Magazine article Monthly Review

Singing for Women's Lives in Chile

Magazine article Monthly Review

Singing for Women's Lives in Chile

Article excerpt

Elizabeth Vilma Uribe and her husband, Alan Velasquez, were known to their neighbors in Coronel, in the heart of Chile's former coal mining region, as a "very nice, very friendly couple." They were shocked on November 16, 2016, when Uribe, a schoolteacher and mother of two, was choked and stabbed to death by her husband of thirty years. The next day would have been her fifty-fifth birthday.

Under the country's military dictatorship (1973-1990), thousands of political prisoners, but especially women, were subjected to sexual violence and torture. In today's Chile, the murder of women by a spouse or boyfriend has become so common that the press routinely categorizes such killings as "femicide."1 Elizabeth Uribe's death was the fiftieth femicide in Chile in 2016.

As the news of her untimely, vicious death resounded in the Chilean media, three hundred kilometers to the north, a group of a dozen women came together at an idyllic setting in the Cajon del Maipu canyon, near the capital city of Santiago. Along with their bags, several carried guitars and percussion instruments into a sprawling two-story wooden house, the Tremonhue Spirituality and Integral Health Center, in the shadow of the gritty mountains towering above the river. The twelve women were songwriters and musicians convened by the iconic singer, feminist, and peace activist Holly Near, in collaboration with the Popular Education for Health foundation (EPES) of Santiago, for a weekend workshop to channel the power of song against violence to women.

For more than forty years, Near's music has decried violence in armed conflicts around the globe. Her voice has also rallied thousands against sexual assault during the Take Back the Night campaigns that began in the 1970s and resumed with force in the early 2000s. Near's song "Hay una mujer desaparecida" (There's a woman missing) helped ignite international condemnation of the dictatorship's forced disappearances and systematic human rights violations.

EPES was founded in 1982, at the height of the Pinochet dictatorship, to help working-class women organize for better living conditions and health care. In its more than thirty years, EPES has developed innovative participatory programs that have helped shape public health policy on issues such as HIV/AIDS prevention and violence against women, framing these as both public health and human rights concerns. Art, in the form of murals and music, is a vital element of EPES's popular education strategy.

Near and EPES have been partners more than a decade. EPES organized Near's first visit to Chile, and the singer has taken part in fundraising events in the United States to help support the organization's work. The latest fruit of their creative collaboration, last year's workshop invited participants to think of themselves as feminist artists, and promised to create an intimate space conducive to musical composition. Claudia Stern, a longtime songwriting instructor with two original albums to her name, imagined the workshop would address technical aspects of composition. What she discovered over the weekend was instead "a completely different way of approaching musical composition."

Thematic considerations-a sobering EPES presentation about violence against women and Near's reflections on effective political uses of songwere the workshop's major focus. Near likened the songwriting process to the movement of a camera, with a close-up and then a long shot: "One can start with the personal and pull back to the global, or have a long shot and then zoom in to the personal," she advised. …

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