Ericka Verba, associate professor of history at California State University, Dominguez Hills, has been awarded a Fellowship grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to undertake the writing of a biography of 20th century Chilean artist Violeta Parra, the culmination of decades Verba has dedicated to the study.
The project submitted to the NEH as “A Transnational Biography of Chilean Folklorist, Musician and Visual Artist, Violeta Parra (1917-1967),” earned Verba two potential awards from the organization. She was the only candidate to receive both grants this year. However, required to accept only one, she chose the NEH Fellowship grant over the NEH Award for Faculty. Under the rules of the Fellowship grant, Verba will take a leave from her teaching duties during the spring and fall 2013 semesters to focus on the book, which has yet to be given a working title.
The prestigious grant comes during a time when funding for the humanities has decreased and competition has increased. Fellowships grants were awarded to 79 applicants, or seven percent of the total 1,196 applicants. In December 2012 the NEH awarded grants totaling $17.5 million for 246 projects, including the category in which Verba was selected.
Although, the $50,400 grant is largest she has received, Verba pointed out that she has received support for her research since arriving on campus in 2004. “Dominguez Hills has been very generous with me,” she said, noting that she was one of the first recipients to be granted “seed money” by the Faculty Legacy Fund, which was established by university’s Emeritus Faculty Association in 2007, and was granted a sabbatical during the spring 2012 semester for preliminary work toward the project centered on Parra. She also received a research grant from the CSU Sally Casanova Memorial Research, Scholarship, Creative Activities Awards Program.
Interest in Parra began when the tenured professor was still a teen.
“It really dates back to my high school experience and really helped steer my course toward a B.A. in Latin American studies and an honors thesis as a senior on Violeta Parra’s poetry and life,” Verba said.
It all began when a family of Chilean refugees, fleeing from the Chilean coup d’état in 1973 and the subsequent military dictatorship, moved to Verba’s hometown of Brookline, Massachusetts where she became well acquainted with them.
While learning to play the guitar from members of the refugee family, Verba was introduced to songs composed by Parra, including her most famous song “Gracias a la Vida,” which has been performed by Placido Domingo, Joan Baez, and many other recording artists.
And so began Verba’s lifelong interest in Parra, which included graduate school and even a decade of touring as a musician.
“There are people like me all over the world; we call ourselves “Violeta-maniacs,” Verba said. “…she is a phenomenal artist. She’s a poet, she’s a lyricist, she plays guitar, she composed music … and she doesn’t read or write music, so she’s just really creative.”
Verba’s interest goes beyond fan adulation, however. She sees the importance of Parra in the context of larger issues.
“One of the exciting things about writing about one woman’s life is how she is so illustrative of an incredibly interesting contradictory moment in cultural history,” Verba noted. “You wouldn’t think that a woman born in rural Chile is going to open a window on cold war cultural politics, but in fact she does.”
And because the NEH is more interested in granting awards to projects that explore larger topics in the humanities, rather than studies of a single person, Verba said she was able to present Parra as an important case study spanning such historically significant cultural issues.
“Studying Parra’s life in detail can tell us about larger questions of the 20th century,” Verba asserted. “I think Violeta Parra has very much been presented as a romantic figure and my argument is—and what I think what convinced the NEH—is that she is actually a cosmopolitan figure. She presented herself as a sort of peasant woman, a campesina, but in fact she was very much a part of the cosmopolitan art world.”
One NEH panelist who reviewed Verba’s proposal, wrote, “This is an original, well-developed, well-informed, project that promises to offer a new biography… of one of the most significant, compelling, and influential Latin American artists of the 20th century. …I find particularly important the way this project aims to place Parra’s work and trajectory within contemporary manifestations and debates on modernism, folk culture, gender, and the relationship between art and politics in the mid-20th century across Europe and the Americas.”
Because Parra, who was influential while in Europe as well as Chile, recreated cultural traditions and was an unassuming person, Verba said, “She was able to break down a lot of barriers.” But, Parra, like many artists of her generation, was a communist sympathizer, and that brought controversy and suffering at the hands of the right-winged military regime that tried to suppress or destroy any influences she had on society.
Yet, her legacy endured after her suicide at 49 in 1967. She was the first Latin American—not Latin American woman—to have a solo exhibition at the Louvre museum in Paris, and a museum to house her work is being erected in Chile’s capital city Santiago at present.
Although there are countless items written on the artist who became a cult figure after her death, Verba, who has served as program chair of the Pacific Coast Council on Latin American Studies and written widely about Parra in articles and presentations that examine the broader cultural and political issues of Latin America during the 1950s and 1960s, will be among the first to publish a serious scholarly study about Parra’s life.
“My goal is for [the book on Parra] to be accessible to an undergraduate class in Latin American history, but would also be of interest to scholars, more advanced graduate students,” Verba said, adding, “I want it to be jargon free so a broad swath of people that are interested in it could read it.”
Verba, who has authored “Catholic Feminism and the Social Question in Chile, 1910-1917” (The Edwin Mellen Press, New York, 2003), hopes to have her upcoming book and accompanying interactive website focused on Parra published in time for the 100th anniversary of the multi-faceted artist’s birth in 2017.
“I feel so lucky right now. I would have felt lucky without an NEH grant, but now I get to do everything,” Verba added, “The wonderful thing about knowing that I get to do this project, is I feel very liberated that after this I can start something new.”