Candombe for José (Candombe para José)

Music piece by:
Roberto Ternán
Testimony by:
Sara De Witt
Experience in:

We were in Tres Álamos barracks in September 1976. I don’t recall how many of us women were imprisoned there. I believe there were close to a hundred of us.

The radio announced that a number of people held at Tres Álamos would be released, but it did not reveal the names, increasing our anxiety.

Eventually, lists were distributed of the men and women who would be released. Of the women prisoners, once the names were published it became clear that just thirteen of us would remain in prison.

Most of the women were leaving, producing a great commotion as they gathered their belongings and prepared to enter a new stage in their lives.

Those of us who were to stay behind tried to help, which in my particular case was not very productive. We had mixed feelings: disbelief, sadness, and also joy for the friends who were leaving. But I also felt disappointed and frustrated, since I and twelve other women were staying behind in prison.

I thought of my mother’s pain when she would ask me once again: “What is it that you did, Sarita?" She never understood nor could she accept that in Chile people were being arrested, tortured and murdered for thinking differently.

The 13 of us who remained in prison put on the blue trousers and sweatshirts the Red Cross had brought us, courtesy of the USSR.

We stood in the barracks yard and began to sing in unison. We sang the “Ode to Joy” and another song of which I remember just one verse: “se va, se va, se va hacia la libertad” (going away, going away, going away towards freedom)The reference is to the song 'El barco de papel' by Julio Numhauser..

The departing comrades were moved to tears, but they had to go. We kept singing to accompany them with our voices as they regained their freedom.

It was a strong experience for the 13 of us who remained in the barracks, which now seemed so much larger and hushed. We began to tidy up the rooms and the yard, which looked as if a hurricane had swept through the place. The women who had gone left many things in their rooms.

I entered one of the rooms to gather up the things on the floor and straighten up the place. I found a notebook with the owner’s name on the cover, Guacolda; she had been very meticulous about compiling the words of our songs. I still have the notebook in my house in London, and even though its pages have turned yellow with age, you can still read the lyrics of our songs. That night, dressed in our blue tracksuits, after having a bite to eat, we began to sing again.

Some of us got up on the tables, looking up at the sky – bound by the rectangular shape of the barracks’ roof – as if to reach with our voices the stars, our loved ones, the men held at Tres Álamos, and our comrades, such as Gladys, who were isolated in what was known as the White House.

I still remember those intense moments when we sang so many songs. Gazing up at the sky, we sang 'Candombe para José'Song inspired by the candombe, a dance developed by African slaves in Uruguay., which we called 'El Negro José'. I understood that song as something new and different from the songs we usually sang. It seemed more contemporary to me and it made me feel in touch with my people outside the camp. The line 'en un pueblo olvidado no sé por qué' ('in a God-forsaken town, I don't know why') seemed connected with how I was feeling at that time.

I tried to raise my voice to the infinite space way beyond the edge of the barrack roof that reminded me of my limitations. Amelia put her arm around my shoulder. I did the same to Tuca and all of us embraced each other, singing from the tabletop. We were so close together, and a sense of sisterhood enveloped us. I was not alone; I was with those women who were my sisters. We had survived so much brutality and suffering. I sang with all my might on top of the table with those dear women: Amelia, Tuca, Anita, Anita María, Elena, Gabriela, Nieves, Cristina, Fidelia, Cecilia and another friend whose name I have forgotten.


Published on: 29 December 2014

In a God-forsaken town, I don't know why
His black dance makes him move
People in the town call him Negro José
My friend Negro José.

With much love Negro José dances candombe
The color of the night on his skin
He is very happy dancing candombe, lucky him
My friend Negro José.

Forgive me if I tell you, Negro José
You are a devil but also a friend, Negro José
Your future goes with mine, Negro José
I tell you because I know it.

All eyes are upon him when he dances
And the drumbeat of his eyes seems to speak
And his devilish shirt wants to leap out
My friend Negro José.

You don’t appear to have sorrows
But sorrows are plenty, Negro José
That you leave them behind when you dance, I surely know
My friend Negro José.

Forgive me if I tell you, Negro José
You are a devil but also a friend, Negro José
Your future goes with mine, Negro José
I tell you because I know it
My friend Negro José
I tell you because I know it
My friend Negro José.