To Be Seventeen Again (Volver a los diecisiete)

Music piece by:
Violeta Parra
Testimony by:
Gabriela Durand

I was 18, and already I had been tortured on the parrillaMetal frame bed used to torture prisoners with electricity. several times. One day I was with some other comrade prisoners, and as sometimes happened, the guards put some music on.

The guys 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' ('To Be Seventeen Again') 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, 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 I 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 UnityCoalition of leftist political parties formed in 1969, which supported the campaign and presidency of Salvador Allende (1970-1973).. 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, sprouts up
like tiny moss on the stone
like tiny moss on the stone
oh yes, yes, 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.


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.


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.


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.