5 (more) Names You´ll Recognize if you Live in Chile

Due to the popularity of the initial 5 Names article, I decided to follow up with a few more recent entries which you are bound to recognize if you spend some time in Chile.  The following are snapshots of cultural icons that have made an important impact upon the country and its national identity.   

Gabriela Mistral  (1889-1957)

Gabriela Mistral was born Lucila de María Godoy Alcayaga in 1889 in Vicuña, a small settlement in the Elqui Valley, and was the daughter of a teacher and dressmaker. She became passionate about encouraging the educational development of children and so became a teacher, becoming first a teaching assistant at the age of 15. Her early poems were born after starting at the Escuela Normal de Preceptoras de La Serena, where she became heavily discouraged by the rigidity of the conservative system.  In 1910 she headed to Santiago to teach at the Escuela de Barranca before passing special exams that led her to traveling different schools across Chile, including to Temuco, where she met Pablo Neruda (and who famously introduced her to Russian literature). Between August 1904 and September 1910, the local press of the La Serena area began publishing her poetry; in 1909 Mistral´s romance with Romerlio Ureta ended when he committed suicide and this affected her so much that she began to write about life and death in a way unique to previous Latin American entries.  Her poems honoring the dead, Sonetos de la muerte (1914), made her particularly famous in Latin America, but it was in 1922 that the collection Desolación [Despair] was published, to great international accolade. Mistral played an important role on the international stage, and was involved in the League of Nations, received multiple honorary degrees, was in cultural societies of various countries (such as the United States), and she taught Spanish Literature at numerous universities outside of Chile.  Mistral was the first Latin American recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1945.

Pablo Neruda (1904-1973)

Pablo Neruda was born Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto in Parral, in the region of Maule. His father worked for the railway and his mother was a teacher, although she died not long after Neruda was born. He was raised in the southern city of Temuco, and as a youth he met Gabriela Mistral, who was at the time the principal of a secondary school for girls.  In 1920 he began writing for ¨Selva Austral¨, a literary journal, under the pen name Pablo Neruda, a name he chose to honor the Czech poet, Jan Neruda (1834-1891). In 1924 he published his most lauded work, Veinte poemas de amor y una cancion desesperada.  In addition to writing, Neruda studied French and Pedagogy at the Universidad de Chile, and between 1927-1935 he traveled to various countries overseeing honorary consulships for the Chilean government. During this time he published a surreal collection of poems, Residencia en la tierra (1933), which elevated him internationally.  In 1950, while he was living in Mexico, he published Canto General, which spoke about the entirety of South America and its people. In 1943 Neruda came back to Chile to live, and in 1945 he joined the Communist Party; in 1947 his protests placed him in sufficient danger that he had to go into hiding until 1949, when he left Chile. His work titled Las Uvas y el Viento (1954) is considered to be a diary of his political activities during his exile.

In 1950, he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971, awarded ¨for a poetry that with the action of an elemental force brings alive a continent’s destiny and dreams”.

Violeta Parra (1917-1967)

Violeta Parra is someone that I studied during my university years and someone that I personally admire the work of.  Born in San Carlos near Chillan, Parra began singing with her sister at the age of 17, before being sent to school in Santiago. She married in 1938 and the influence of her husband, Luis Cereceda, led her to becoming involved in the socialist movement of the time. In 1949, she married Luis Arce and toured Argentina with her family playing music in circuses. In 1952 Parra began to compose her own songs based upon traditional folk music, and later started to teach music at various universities around Chile. Her music began to be published which made her very popular, and she met Pablo Neruda, who in 1970 dedicated the poem¨Elegia para Cantar¨ to her. Parra´s popularity grew and she was invited to Poland to participate in an international festival, prompting her to move to Paris to perform in nightclubs. Over the years, Parra lived, traveled and worked in various places, and in 1962 she started a relationship with a flautist from Belgium called Gilbert Favre. In 1965 she returned to live in Chile, set up her own peña (community center for the arts and political activism) in La Reina and suffered through the demise of her relationship with Favre, who moved to Bolivia, prompting the song Run Run Se Fue Pal Norte.

Her most famous song, Gracias a la Vida, was written after her relationship with Favre ended. It was released on her final album, Las Últimas Composiciones (1966), and is considered by many to be a suicide note.  Violeta Parra shot herself in the head in 1967, leaving behind an extensive legacy of not only artwork but art work too, as you can see in the Museo Violeta Parra.

Victor Jara (1932-1973)

Victor Jara was born in Lonquen to a poor family and worked from a young age. He was raised by his mother, who was a self-taught singer, guitar and piano player, after his father left to find work and never returned.  She died when Jara was 15 at which time he began to study accounting and later to become a priest before leaving to enter the military.  After a few years, he began to study theatre which led him to meet Violeta Parra, who inspired him to explore Chilean folk music with the group Cuncumen.  His first album was released in 1966, Canto a lo humano, and by 1970 he was working full-time as a musician.

After visiting Cuba and the Soviet Union in the 1960´s, Jara joined the Communist Party of Chile and began using his music to address the political situation of the time.  He backed Salvador Allende, organized cultural events in support of the Socialist government, and later became a teacher at what is now called the Universidad de Santiago.

On September 11 1973, Allende died during the coup d´etat led by Augusto Pinochet, and Jara sought refuge in the university. The next day he was taken prisoner alongside thousands of other people who were believed to be involved with the left, and held in National Stadium.  Victor Jara was tortured, had his hands broken and told to play the guitar and then shot in the head, his body struck by over 40 bullets.  His body was placed at the entrance to the stadium beside others who had been murdered; civil servants found him and alerted his wife Joan who held a brief secret burial before fleeing the country.  His murderers were eventually charged, some 42 years later.

Jorge Gonzalez (1964 – )

Jorge Gonzalez was the lead vocalist, bassist and song writer of the Chilean band, Los Prisoneros.  The band formed in 1979 in the Santiago suburb of San Miguel, and today are considered as one of Chile´s most influential musical exports in Latin America. The band formed while still in high school and were signed to EMI Records in 1985, and mixed a variety of styles to form New Chilean Pop, a marked difference from the earlier folk-inspired music that was popular. Their songs were controversial to say the least, and criticized everything from societal attitudes (as you can see in the link below) to politics.

The band has broken up and reformed various times; in 1989 band member Claudia Narea found love letters from Gonzalez (who was married) to his wife, and not long after Gonzalez attempted to commit suicide. The band (going through multiple member changes) definitively broke up in 2006, and Gonzalez has rejected and received various offers at a solo career, and formed the now-disbanded Los Updates with his wife in 2006.

More Information

Visit the Museo Violeta Parra to see a collection of her works, including the original manuscript of Gracias a la Vida.

Violeta Para´s former guitar and manuscript

Visit the Museo de la Memoria to learn more about Chile´s dictatorship.

Visit the Museo a Cielo Abierto, which Jorge Gonzalez was involved in and which includes a mural of Los Prisoneros.


If you liked this, have a look at:

20 Things You Didn´t Know About Chile

Chile in Photos

An Introduction to Musica Latina

Paranormal Chile Top 7

10 Common Misconceptions About Chile

The People of Tierra del Fuego


Autumn Giveaway!!

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