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What music means to those who were blinded in the 2019 mass protests in Chile

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To another story now in Chile. That's a country engulfed by violent anti-government protests in 2019. To control crowds, the police fought back with tear gas and shotguns. More than 30 people were killed. About 450 protesters were partially blinded with shotgun pellets. NPR's John Otis caught up with several of these victims who are coping through music.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: At a recording studio in Santiago, the Chilean capital, musicians are noodling on guitars and adjusting the drum kit.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

OTIS: All 10 members of the band sustained serious eye injuries during the 2019 protests. Indeed, nearly all their songs reflect their pain and frustration at what happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ASI FUE")

HACIA LA VICTORIA: (Singing in Spanish).

OTIS: They even have a song called "Asi Fue" - Spanish for that's what happened. It was written by guitarist Sergio Concha, who was hit in the left eye with shotgun pellets.

SERGIO CONCHA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: He says playing the song transports him back to the protests, as hospital doctors patched his eye and all of Chile seemed like a war zone. The band's rhythmic and emotional foundation is drummer Gustavo Gatica.

GUSTAVO GATICA: (Playing drums).

OTIS: Gatica was studying psychology at a Santiago university when protesters first hit the streets. He supported their demands for jobs, health care and education, so he joined them.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL CLANGING)

OTIS: During one of the marches, Gatica was hit in the face with shotgun pellets. Despite several operations, he was left totally blind. Rather than denouncing police brutality, some Chileans called Gatica and other injured protesters troublemakers who got what they deserved.

GATICA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Many fell into depression, Gatica says, including one protester who last year committed suicide. So he says it's really important to have a circle of support. To take out his own frustrations, Gatica took up drumming.

GATICA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Gatica soon realized that numerous protesters with eye injuries were also musicians. A few months ago, a group of them, including Gatica, formed a band called Hacia la Victoria. That's Spanish for onward towards victory.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HACIA LA VICTORIA: (Singing in Spanish).

OTIS: Andres Lopez, a filmmaker by day, is one of the band's vocalists. With most people, he finds it awkward to talk about the shotgun pellet that left him blind in his right eye. But with his bandmates, he can open up.

So the band is like therapy.

ANDRES LOPEZ: For me, yeah. With these guys, it's very easy because their respect, the tolerance.

OTIS: That tolerance extends to their divergent musical tastes, ranging from rap to reggae to ballads.

LOPEZ: My music style is hardcore punk. I am a singer in another band - (vocalizing) - a lot of scream. But in this one, this - (vocalizing) - is beautiful, yeah?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

OTIS: The band is performing every week and has recorded a few songs, but its members are most proud of the fact that their protests helped to change Chile. For one thing, the country now has a left-wing government addressing some of their demands.

GATICA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Gatica, the drummer, calls this an important first step. But there have also been disappointments. A progressive new draft constitution strongly supported by the protest movement was overwhelmingly rejected by Chilean voters.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HACIA LA VICTORIA: (Singing in Spanish).

OTIS: That's why, in spite of their injuries, the band members insist they will remain active on the streets and on stage. John Otis, NPR News, Santiago, Chile. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.