Violeta Parra: Extraordinary Chilean Composer, Folklorist, and Activist
Violeta Parra is recognized around the world for being a Chilean-culture icon and multidisciplinary artist. Her legacy is undeniable and has transcended many Latin American countries, gaining her a rightful place as one of the top South American female artists.
Join me in this exciting blog post as I examine Violeta Parra’s life history, works of art, and her multiple contributions to the world.
Violeta Parra was born in 1917 in the southern Chilean town of San Carlos in the Ñuble province. Her parents were Nicanor Parra, a music professor, and Clara Sandoval, a dressmaker. Both of them allowed Vioeta to share with artists and creators at a very young age, while encouraging a passion and love for music for her and her siblings—Roberto, Clara, Eduardo, Lautaro, Oscar, Hilda, and Nicanor.
Violeta had fragile health and spent the majority of her childhood in the countryside. In 1927 the family underwent some financial problems and decided to relocate to Chillán, where her music career started to take off. Violeta Parra learned how to play guitar at age nine and wrote her first songs when she was only twelve years old.
Unfortunately in 1929, her father passed away and the family’s life circumstances deteriorated, forcing Violeta and her siblings to work to help support the family.
Finding her Calling
Out of insistence from her brother Nicanor, Violeta Parra moved to Santiago to attend school. Her move to the Chilean capital opened up her horizons to new and exciting opportunities for her to share her talents. She began singing and performing at local restaurants when she was only seventeen.
After the taste of the musical lifestyle, Violeta didn’t continue her studies. She had found singing to be her true and only passion. After she dropped out of school, she started a music group with her sister Hilda, known as Las Hermanas Parra. They were later joined by their siblings Clara, Roberto, and Eduardo—ultimately changing the name of the group to Los Parra.
Together, they sang in boliches (nightclubs) and performed boleros, rancheras, corridos Mexicanos, and other musical styles while also working in circuses, bars, and recreation centers.
Love Life and Travels
During her time dabbling in the music scene of Santiago, Violeta Parra met Luis Cereceda, a railway worker whom she married in 1938. Together they had two children, named Isabel and Angel. Her husband was a communist militant who introduced her to the left political movement, leading her to become involved in the progressive movement and Communist Party of Chile.
Unfortunately her marriage encountered difficulties and ended after only ten years. This disappointment left a hurtful mark on Violeta Parra’s career and life work.
She focused on her music and composing as a professional career. Her success allowed her to venture around and outside of Chile to explore.
Violeta’s travels showed her the harsh reality the Chilean population faced and got her involved in social causes and activism. She would tour the poorest neighborhoods of Santiago and would collect anonymous songs that spoke of the reality and daily life for Chileans.
In 1949, she met and married Luis Arce—they had two daughters named Carmen Elisa and Rosita Clara. Following her marriage, Violeta continued to travel and perform along with her sister Hilda and her children.
Becoming a Folklorist
Encouraged by her brother Nicanor, Violeta Parra began doing research and rescuing authentic melodies and folkloric tunes from all over Chile in the 1950’s. She rebuilt her entire repertoire against social pressures and became a point of reference for the development of Chilean music.
She compiled more than three thousand songs that she published in the album Cantos Folkloricos Chilenos, edited by EMI Odeon record label. Because of her intensive work in valuing and caring for the music of the people, Violeta Parra became the main figure in the history of Chilean folklore.
Her work as a folklorist took Violeta to spend time in Europe where she visited Warsaw, the Soviet Union, Finland, Italy, Germany and ultimately France.
In Paris where she recorded her first full length albums. This became a pivotal moment for Chilean tradition and music, as Violeta Parra was the first female artist to have traveled so far at that time.
Violeta Parra’s Last Years
Violeta Parra was the first Latin American to host an individual exhibit at the Museum of Decorative Arts at the Palais du Louvre. Her work showcased burlap, oils, and sculptures with wires under the name of Tapices de Violeta Parra (Tapestries of Violeta Parra).
Upon her return to Santiago in the late 1960’s, Violeta installed a large tent that was to be transformed into a cultural arts center of folk culture. With the country facing political instability and transformation, her dream failed to receive support and was unsuccessful.
Violeta suffered heartbreak once again not only from not achieving her goal, but also because of a breakup with Gilbert Favre, a Swiss anthropologist.
Even though she was depressed and frustrated after failing, Violeta continued to write songs. She wrote and recorded the song Gracias a la vida (Thanks to life), one of her great melodies and considered her farewell anthem and unexpected anticipation of her death. She took her own life on February 5th, 1967, she was 49 years old.
Her Legacy Continues to Prosper
Violeta Parra’s premature death gave life to a mythical figure, whose compositions continue to inspire the creations of new generations of artists. Her multidisciplinary approach took her to excel not only in music and songwriting, but also in ceramics, poetry, and plastic arts.
Violeta Parra’s songs and melodies have been replicated by well-renowned folk artists like Mercedes Sosa and Joan Baez; her legacy is also carried by her children and grandchildren who became artists, following in her foot-steps.
The irreverence of her speech and her passion for defending the underprivileged sectors of society have made her an icon of resistance and social activism in Latin America. Her life’s work has inspired several books and a movie named Violeta se fue a los cielos (Violeta went to the heavens).
She was proof that the music industry and art could have a harmonious and balanced relationship.
Share Your Thoughts!
I hope the fascinating story of this powerful female artist leaves you inspired and intrigued about the impact of folk music in Latin America. Have you heard Violeta Parra before? What shocked you the most about her story? I’d love to hear your thoughts on her influence and life’s work. Leave me a comment below and let’s start a conversation!
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