, this was too late for Joan. She had died just eight days earlier.
Her body was laid out ‘in state’, in her dance school, before she was buried alongside Victor.
The Chilean President, Gabriel Boric said she was, “a woman who struggled for half a century for justice, who leaves us an imperishable legacy in the arts and the defense of human rights.” He added, “She was the face and voice of the vanished and killed.”
Camila Vallejo, a government spokeswoman said, “Your fight and resistance for the truth, justice and reparation, will stay in our memories forever”.
RIP – Radical, Inspiring Poetry