Gracias a la vida que me ha dado tanto
Me dio dos luceros que cuando los abro
Perfecto distingo lo negro del blanco
Y en el alto cielo su fondo estrellado
Y en las multitudes el hombre que yo amo
Roughly translated, these lyrics mean:
Thanks to life, which has given me so much./It gave me two eyes, which when I open/can perfectly distinguish black from white/And in the distant heaven the starry backdrop/And amongst the multitude/The man that I love.
These words were written and sung by the Chilean singer-songwriter Violeta Parra in the 1960s, and they have been sung by various luminaries in various countries ever since. After the earthquake in Chile in February 2010, this song was sung to raise funds for the international relief effort.
I sometimes wonder how they sounded to the man that she loved: a flute-player named Gilbert Favre who was a generation younger than she was. (He died in 1998.)
But first, a brief bio: Violeta Parra was born in a small town in southern Chile in 1917. Her family was musical, but this wouldn’t have made them unusual in their culture. As an adult, she helped develop a musical movement known as the Nueva Cancion Chilena, roughly equivalent to the folk movement (including new music composed in traditional folk styles) in North America. Her art and her political commitment were inseparable. She joined the Communist Part of Chile and revived the tradition of the pena, a community centre for arts and social activism.
For better or worse, she didn’t live long enough to see what happened to her country in the military coup of September 11, 1973, and the subsequent destruction of Chilean socialism and the arts community that supported it, or the massive exodus of Chilean refugees.
She met Gilbert while she was married. She and her husband divorced, and she accompanied Gilbert to Bolivia and back to his native Geneva, in Switzerland. By all accounts, Violeta and Gilbert made beautiful music together. Then something happened, and the official biographies are vague about who left whom.
It seems that Gilbert decided never to return to Chile, but Violeta was rooted to her native soil and didn’t want to leave it. On February 5, 1967, she shot herself to death. She left behind two children, a son and a daughter who have continued her musical legacy.
“Gracias a la Vida” seems to be a suicide note set to music, but as far as I know, it is never introduced this way in public performances. Maybe it can be enjoyed better out of its real-life context.
The quick changes in the melody, from major to minor chords, suggest the bittersweet nature of life, especially for those who feel. Love is said to be a blessing, but it often hurts. The more we have, the more we have to lose.
A drawing of Violeta Parra hangs in my front room because I am separated from her by less than six degrees: she was a blood relative of the ex-husband of my spouse. I sometimes wonder where she would be if she had never met Gilbert. Would she be a 94-year-old matriarch of Latin American music and culture, still leading the resistance against Big Money and the military goons who protect it? Would she be fading away in a nursing home or a back bedroom? Would she have died in a plane crash while on tour, like other legendary musicians?
I honestly can’t imagine committing suicide for love. I also can’t imagine launching a musical or cultural movement. Maybe one capacity is necessary for the other. Or maybe too many women are fools for men. As a feminist, I sometimes wish some companera had talked some sense to Violeta in the dismal winter after the end of her love affair. (Girlfriend, what are you thinking? He didn’t deserve you.)
But then, I’ve been told I just don’t understand romance, and I suspect that’s true.
So many creative spirits have died from unnatural causes, supposedly before their time. However, they left their creations behind, and we who are still here can still enjoy them.
I’m grateful for that.
Gracias a Violeta.