Gracias a la Vida
By Clarissa Fragoso Pinheiro
LaGuitarra, 1935, oil on board, by Joaquín Torres-García
They lived near a country town like any other, about sixty miles away from São Paulo. It was a quiet place with a church at the center, surrounded by colorful buildings. Depending on the season, the dirt road leading to their house was either so muddy that our car got stuck or so dry that I could taste a layer of dust coating the inside of my mouth, even with the windows shut. The wooden gate, which opened to a green lawn flanked by flowers and their one-story house, appeared dreamlike, tucked away at the end of an unnamed street.
There, my grandparents led a simple life, growing vegetables and fruits and raising chickens at home. My grandmother, a sturdy woman with expressive and cheerful eyes, tended to their house, hanging clothes on the line outside, potting flowers, and cooking on her wood stove. Her strong arms worked at a consistent pace, stirring sauce and kneading dough.
My grandfather, a short and honest man with a weathered face, spent most of the day toiling under the sun—pruning, watering, and weeding—tending to his fruit. He only stopped working in the afternoons, to briefly eat lunch and rest on his rocking chair, and in the evenings, when he went to a local bar to have a glass of Jurubeba, fruit-infused cachaça, and play pool with ranch hands before dinner.
There wasn’t much else around their house. There was one bakery, an extension of someone’s house; a second bar that doubled as a bodega; and a reservoir, which always seemed on the verge of drying up. Most days, when the two of them were alone at home, the morning silence stretched on for hours, interrupted only by the barking of dogs. But on weekends, when their children and grandchildren visited from the city, loud voices and music filled the house.
On Sundays, I would spend the day outside, playing with my brother and cousins, using bamboo sticks as posts for soccer goals, or in the kitchen, watching the women cook, always listening intently to their gossip.
Even after all these years, I can still taste my grandmother’s fig preserves or see my grandfather loading our car with boxes of fruit from his garden. I remember the tangy acidity of the oranges and the velvety sweetness of the lychees he grew. I also remember the music that played in the background, often folksongs from Latin America or música caipira—old country tunes about the lives of men like my grandfather. But most of all, I remember Mercedes Sosa singing “Gracias a la vida,” her deep voice beautiful and earthy like everything else from that period in our lives.
“Gracias a la vida” was one of my grandfather’s favorite songs, and it’s easy to understand why. The emotional ballad celebrates the simple pleasures of life. The chorus, translating to “thanks to life that has given me so much,” carries a nostalgic sentiment that is both tender and poetic. Yet, within its verses, hardship coexists with gratitude. She sings:
While the singer thanks life for her ability to walk through many places, she recognizes she walks with fatigued feet, having traversed cities and puddles, beaches and deserts, mountains and plains.
This bittersweet feeling, I think, is often felt in Latin America, particularly in the countryside. The campesino way of life—with its rich cultural traditions, close-knit communities, and strong connection to the land—is in constant threat of disappearing, and people’s lives are often marked by poverty and state neglect.
Growing up, I always associated the melody with the fragile beauty of rural life: the quiet days spent with my grandparents, away from the city. The place seemed to be a kind of miracle, thriving on that red clay that turned to dust in winter and mud under summer rains.
It was much later in my life that I learned about its original composer, Violeta Parra, and the sad story behind the song. “Gracias a la vida” was one of her final compositions, a culmination of her life’s work that foreshadowed her demise.
Violeta Parra is one of Chile’s most important artists, but she had a difficult life, marked by personal tragedies. The anthology Violeta Parra: Life and Work, edited by researcher Lorna Dillon, is one of the few books in English that considers the breadth of her work. In one essay, scholar Catherine Boyle writes: Parra lived “between fame and invisibility, a space between great success and deep failure and hardship.” While she was an extremely successful and internationally recognized artist, Parra remained stubbornly committed to the dying folkloric art of Chile. It is precisely this duality that isolated her throughout her life.
Born in 1917 in a small town in the Ñuble province, Parra grew up in a large and artistic household influenced by both urban and rural culture. Her father was a music teacher who played country ballads and popular urban songs. Her mother, a seamstress from a peasant family, carried folk traditions with her, which she channeled into her own music and poetry. Both parents supported their children’s creativity, encouraging theatrical play at home. Parra’s father even organized family shows, where she sang peasant songs, particularly those by the Aguilera sisters, a little-known duo from her region that, with her mother, sparked her interest in folk culture. As she recounted later in her autobiography written in verse, Décimas, as translated by Christina Azahar:
Photo of Violeta Parra © GDA/AP Images
Yet, for much of her life, Parra suppressed this deep-rooted connection. Her musical career was born out of necessity, in 1929, when she began performing in public with her siblings to sustain the family after her father contracted tuberculosis and died. Her family’s crisis coincided with the arrival of the Great Depression in Chile and a collapse of nitrate and copper exports. The country faced major unemployment and homelessness. Like many Chileans, the siblings struggled to survive. They toured small towns, playing a mixture of popular music genres—tangos, corridos, guarachas, and boleros—whatever made them money.
When she was about fifteen years old, Parra relocated to Santiago, where she performed with her sister, Hilda Parra, in working-class bars and eateries. The sisters achieved some success. They performed on radio stations and even recorded albums featuring Violeta’s original compositions of popular music, but she had yet to find her authentic voice as a musician. By her mid-thirties, much had changed in her personal life: Violeta had married twice and birthed four children.
Santiago exposed Parra to a truly urbanized society, much different from the one where she grew up. After the Great Depression, Chile underwent a period of rapid urbanization as desperate workers relocated to urban centers looking for work. The influx from rural areas to Santiago transformed it into the bustling and messy metropolis that it is today, but it also triggered changes in traditional ways of life. Influenced by Western ideas, many Chileans began regarding the country’s rural character as something antiquated, to be overcome. As a result, Chilean folk culture was slowly disappearing.
In 1952, Parra’s brother, Nicanor Parra, now considered one of Chile’s most renowned poets, encouraged Violeta to document this issue. So she began traveling through rural areas with her notebook, guitar, and tape recorder to study and collect samples of Chilean folk culture. She interviewed hundreds of elders and recorded thousands of tales, riddles, and folksongs—including tonadas, cuecas, sirillas, and periconas. The result was one of the most comprehensive studies of Chilean folk culture to date, which she published in the book Cantos Folklóricos Chilenos.
To Parra, the project was deeply personal. It evoked memories of her childhood, reconnecting her to her past. She began to see her subjects as mentors, if not close friends. In another essay in the anthology, scholar Paula Miranda writes: “Violeta discovered in these male and female singers not only texts, but above all ways of speaking, being, thinking, establishing oneself as an autonomous subject, and more than anything, singing.” The project also opened her eyes to the poor conditions of Chilean campesinos—the extent of their poverty, health issues, and illiteracy. From then on, engaging with and preserving their traditional culture became Parra’s life mission.
As a musician, she began reworking folksongs, such as “Casamiento de negros” and “Que pena siente el alma,” or creating her own contemporary brand of folk music that was deeply political, addressing social issues and the struggles of campesinos.
Back in Santiago, through her brother, she also became involved in the Chilean urban art scene. One of the earliest performances of her new songs was, in fact, at Pablo Neruda’s forty-ninth birthday in 1953. Intellectuals and leftists were drawn to her. Her strong personality, disheveled clothes, long messy hair, and face marked by scars left a lasting impression. But her untrained voice, which was raw, dramatic, and melancholic—sad and beautiful at the same time—was unlike anything they had ever heard.
Her career began to take off. She started hosting the radio show Así Canta Violeta Parra, where she interviewed folksingers and played their music. In 1954, she received her first national award, the Premio Caupolicán, as folklorist of the year.
But in the summer of 1955, something more personal changed the course of Parra’s life. She was invited to participate in the Warsaw International Youth Festival, her first time in Europe. But, shortly after she arrived in Poland, her youngest daughter, Rosita Clara, died of pneumonia in Chile. Devastated, Parra didn’t see the point in returning home. She left her husband and other children behind and remained in Europe for nearly two years, where she dedicated herself entirely to her music, but she never quite recovered from the loss.
When my grandfather fell ill, first from a stroke, then from cancer, my grandparents relocated to a bigger city to be closer to hospitals. They rented a one-story house with my aunt, a cream-colored house with a concrete yard, and hired a caretaker to tend to their home until they returned.
The cancer treatment left my grandfather horribly frail, and his emphysema, a consequence of many years of smoking, further complicated his recovery. He struggled to complete small tasks. Showering became a laborious activity that he could only manage with the help of my grandmother, who bathed him as he sat on a shower chair.
The only positive change came a week before his eighty-second birthday, when my grandfather suddenly felt better and was able to visit his home for the first time in many months.
They left on a Wednesday. This time, my grandfather wanted to stop in the town before taking the dirt road that led to their home, so my aunt drove past the main square and the church. While she went to a shop with my grandmother, my grandfather went to his barber for a shave and haircut. Back at home, my grandfather, who could barely stand up just a few days before, walked around the veranda and played with the dogs. After dinner, he watched his soccer team win a game, and then he went to sleep next to my grandmother.
But my grandfather woke up in the middle of the night struggling to breathe. With my grandmother’s help, he walked to the living room and settled in his rocking chair. He took his final breath at dawn, keeping his promise to only leave his house in a coffin.
In 1960, Violeta Parra met the great love of her life, the Swiss anthropologist and musician Gilbert Favre. At the time, Violeta was a rare creative force. She made paintings, ceramics, sculptures, and large arpilleras, textile works inspired by pre-Columbian art. In 1964, she became the first Latin American artist to be exhibited individually at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs at the Louvre.
But the task of protecting her country’s art didn’t come easily for Parra. In a letter she wrote to Favre a year after they met, one can get a glimpse into her deteriorating state of mind. “I feel this anger at everything, and I work very little. All joy is gone, gone to the desert. This wooden house is crying. This guitar has no feeling,” she wrote. “I have been dead years and years. Enslaved to my work and my country.”
At the height of her career, Parra decided to pursue her most ambitious project. In 1965, she opened La Carpa de la Reina (The Tent in La Reina), a cultural center in the foothills of the Andes for folkloric arts, where she hoped to establish the National University of Folklore. The project was the embodiment of the world she had always dreamed of—a communal place where people continued to disseminate Chilean history and culture.
Parra gave it everything she had. But to her disappointment, the center was never full. The location was too inconvenient for most of her friends, who had to travel from the city by car. Locals treated it with indifference, believing it attracted too many rich city people. The weak structure of la carpa itself made it difficult to sustain long term: the ceiling, made of canvas, leaked whenever it rained.
Parra felt extremely isolated. At the same time, her relationship with Favre began deteriorating. She became deeply depressed, resenting her family and friends for not supporting her at the center, unable to let go of Favre. She began taking pills to sleep and spending days in bed. When Favre left for Bolivia, she decided to go to La Paz, looking for him.
It was there that Parra began writing some of the songs of her last album, Las últimas composiciones, her most carefully crafted work, considered by most critics her masterpiece. “Gracias a la vida” was the album’s opening song. Three months after it came out, on February 5, 1967, Violeta Parra took her own life inside La Carpa de la Reina. She was forty-nine years old.
It’s difficult to reconcile the song with the reality of Parra’s suicide, and it’s almost impossible to not read between the lines, looking for answers. As the title suggests, the song is an ode to life. With its verses, Parra thanks life for its many blessings: her eyes that allow her to see starry nights; her ears with which she hears the sounds of crickets, canaries, and rain; her tired legs; and her heart that was still beating. Even amidst these expressions of gratitude, the song is melancholic and evokes sadness.
Its composition and melody are simple. The repetitive strum of her charango, accompanied by a gentle guitar, serves as the backdrop for the entire song, allowing Parra’s voice to take center stage. But unlike many of her other songs, she doesn’t explore her full vocal range. Her voice remains flat, then slowly begins to soften, almost to the point of fading away. Then, in its last stanza, she breaks the fourth wall, addressing her listeners. Her subjectivity turns to a general “you.” She sings:
Here, Parra acknowledges the opposing forces that inspire her music—the joy and pain that connect her to her listeners. Even if the song wasn’t written as her final goodbye, it is the culmination of her talents: her poetic songwriting, her evocative voice, and, most importantly, her ability to articulate the nuances of life.
Parra didn’t live to witness the profound impact her songs would have on social movements in Latin America, particularly the Nueva Canción, a movement of politically engaged music inspired by folk traditions. She also never lived through the military dictatorships that swept across the region. She died before Augusto Pinochet took power in Chile and banned many of her songs, including “Gracias a la vida.”
But in 1967, as Parra died in La Reina, Mercedes Sosa’s career began to take off in Argentina. Considered “the voice of Latin America,” the Argentinian singer transcended geographic divisions and united the region behind her voice. At a time when political repression threatened the continent, it was Sosa who resisted by singing Violeta Parra’s songs, particularly “Gracias a la vida.” Sosa approached the song with gravitas. She gave it the clarity and the dramatic interpretation that it deserved and that allowed it to reach my grandparents’ radio in the interior of Brazil.
Shortly after my grandfather’s funeral, my grandmother moved in with my aunt in São Paulo. But in a matter of months she suffered two strokes that left half of her body paralyzed. She was bedridden for weeks and never regained the ability to walk on her own.
I believe that, deep down, my grandmother expected her death would come shortly after my grandfather’s, so when her body began to recover and death didn’t come for her, she didn’t know how to go on living without him. She developed a sad and distant expression like she was lost somewhere inside her mind. She preferred napping to being awake. She told me that in her dreams she saw my grandfather at their house.
The truth is that nobody in our family could make sense of the growing distance between the past and the present. We mourned the loss of a person we loved but also a place and time—a way of life we knew would never return. Violeta Parra mourned this loss through her art and by attempting to preserve folk culture. My family coped through nostalgia. We held on to relics—pictures, books, and songs.
A few years after my grandmother’s stroke, we spent New Year’s at the beach. The summer was unusually hot, so most of us swam and drank beers during the day. At night, we went into town to eat, and then we gathered in the backyard to play guitar and sing.
For my grandmother, it had been a challenging year with little improvement. Most of the time, she felt tired and wanted to rest, but on New Year’s Eve, while lying in bed, she requested “Gracias a la vida.” So we gathered around her and sang together. Thanking life that has given us so much. Thanking our ears for recording the sounds of crickets and canaries, our tired feet that allowed us to traverse cities and puddles, and the house, the house and the backyard, and our beating hearts. My grandmother sang softly, crying. Then my uncle began to cry.
Singing “Gracias a la vida” as a family was an opportunity for us to honor my grandfather’s legacy, to grieve collectively, but in a way, it also felt like looking life in the eyes, in all its complexity, beauty, and cruelty.
My grandparents’ house was sold. I visited it for the last time in 2021 with my partner, parents, uncle, and aunt. We improvised a barbecue and set up a table by the starfruit tree, where we ate, gossiping about the family as we usually did. After lunch we walked around the garden, picking fruit. Most of the trees had dried out, but there were still wildflowers, some limes and oranges, and a lot of avocados. My mom and aunt picked limes while my uncle climbed the avocado tree, tossing the ripe ones down to us.
When it was time to leave, my uncle scooped up some dirt and placed it in a bag. That’s what he tossed on my grandmother’s casket when she died shortly after, a handful of earth from the place she loved.
After we loaded the car with fruit one final time, we closed the wooden gate behind us. As we drove away in silence, leaving behind my grandfather’s garden and my grandmother’s wood stove, dogs chased after us, barking. As we reached the end of their street, we noticed something unfamiliar behind the cloud of dust. A new sign displayed the street name for the first time, Rua Lourenço Gonçalves, named after a person we didn’t know. Last I heard, the city had begun paving the road.
Listen to “Gracias a la vida,” a playlist by Clarissa Fragoso Pinheiro, while you read.