Joan Jara obituary | Chile

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On 11 September 1973, the day of Augusto Pinochet’s coup in Chile, Joan Jara’s husband, Victor, a prominent musician and supporter of the socialist president, Salvador Allende, left their home in the capital Santiago to help defend the technical university where he worked. The university was surrounded by the military and police, and Victor was arrested and taken, with hundreds of others, to the Estadio Chile sports stadium. There he was tortured over several days, and his hands mutilated, before being shot more than 40 times.

The next time Joan saw him was in the city mortuary, where a worker recognised his body, came to see Joan and accompanied her to identify him. She organised a hasty burial, and Victor’s remains were placed in a niche in the main Santiago cemetery, to which brave people risked their lives to bring flowers throughout the dictatorship.

Anxious to avoid problems with their new friends in the military, the British embassy provided Joan with a safe conduct that enabled her to leave Chile with her two daughters on 15 October 1973.

In Britain during the late 1970s and early 80s, Joan, who has died aged 96, worked hard to rescue recordings of her husband’s music (much of which was smuggled out of Pinochet’s Chile thanks to the Swedish embassy) and to promote solidarity with the people of Chile.

She helped to organise highly successful solidarity concerts at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Royal Festival Hall and the London Roundhouse, and other large venues around the UK. She was commissioned to write her story, which was published in 1984 as Victor, An Unfinished Song.

She was born Joan Alison Turner Roberts in London. Her father was an antiques dealer. Her mother had worked as a volunteer secretary for the Labour MP Fenner Brockway. In July 1944 Joan saw a performance in London by the Ballet Jooss, a modern dance company led by Kurt Jooss, who encouraged her to take up dancing professionally.

From 1947 she studied with his associate Sigurd Leeder, and performed with their company, including in a staging of The King and I with Yul Brunner.

Dancing with the Jooss company in Germany, in 1951 she met the Chilean dancer Patricio Bunster, who two years later became her first husband. In July 1954 the couple sailed for Chile, where they joined the Santiago Ballet Company and created the Ballet Popular, which took modern dance to deprived urban and rural areas of Chile.

Joan and Patricio separated in 1960, shortly before their daughter, Manuela, was born. In that same year she met Victor Jara, then an experimental theatre director in the Chilean capital, with whom she had a daughter, Amanda, in 1964.

The two of them worked together as he became a leading member of what was known as the Chilean New Song (Nueva Canción) movement, which brought simple, unsanitised folk music to huge audiences, inspired by the work of the singer Violeta Parra and other young musicians.

Joan and Victor’s house became a centre where musicians would gather, try out new songs, cook feasts on the barbecue and experiment with indigenous instruments. “We organised processions around the garden,” Joan said, “weaving in and out of the trees, and eventually out on to the street with dogs barking and the children dancing around in joy.”

The New Song movement became a much more politically conscious phenomenon, determined to reach out to and tell the stories of Chile’s working-class, miners and peasants. Joan and Victor were enthusiastic supporters of Allende during his electoral campaign in 1969, and participated actively in the efforts to spread culture to all levels of Chilean society during his government from 1970 to 1973.

The coup against Allende and her husband’s death completely changed Joan’s life. As she explained in an interview: “I took on my husband’s surname and felt I had a mission to perpetuate the memory of Victor and the meaning of his work and his values.”

In 1984, even though Pinochet was still in power – and would remain so for a further six years – Joan decided to return to Chile with her daughters. She established the Victor Jara foundation, to preserve her husband’s memory, and also founded the Espiral modern dance school in a poor neighbourhood of Santiago, where young people could study and perform.

Following Pinochet’s arrest in London in 1998, Joan called for the investigation into her husband’s death to be re-opened. In 2009 the government awarded Joan Chilean nationality; and in the same year she was able to hold a funeral for her husband. She continued to campaign for justice for her husband and others murdered by the military during the coup, pressing for those responsible to be identified and brought to trial.

A group of former military officers were sentenced to 15 years in prison in Chile, and another of the alleged perpetrators, Lieutenant Pedro Barrientos, was tracked down to Florida in the US, where he had claimed citizenship through marriage.

In 2016 Joan brought a civil action against him; the jury found Barrientos liable for Victor’s death, and he was ordered to pay the family $28m in compensation. He is due to be extradited to Chile to face criminal proceedings.

Joan is survived by her daughters.

Joan Jara, dancer and campaigner, born 20 July 1927; died 12 November 2023

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