Spener combines social justice and music in Chile

In June, David Spener, chair of the sociology and anthropology department, was invited to give a concert with Jorge Venegas at the home of poet and Nobel Prize-winner Pablo Neruda while studying social justice movements and music in Chile. In a pairing of the àlvarez Seminar and the Lennox Seminar and Lecture Series, Trinity will host a semester-long series of events titled “Social Justice, Human Rights, and Song on the World Historical Stage: Chile Canta al Mundo (Chile Sings to the World).” Along with special lectures and recitals, the combined Lennox and àlvarez seminars will feature an exhibit of Neruda’s poetry with illustrations by the Mexican muralist David Siqueiros. Below is a Q&A with Spener.


Q: When did you become interested in social justice and music?

A: I started to combine social justice and music before I became a sociologist. I learned Spanish while living in Washington, D.C., in the 1980s and part of that experience involved playing music and singing with Chilean exiles who fled Chile because of the dictatorship. I had this long-abiding interest in song as an expression of a desire for social justice. In Chile, I attended lots of musical performances and talked with people about their experiences as singers, political activists and survivors of family members who had disappeared and how music fit into all of this. This kind of music is called “la nueva cancià³n chilena.”


Q: When did you first meet Venegas?   

A: Two years ago, when I was about to come home from Chile, it was recommended to me that I go to a little bar in Santiago to hear a fellow perform named Jorge Venegas. He performed during the dictatorship, playing in squatter settlements and unauthorized political protests. When I went in, Jorge was singing a song about Woody Guthrie. Here’s this Chilean folk singer who’s playing a song about Guthrie written in Spanish and he has inscribed in his guitar in Spanish the slogan that Guthrie had inscribed on his guitar in World War II: “This machine kills fascists.” I was like, “Oh my goodness, I’ve walked into the right place.”


Q: How were you invited to perform?

A: Jorge and I had been in touch, and I told him I was coming back. He said, “Oh, we will have to get together and play.” I figured what he meant was that I would go over to his house, we would pass the guitar around, drink some wine and have a good time. Instead, Jorge lives close to the oceanside home of Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda. Neruda lived in this fabulous house that he built, and it turns out that there are cultural activity programs held on a covered patio. I sang songs that I adapted from English into Spanish by an American songwriter called Phil Ochs. I don’t think Jorge realized that I wasn’t a professional musician, but I was thrilled because Neruda was always a hero of mine. I could never say that it was a dream come true because I never dreamt anything like this would happen.