Soundtrack of a Revolution

Seeing and hearing a protest explode on the streets of Santiago

Chilean flag
Vivian Morales C./Flickr

Santiago, Chile—In early November, an NPR story focused on Victor Jara—singer, teacher, beautiful soul—whose revolutionary anthem “El Derecho de Vivir en Paz” was being heard all over Chile, not just in Santiago but also in Concepción, Valparaíso, and other cities and towns where crowds had risen up to protest the country’s entrenched economic inequities.

Jara’s beautiful 1970s-era protest song became the movement’s anthem, its plaintive tune made even more poignant by the story behind it. Jara, a beloved national martyr, was tortured, then murdered in the first days of the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship, one of several thousand Chileans—deemed to be leftists by the regime—who shared the same fate.

But as I learned on a recent, remarkably ill-timed work trip to Santiago, “El Derecho” was just one track—albeit an arrestingly beautiful one—in the layered soundtrack of the Chilean uprising.

I arrived in Santiago on October 17 to research a biography of an extraordinary Chilean woman named Eugenia Errázuriz who, born in the 19th century, lived for most of her life in Europe, where she was a patron and close friend of important figures—among them, Picasso and Stravinsky—in the Parisian avant-garde.

Fueled by obsession, as biographers tend to be, I moved into an executive suites-type apartment in the Barrio Lastarria, the historic neighborhood at the city’s center. Its location, just steps from the Archivo Nacional de Chile, the national library, and the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, was ideal. I fantasized about the rare archival finds that would soon be mine. I was primed for the hunt.

But 24 hours after my plane touched down at Benítez International Airport, a popular uprising flared. Soon I was conducting an entirely different kind of research: how to find sustenance when all grocery stores are shut; how to dodge tear gas (as I soon learned, you can’t); how to find my way home in an unfamiliar city before the curfew begins. (Its start time varied from one evening to the next.)

“Don’t take the subway today!” the cheery head archivist called out to me as I left the Archivo Nacional on my first day, after registering as a researcher. “The students are protesting the new subway fares. Things will be calmer tomorrow.” But by the next day, Friday the 18th, the streets had become clamorous. They became exponentially more so in the days ahead.

A Chilean friend met me for dinner in Lastarria that evening. He arrived at the restaurant shaken, having dashed through tear gas to get there. “I’ve never seen anything like this before,” he said, still out of breath. Soon he was bantering with the waitress, making me laugh. The unrest was clearly temporary, nothing at all. But within the hour the restaurant’s electric window grates had rolled down and the place abruptly closed. The restaurant manager apologized: “Our staff has to get through the rioting to go home.”

These events marked the beginning of Chile’s largest uprising since 1990, when democracy was restored after the long years of Pinochet’s rule. It began as a protest against the fare increase, part of a plan by President Sebastián Piñera, a right-wing billionaire, to control spending as the Chilean economy slowed.

The conditions behind the uprising that followed were as old as the French Revolution, even older, and as new as the gilets jaunes. The cost of living had become untenable. The price tag on health care and education had grown rapidly in free-market Chile, even as pensions had shrunk.

All through these surprising days, Jara’s hauntingly beautiful El Derecho was a constant. You could hear it all over Lastarria—ground zero of the uprising—sung by scores of youth as they marched, chanting and singing, down the Avenida Libertador Bernardo O’Higgins. One night I was awakened from a deep sleep by a chorus of young people singing it in the Cerro Santa Lucia—the verdant, hilly park that marks the spot where Santiago was founded, back in 1541—their voices sounding impossibly pure in the night air.

“El Derecho” wove through the uprising; there were other sound effects, too. The cacerolazo, the rhythmic banging of pots and pans that’s a hallmark of Latin American protests, provided an insistent rat-a-tat-tat message. If Jara’s song was the backdrop to the uprising, the cacerolazo call-and-response was its very pulse.

Protesters sounded out their solidarity to each other via clanging pots—bang, bang, bang-bang-bang—and honking car horns. Almost anything could serve. Frying pans became cymbals. Metallic bowls were timpani. Branches and sticks tapped out a beat that never changed: dah, dah; dah-dah-dah.

The phrase could come from every direction, often many at once, and in myriad forms. It might be the metallic ting-tinging of clanking forks. Or just the dull thudding sound of pounding rocks.

These methods of communication weren’t limited to the streets. The cacerolazo could be adapted to indoor use, too, in the form of soft whistles or gentle hums. Once I heard it, almost subliminally, in a packed subway car in Santiago’s pristine metro, a gentle hum, hum and response rising softly as the train sped beneath the chaos of the Plaza Italia and other demonstration spots above ground.

Whatever form it took, its message was clear: We are here. We’re not going away.

With each day the city’s graffiti seemed to transform, too. The events sent words onto walls, crushed metro turnstiles, and boarded-up stores. Taggers named what was happening—el levantamiento (the uprising), la insurrección—before a stronger, more assertive noun seemed to drown out the rest: la revolución. That word, that reality, began to sound inevitable as the breadth and extent of the protests became clear.

By the night of Sunday the 20th, seven people had died in the violence. President Piñera declared a state of emergency. “We are at war against a powerful enemy, who is willing to use violence without any limits,” he said in prepared remarks. On that same day, a photo of him in a suit and tie enjoying a birthday dinner with his impeccably dressed young grandchildren—the very image of prosperity—flashed across the Internet. The timing was unfortunate. The violence surged.

By then Lastarria’s shops and restaurant windows were long since covered with boards. After looters torched a supermarket, almost all the others in the city center shut down. The few convenience shops that remained open were quickly picked clean. Some shop owners, scared of looters, simply passed such staples as bottled water and the ubiquitous Chilean biscuits known as hallullas through their metal security gates to lines of customers waving cash.

On Monday morning, my fifth day there, I found an open supermarket. Others in the line to enter the store seemed to share my euphoria. We snaked along—until it closed abruptly, at 2 P.M., leaving hundreds of us still outside. I headed back to my apartment, drawn by thoughts of the almonds and tangerines on the counter of my kitchenette, and confused about what to do next.

That evening, when I went out to forage again, I passed one of the bonfires that illuminated my barrio each night. Young protesters were laughing as they tossed in any fuel they could find, some of it, such as a metal street sign, distinctly unsuitable for the task. A park bench went next …

Just meters away, the four-star Hotel Cumbres Lastarria, on José Victorino Lastarria, amazingly, seemed open. As I approached it, a couple stepped out of a taxi and passed beneath its eclectic, modernist façade and through its front doors. I recalled someone recommending the restaurant on its eighth floor. There seemed nowhere to go but up.

I bid buenas noches to the doorman and crossed the hushed lobby to the elevator. Upstairs, its door slid open to reveal … a parallel universe. Well-dressed tourists chatted by candlelight in many languages.

Being there felt discordant, but no one appeared perturbed. I ordered a glass of Errázuriz Reserva Carménère, delighting in its provenance—the vineyard was owned by a branch of the famous family to which my subject Eugenia’s husband, José Tómas Errázuriz, belonged. I ordered merluza, the fish of the day, and sipped the velvety wine. Below us, Santiago sparkled in starlight. Seen from above, through vast picture windows, the city seemed, surreally, like an oasis of peace.

By then, that word oasis too had become a revolutionary motif. President Piñera had used it not long before to describe the place that Chile—legendarily prosperous and pacific—held in restive Latin America. “Ah yes,” people commented after the uprising began, apparently never tiring of the joke. “Ah yes, Chile, the oasis of calm!”

On Tuesday I walked for long blocks past the Pontificia Universidad Católica, a center of student unrest, before finding an open supermarket on the Avenida Portugal. Once again, I took my place in a line that coiled around the block. The blackened hulk of a burnt-out city bus blocked the avenue before us; the air was acrid with smoke.

I waited in the sun behind a young man. I couldn’t see his face, just the glint of a stud earring in his right ear. He was slight and athletic-looking, dressed in a long-sleeve striped T-shirt and tight black jeans. He looked like a dancer, I thought. To my left, a solid-looking fellow in his 60s met my eye and smiled. Isn’t this amazing? his expression seemed to say. The three of us inched forward as intermittent shouts and honk, honk, honk-honk-honks sounded out from the avenue.

The older man began to talk, recounting how, when he’d arrived in the Chilean capital 40 years earlier, during the Pinochet regime, another uprising had been underway. “It was just the same,” he said. “The streets were just like this.” He waved a hand toward the sun-baked avenue, with its graffiti and its cracked shop windows, and that menacing blackened bus.

I did the math. Back then, General Pinochet had been in power, after overthrowing President Salvador Allende’s Marxist government in a 1973 military coup. Thousands of people disappeared or were killed during the Pinochet years. Many, including Victor Jara, were brutally tortured first. Countless other were sent into exile.

“This is only because of a few,” the man added. Just some outliers, he seemed to say.

I was only a foreigner, a norteamericana; still, everything I’d seen in Santiago seemed to contradict this idea, hinting at a wider base of support. The privatization of Chile’s social security system, a process begun by Pinochet in 1980, which affected millions, was mentioned to me many times. Its original promise—that 70 percent of most worker’s final wages would be paid out in retirement—had proved false. Most retired Chileans received a little more than half of that.

I said nothing, and we shuffled forward.

The man in the striped shirt must have been listening. In any case, he had something to say. Without turning to look at us, he began to beat out a rhythm on his sternum with his right hand. A tapping sound came from his fingers rhythmically hitting bone. Over and over. His words, unspoken, were precise. We are here. La revolución es ahora. It is now.

In that first week, the unrest swelled, then died down again, before surging ahead with new life. It was the country’s largest uprising since 1990, when democracy was restored. President Piñera, remarkably tone deaf in the protest’s first hours, seemed to finally absorb the import of what was taking place. After meeting with opposition leaders on October 22, he offered concessions, including raising the maximum income tax rate, introducing a guaranteed minimum income and, crucially, raising the basic pension amount.

On Friday night, a week after I arrived, a million-plus marchers passed, relatively peacefully, beneath my apartment windows. At intervals the serene message of Jara’s song broke out above the flat plainsong of the marchers’ chants. The eternal tap-tap-tapping of the cacerolazo served as a counterpoint. It took four chant-filled hours for the procession to go by.

The next day, Piñera exulted at how peacefully the manifestaciones had played out. “We’ve all heard the message. We’ve all changed,” @sebastianpinera assured his two million-plus Twitter followers. “Today’s joyful and peaceful march, in which Chileans have asked for a more just and unified Chile, opens hopeful paths into the future.” In a surprise, and very welcome move, he disbanded his cabinet: rich, privileged, male.

Out on the streets, the uprising seemed to have run its course. Boards came down from the shop windows on Merced. Relaxed-seeming pedestrians popped up all through the neighborhood, looking like movie extras, some carrying ice-cream cones as they basked in the sunshine of the early spring. The Plaza Italia, where just a day or so earlier demonstrators had tossed rocks at army tanks and police sent rubber bullets into crowds, was still.

But the calm proved ephemeral, an oasis indeed. On Monday the 28th, the day I was scheduled to leave Chile, the streets were again alight.

The change came with cyclonic speed. I had left my building to meet a friend across town, joyfully anticipating a walk through the restored calm. But Piñera had just named his new cabinet, one scarcely more diverse than the one it replaced. Within minutes, students burst out of classrooms at the Universidad Católica, through its front doors, and into the streets. The police had yet to arrive.

By the time I got to the corner, Victoria Subercaseaux had become a scene painted by a latter-day Hieronymus Bosch, with writhing human forms, ersatz protest signs, and rat, tat, rat-tat-tat.

“Leave early!” a Chilean friend exhorted. Another sent a taxi my way. The driver parked at a distance, then made his way on foot to find me through the chanting crowds. At the airport, where I arrived hours early for my flight, a bank of televisions showed a building in Barrio Lastarria engulfed in flames. My friend sent a text: “I knew your neighborhood would burn. That’s why I told you to go!” The TV flames crackled. You could hear the cacerolazo, faint but true, as the fire raged.

By early November, 2,500 people had been injured and AT least 20 had died in the unrest. While sporadic looting continues, things have, for the most part, quieted down. Most of Chile’s university students are back in class. And President Piñera has announced a two-part referendum, to be held in April 2020, that will ask Chileans, first, if they want a new constitution, and second, who exactly should frame it. Nothing is assured.

The soundtrack of the revolution is dormant for now. But it could return, powerful and insistent, at any time. We’ll see what April brings.

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Penelope Rowlands is the author of A Dash of Daring: Carmel Snow and Her Life in Fashion, Art and Letters; Paris Was Ours; and other books.


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