To Be Seventeen Again (Volver a los diecisiete)

Author:
Violeta Parra
Testimony by:
Gabriela Durand

I was 18, and already I had been tortured on the rack several times. One day I was with some other comrade prisoners, and as sometimes happened, the guards put some music on. They used to put the radio on, playing popular tunes of the time. For us young people, the songs were a bit corny, but still we enjoyed them; they were a relief. We always kept absolute silence.

Sometimes a guard would come and turn on the radio, they’d talk, and you could listen to the music. If the news came on they’d flick to another station. When they came to see us some of them would turn the volume up high, while other guards would turn it down, it all depended on the particular guard. There was one who specialised in bugging you by turning the volume up high, then down, then up again, and he also sang. It made us laugh, but we also knew it was his way of showing his power over us.

I was sitting down, handcuffed, and at some point the song “Volver a los diecisiete” (Return to seventeen) came on; I don’t know if it was the radio or a record being played. A guard came up to me, pulled me up and said: "Look, girl, listen to this song, it’s yours, you revolutionaries; let’s see, sing it!" I told him I couldn’t sing and he said "Yes you can - sing to your comrades, they’re all feeling screwed."

I didn’t want to sing, I was embarrassed. I’d always been told that I couldn’t sing, that I was out of tune. I was standing up, feeling a mix of fear and shame, but totally intimidated. I peered under my blindfold and I recognised Carlos, a comrade who had just been brought to the camp. All I could see were his feet, his hands and the end of his jacket's sleeve. That’s when I started to sing. It was as if I just surrendered to the music, feeling, at the same time, rage that they were making me do that. It was humiliating but it was also comforting. That was my take on that situation, and I sang.

I thought of Carlos and the other comrades who were being kept there, whose feet were the only thing I could see. I told myself that was singing it for him, and that I would forget everything that was going on. With that mixture of fear, of wondering what would happen if you didn’t sing, afraid of being out of tune, of how your voice was going to project, of not knowing if you were going to be told off, and of knowing that in any case they were laughing at you - the fear of ridicule. It was like  torture - an intense form of it.

And while I was singing they’d turn the volume down and then up again, as if playing a game. And when I finished the guard applauded saying "You sing well, girl." I knew it wasn’t true. Then he ordered me to sit down. "You sing badly, girl", "No, you sing well," pestering me all the time.

That was one of many humiliations. It was very short but the feelings were strong. When the memory comes back to the surface after I've forgotten it, I know that at some point I managed to make the song my own, that it came to save me, and a bond was created between the song and me, and what was happening. I was able to approach it in a different way, since they were making me sing it to humiliate me, to make me feel bad.

And the fact that they should choose precisely that song, 'To Be Seventeen Again' was like going back to the time of the Popular Unity government. They did it to traumatise you. But they didn't succeed that much, because when I sang I felt that tremor, that humiliation, but I also thought about him, Carlos, and suddenly I even managed to forget that I was singing because I had been ordered to; I even felt inspired for a moment.


Published on: 01 September 2015


To be seventeen again after a century of living
Is like deciphering signs without wisdom or competence,
to be all of a sudden as fragile as a second,
to once again feel so deeply like a child facing God,
that is what I feel in this fecund instant.

There it goes tangling, tangling like the ivy on the wall,
and so it sprouts up, and keeps sprouting,
like tiny moss on the stone, oh yes oh yes.

My steps going backwards while yours go forward,
the arch of alliances has got inside my nest,
with all of its wide palette it has ambled through my veins
and even the hard chains with which destiny binds us
are like a blessed day that brightens my calmed soul.

There it goes tangling, tangling like the ivy on the wall,
and so it sprouts up, and keeps sprouting,
like tiny moss on the stone., oh yes oh yes.

What feelings can grasp knowledge cannot understand,
not even the clearest behaviour not even the broadest thought,
the brimming, condescending moment changes everything
sweetly removes us away from rancour and from violence,
only love with its science makes us so innocent.

There it goes tangling, tangling like the ivy on the wall,
and so it sprouts up, and keeps sprouting,
like tiny moss on the stone, oh yes oh yes.

Love is a whirlwind of primeval purity,
even the fierce animal whispers its sweet trill,
it stops pilgrims, it liberates prisoners,
love with its solicitude turns the elderly into a child
as to the bad person, only affection makes him pure and sincere.

There it goes tangling, tangling like the ivy on the wall,
and so it sprouts up, and keeps sprouting,
like tiny moss on the stone, oh yes oh yes.

The window opened wide as if under a spell
love entered with its blanket like a warm morning,
and to the sound of its beautiful reveille prompted the jasmine to flower,
flying like a seraph put earrings on the sky
and the cherub turned my years into seventeen.

Entangling, entangling it moves, like the ivy on the wall,
and so it sprouts up, and keeps sprouting,
like tiny moss on the stone, oh yes oh yes.