Remembering Joan Jara – dancer, activist and heroine of Chile

The wife of murdered folk singer Víctor Jara kept her husband’s legacy alive and never gave up the fight for justice for Chile’s disappeared.

Proletarian writers

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Joan Turner was a British dancer who found herself unexpectedly catapulted into the limelight as wife of the most famous and totemic of the thousands of communists and leftists who were rounded up and slaughered by the US-backed Pinochet coup regime in 1971. Her tireless efforts in the quest for justice for the disappeared brought her renown in her own right, both in Chile and around the world.

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“If you tremble with indignation at every injustice, then you are a comrade of mine.”
– Che Guevara


Joan Alison Turner, wife of the legendary Chilean folk singer Víctor Jara, was born on 20 July 1927 in north London.

A dancer, choreographer, lecturer, political activist, and later head of the Jara Foundation, Joan came from a left-leaning social-democratic family and would later become internationally known as a vocal and indefatigable defender of human rights.

Born between two world wars and growing up in a north London in which bombings by the Nazi Luftwaffe were daily occurrences, Joan spend her childhood between school, home and bomb shelters. Her older brothers where recruited into the British army during the war, which left an indelible mark on them, and her own memories of the time were underscored by the drone of warplanes and the sound of falling missiles.

From early childhood, Joan had been inclined towards dance – a form of artistic expression that she went on to develop to a high level. Graduating from the Sigurd Leerder dance school in her early twenties, she travelled across Europe as a solo ballerina with the German Ballet Jooss, before arriving in Chile in the mid-1950s.

Joan performed in the Chilean National Ballet and in the Santiago Ballet Company alongside her Chilean dancer husband Patricio Bunster, with whom she had one child and founded the Ballet Popular, taking modern dance to deprived urban and rural areas of Chile. The Bunsters’ marriage did not last long, however, and the couple were divorced three years later, having separated before the birth of their only daughter.

Joan met folk singer and theatre director Víctor Jara at the University of Chile in 1961, just one year after her separation from Patricio. She was giving dance classes in the department where Víctor was pursuing his theatre studies. They had another daughter together, and set up a home that became known in artist circles for its musical get-togethers and revolutionary atmosphere.

On 16 September 1973, five days after a brutal CIA-inspired fascist coup, Víctor was murdered by the new military junta, rounded up with thousands of other leftists as a result of his long-term membership of the Communist Party of Chile, his vocal and active support for the Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende, and his renown as a revolutionary folk singer.

Tipped off regarding the location of her dead husband, Joan went with a friend to identify his body in a Santiago morgue, one of only a few relatives of the disappeared to ever find out what had happened to their loved ones and to accord them a decent burial.

Just days after Víctor’s funeral, Joan fled with her two daughters to her native England, where she remained until her return to Chile in 1985.

Two years before the family’s return to Santiago, Joan founded the Víctor Jara Foundation, dedicating it “to Víctor’s artistic legacy and the effort to recover collective memory so that new generations of Chileans can access and enjoy the artistic, social and political work that he contributed to his country”.

She fought tirelessly for her husband’s murderers to be brought to trial and for the truth to be revealed regarding all those who had been disappeared, tortured and murdered by the military fascist regime of General Augusto Pinochet.

While in exile in Britain, Joan played a crucial role in raising international awareness of the horrors that were unfolding in Chile under Pinochet’s bloody rule. In 2016, she was a key witness in a civil trial against former army officer Pedro Pablo Barrientos, who was found liable by the court for Víctor’s death.

On 1 December 2023, Barrientos was finally extraditied to Chile to face trial for kidnapping, torture and murder – half a century after committing his vile crimes in service of the US-backed junta. He touched down in Santiago just weeks after Joan’s death, following five decades of campaigning that had finally borne fruit. The US-based masterminds behind the Chilean criminals remain at large, of course.

A recipient of many art and dance awards in the country, Joan was naturalised as a Chilean by the government of Michelle Bachellet in 2009 in recognition of her contribution to the arts and her commitment to the rebuilding of democracy.

Joan died aged 96 on 12 November 2023 at her home in Santiago, surrounded by members of her close family. Three days later, thousands filed past her coffin in the Centro de Danza Espiral, including President Gabriel Boric and a host of prominent artists and politicians. The mourners left messages of gratitude and expressions of love for the artist and activist whose fight for truth and justice had become totemic for a people still struggling to come to terms with the events and significance of 1973.

Joan Jara leaves behind her two daughters, Manuela and Amanda. Her 1983 book documenting the life and times of her husband, Victor: An Unfinished Song, remains an enduring monument to them both.

Poem: Estadio Chile

There are five thousand of us here
in this small part of the city.
We are five thousand.
I wonder how many we are in all
in the cities and in the whole country?

How hard it is to sing
when I must sing of horror.
Horror which I am living,
horror which I am dying.
To see myself among so much
and so many moments of infinity
in which silence and screams
are the end of my song.
Víctor Jara

Joan Jara remembers

On video in 1974 (in English)

  1. Compañero Víctor Jara of Chile, pt1
  2. Compañero Víctor Jara of Chile, pt2
  3. Compañero Víctor Jara of Chile, pt3
  4. Compañero Víctor Jara of Chile, pt4

On video in 2021 (in Spanish)

  1. The grooves of memory: Joan Turner