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November 2005

The Parra family:
Earth's aristocracy

It was the support among brothers and sisters what helped this exceptional family to develop its unique talents.

By Marisol García

One can follow the trace of the Parras just by the “decimas” (verses) that –here and there- they wrote for a while to describe themselves. Or, maybe, by the songs of Angel, Isabel, Roberto or Violeta. The latter, the most famous of the whole clan, was a rather discrete woman when talking about family matters, and rarely did she made public mentions about her brothers or children. Nevertheless, her book <i>Decimas</i> (which was published posthumously, in 1970) is full of references about her parents, Clarisa and Nicanor, and the memories of her childhood with her eight siblings, in the southern town of Lautaro. 

Most of the complicity between the Parra Sandoval siblings can be explained because of the deep poverty in which they had to grow up. Violeta, Hilda, Roberto and Eduardo, for instance, used to wander the streets from a very early age, in order to make some money singing and playing the guitar (the two boys would later discover that they could also work in the circuses that came to town, which was such a funnier job for them). Their father died in 1929, and since then the children became the partial maintainers of Clarisa, a very humble peasant. 

“There was nothing for clothes nor shoes, even less for a toy. In Christmas Eve, their mother would put them to bed earlier, so they wouldn´t be aware of the celebrations outside. Sometimes, even the food was scarce”, is part of what Fernando Saez wrote in Violeta Parra’s biography <i>La vida intranquila</i> (The unquiet life, 1999). Roberto confirmed this one time: “Our childhood was really harsh. Very little happiness”.

One could say that this was a time of great sacrifice for Violeta. But it is also true that the future artist found in street-singing a great excuse for skipping classes (“let`s not even talk about school / I hated it with all my force / And I started loving the guitar / and there, when I hear a ball / I go and learn a song”, she wrote in some of her autobiographical “decimas”). When she turned 15, her brother Nicanor invited her to move to Santiago. There she tried to finish her studies but also discovered that singing could be a very good way of making a living in the big city. So she began to sing in public places, first in a duo formed with her sister Hilda (they both presented themselves as Las Hermanas Parra). In 1935, her mother and brothers arrived to Santiago, and they settled together at an area known as Quinta Normal. 

There are endless stories about the Parra siblings in Santiago. Roberto and Eduardo created their own slang by which to protect themselves from the Police. At the same time, Nicanor was becoming a very well-respected professor, first at the Universidad de Chile and later... even at Oxford University. But the world of Roberto and Lalo had more to do with tenements, whorehouses and alleys. It was because of this recklessness that Roberto came to know the surroundings that would later inspire him to write his best play, La Negra Ester.

There are many surprising characteristics about the way in which the Parras treated each other. They were very loyal among them, and never ceased in supporting their creative talents. It was Nicanor the one to encourage Violeta to forget about traditional folk music and try composing her own songs. At the same time, Violeta was hiding wine bottles from Roberto, so his brother could finally get to make a record that could prove his huge talent in the composition of “cuecas”. If it had not been for her, those studio sessions would have probably ended in drinking parties, and we would have never known songs such as "El chute Alberto" or "El arrepentido".

The lives of the Parras are all connected, and their creative work explains not just them individually but also the unique clan of which they were a part of. Their biographies are full of contradictions: uprooted from a practical point of view –none of them, besides Nicanor, ever got to learn about what it was to have a “settled life”—, but, at the same time, very much connected to their origins. Not the city nor the fame, in the case of Nicanor; not Europe nor love disappointments, in the case of Violeta; not drinks nor the lack of praise, in the case of Roberto ever made them get away from their essential rural expression. 

If their enormous work has reached us somehow, it has been, also, because of the effort of their descendants. Isabel and Angel, Violeta’s kids, made a lot to promote their uncles’ music once they started with their restaurant “Peña de los Parra”, in Santiago. Angel Parra Jr., former guitar player for the popular rock band Los Tres, built a bridge between his family and the curiosity of people like (singer-songwriter) Alvaro Henriquez. In the same way, Javiera Parra has been vital in making us understand that her family is not just about rural culture, but also about an Art with no prejudices and a wide scope of references. According to this pop singer, “my father’s side of the family represents the aristocracy of the earth; not of wealth”. 

If we add the also talented songwriter Tita, the daughter of Isabel, we definitely confirm that almost all the Parras have recorded songs from one another at some point. Today, Colombina is silent, working on a degree on Architecture, but who knows what creative twist will bring Nicanor’s daughter back, as she did when she started playing on the loud rock band Ex.

And who knows what new arguments we will have to convince ourselves that there has been no Chilean family such as them.


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