Thursday, November 24, 2011

Gracias a la Vida

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.


  1. Gack. I made a mistake, & apparently published posts can't be edited. February in Chile could not have been a dismal winter. It's like August in the Northern Hemisphere.

  2. LOL ... Dratted hemispheres!

    I think we all have it in us to do the equivalent of leading a revolution, or creating a heart-wrenching piece of art.
    That 'something' comes out at different speeds for different people. For some it explodes from them like a solar flare and then they're burnt to the ground, for others, the fire burns in them for decades.

    For some it's filming the Titanic as she lays 4 miles under the Atlantic Ocean, and for others, it's being brave enough to post a home movie on YouTube.

    I think you understand romance very well. by your definition of the word, that is.

    I first heard 'Gracias a la Vida' on a battered old Joan Baez cassette tape - remember those? - I fell in love with the words even though I didn't understand the words, it helped that I thought Joan was hot - but that's another story.!

  3. Jean - if you go into blogger as if you're going to post, but choose edit posts instead, you'll see a list of the posts. Click on the word edit next to yours, change it, then click on publish. But please don't change too much. This is wonderful the way it stands.

  4. Thank you, all. Kathleen, I did all that - but my edits didn't show up. I did this from my home computer, and I can't publish from there either. I think that's the problem.

    BTW, the link at the beginning of my post is for a youtube video of Violeta Parra singing "Gracias a la Vida," original version. As you can see, I'm tech-challenged. :-(

  5. Hello, Jean,

    I read this yesterday, but I had to go listen to the Violeta Parra version of "Gracias a la vida" before commenting. Like Widdershins, I've heard the song, but only sung by Joan Baez. I was twelve when Parra killed herself - I'd never heard of her.

    It's funny, but I don't hear despair in the song at all. Resignation, yes, but also a sort of joy that transcends all the vicissitudes of the heart. And although it's possible she killed herself "for love", the commentary in the video suggests that she suffered from depression - an actual disease which can have physical roots and is not "caused" by external events at all.

    In any case, thank YOU for sharing Violeta's story - and her voice - with us.


  6. I've never heard of her either but she sounds intriguing. I think a song might be a kind of suicede note, but I think really what it is, is that there are these passionate souls who just throw themselves into what you they love or care for with great intensity. They love intensely, they hate intensely, they fight intensely. They are the kind of people we aspire to write about, especially in things of love.



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