Following the brutal murder of her husband Victor, Joan Jara, who passed away aged 96 on 12 November, dedicated her life to fighting for justice and human rights.

I first met Joan in 1974 at the house of Connie Seifert in Highgate, north London, when they were hosting a reception for the famous Chilean folk band Inti-Illimani.

Joan had recently come back to her home country with her two small children after her terrible ordeal of finding her husband’s tortured and brutalised body in a morgue, days after the horrific September 1973 military coup which killed the country’s constitutional president Salvador Allende and many thousands of his government’s supporters.

She was traumatised, desperately sad and putting a brave face on facing the future without Victor. Victor Jara was the most well-loved, committed, courageous, immensely popular singer/songwriter Chile has ever known. Joan and I had both returned to Britain after having lived in Chile for years; our compañeros were famous or well-known supporters of the Popular Unity government who had both suffered the terror of military raids on our homes and detention of our loved ones. Our meeting that evening in Highgate was the beginning of our long friendship.

I had been lucky. My compañero Ricardo was alive, after months of detention on Quiriquina Island and local prison.

But in Joan’s case, Victor had been assassinated in the Estadio Chile (Chile Stadium). On the eve of his imminent death, he penned a poem for the world to witness the horrors that he and the thousands of other prisoners detained there were suffering in the stadium.

Despite her sadness and the difficulties of adapting to life in London with her two daughters, Manuela and Amanda, Joan threw herself into solidarity work, campaigning to free the thousands of prisoners being held without trial by the criminal Pinochet regime. She tirelessly travelled the world denouncing the Junta and campaigning for the disappeared and for human rights.

Joan, a classically trained dancer, had worked in dance and performance in Chile for many years before the coup. That was her profession and her vocation. She was not a writer, yet she agreed to write her story – and I can remember her confessing to me how difficult she was finding writing the book. An Unfinished Song is a well-written and moving account of her life before and after going to live in Chile, and the personal tragedy of the coup which murdered Victor Jara. Later, Ricardo and I collaborated with Joan on translation of some of Victor’s unpublished songs for a Danish publisher.

Until the coup, Joan had always felt very much at home in Chile – Victor’s home country. So in 1984, she decided to return to Chile, setting up a school for modern dance, Espiral (Spiral), which is still going strong today, run by her daughter Manuela. She subsequently created the Victor Jara Foundation, which her daughter Amanda helps to run. The last time Ricardo and I met up with Joan was in 2016. An interesting conversationalist at her 89 years, she was straight-backed and still walked with a dancer’s poise.

After the end of dictatorship in 1990 she was recognised by the Chilean government and was the recipient of several honours and prizes. She was loved and respected by the people of Chile, who admired her courage, dignity and loyalty to the unwavering ideals of her Communist husband, Victor Jara.

And, her greatest satisfaction – even more than that she no doubt felt in recent years at the fact that most of Victor’s killers are now in jail – will have been to see Victor’s name and image held aloft by demonstrators in the massive October 2019 protests along the length and breadth of Chile, and to hear his iconic song ‘El Derecho de Vivir en Paz’ (The right to live in Peace) sung by thousands and thousands of people, young and old. Joan – dancer, performer, activist, reluctant writer and public speaker – was certainly a worthy compañera to the valiant Victor Jara, whose name and song will live forever.

This article was first published by The Morning Star and edited for style. 

Kate Clark is a journalist and author of Chile in My Heart (2013) and Twilight of the Soviet Union (2023).