Walk into La Casa en El Aire, a brightly painted cottage-like coffeehouse in Santiago’s dynamic Bellavista neighbourhood, and you’ll know what Chile’s most famous poet, Pablo Neruda, meant when he said, “I drink to the word, raising / a word or crystalline cup”. La Casa en El Aire is one of many charming Chilean cafes where the poetry and music of yesteryear is alive and well.
From the protest songs of Victor Jara to the emotional
sonnets of Gabriela Mistral, the written word is central to Chilean society.
The nation’s troubadours and scribes are also its heroes. Journey into Chile’s
literary and musical past by following in the footsteps of three of the
nation’s most well-known wordsmiths, and you will find a closer connection to
the country’s present.
Begin your trip by touring one of Pablo Neruda’s three
homes, now open as museums. In Santiago, Neruda designed La
Chascona for himself and his mistress, Matilde Urratia, who
later became his third wife. In Valparaiso, Neruda (along with artists Marie
Martner and Francisco Velasco) bought and converted a mansion overlooking the
bay. They named it La
Sebastiana after its original architect, Sebastian Collao. Just
south of Valpo in El Quisco, Neruda’s most famous house, Isla
Negra, is also where he was buried, according to wishes he
expressed in his poem Disposiciones: “Friends, bury me in Isla Negra / facing the sea I know,
every rough area / of rocks and waves that my lost eyes / never see.”
All three houses are sights to be seen, as Neruda
filled his homes with eclectic assortments of art – from a portrait of Walt
Whitman in La Sebastiana, to a desk made from the door of a ship in Isla Negra,
to plates with eyes on them in all three.
Like many writers in Chile, Neruda was a political
leader and a dissident. A senator for the Communist Party in the 1940s, he was
forced into exile when communism was outlawed. After returning to Chile in
1952, he threw his support behind a new socialist candidate, Salvador Allende,
who eventually became the country’s first democratically elected socialist
president. On 11 September, 1973, Allende was overthrown by a US-backed coup
led by General Augusto Pinochet. The new military-led regime ransacked Neruda’s
homes of La Chascona and Isla Negra. According to the book Pablo
Neruda: A Passion for Life, as Pinochet’s troops searched Isla Negra, Neruda
implored, "Look around — there's only one thing
of danger for you here — poetry."
Just 12 days after the coup, Neruda died.
Although the poet’s estate has maintained that he died of prostate cancer, last
month Chile launched an investigation into Neruda’s death due to allegations
that he was poisoned
by Pinochet’s regime.
While the cause of Neruda’s death is up for debate,
the same cannot be said for that of Victor Jara. The protest singer and
political activist, famous for songs like the Right to Live in Peace,
was arrested, tortured and murdered in the National Stadium by military troops
after Pinochet took power in 1973, thus becoming a martyr for Chile. The
stadium where he was killed is now named the Victor
Jara Stadium in his honour.
Along with singer Violetta Parra, Jara led the nueva
canción (new song) movement in Chile. Their music offered intensely political
lyrics and folk melodies reflecting strong Andean influences.
To hear Jara’s moving protest songs, start in his home
of Santiago. La Casa
en El Aire often hosts musicians who harken back to the “new
song” era, and at Café
Tavelli, singers and spoken word artists take the stage.
Perhaps the best way to pay respects to Jara is by
visiting the Victor
Jara Foundation. Dedicated to remembering the singer and other human
rights activists who have fallen victim to government oppression, the
foundation houses a concert venue where young musicians and political activists
perform and meet to organize around social issues.
Next, head to enchanting Valparaiso, where the arts
scene is as colourful as the European-style buildings. Chilean music and poetry
can be heard in Café
Vinilo and Bar
About nine hours north of Valparaiso is Vicuña, the
birthplace of Gabriela Mistral, the first person in Latin America to win the
Nobel prize for literature. There, the Gabriela Mistral Museum exhibits
treasures from the author’s literary life – completed and
unfinished manuscripts, letters, her desk and her own book collection that she
donated to start Vicuña’s first public library.
Southeast of Vicuña, travellers can visit Mistral’s
tomb in the town of Monte Grande, where she grew up. Nearby, the schoolhouse
where her family lived and her sister worked as a teacher has been turned into
a museum called La
Back in Santiago, celebrate Mistral’s dedication to
art and education at the free Galería
de Arte Gabriela Mistral. Then, head over to the Centro
Gabriela Mistral, which hosts theatre, music, dance and visual art shows.