Arpilleras: Chile's Women Weave Tapestries of Truth
Protests and Chilean sweeping in the streets (Source: St. Lawrence University [Link])
A Brutal Regime
In September 1973, months of political tensions in Chile culminated in the overthrow of a democratically elected government by a US-backed coup d’etat by Chilean military forces under Augusto Pinochet. After usurping power, Pinochet’s regime normalized human rights violations, carried out arbitrary arrests, abolished all political parties and unions, and subjected large masses of people to torture, executions, and enforced disappearance. According to a report by the National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation, the authoritarian regime under Pinochet had killed over 2,000 people (Rettig Commission 1991). The Valech Report of 2005 noted that over 38,254 people had been imprisoned for political reasons, and most of them had been tortured (National Commission on Political Imprisonment and Torture 2005).
While men and boys were most often subject to enforced disappearance, faced torture, and violence. As a result, women were left without a source of income in most households, and had to seek work outside their homes for the first time (Canadell and Uggen 1993). Pinochet’s rule also prevented women’s organizations from full participation, and obstructed women’s engagement in politics. Patriarchy was normalized and received institutional support through pro-government organizations like the Centros de Madres and Secretaria Nacional de Mujeres (Canadell and Uggen 1993). Several initiatives emerged in opposition, some working for women’s rights, some calling for justice for the desaparecidos, and some even engaging in mutual aid by providing food, skilling support, and other resources to those in need.
Stitching Tapestries of Truth
The arpillera movement was popular in Chile during the military dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet, from 1973 to 1990. Women, known as arpilleristas, stitched colourful threads onto pieces of cloth as part of a traditional craft form known as arpilleras, and used them to depict scenes of living in poverty, brutal government repression, and the forms of violence they faced under authoritarian rule. Made in workshops that were organized by a committee of the Chilean Catholic Church, the burlap cloths were secretly distributed world over through the human rights wing of the church, called the Vicariate of Solidarity (LaDuke 1983).
Even as the production of arpilleras formed a means of livelihood and a source of income for women, it became a means of peaceful resistance as well. Many women were left in conditions of poverty and financial insecurity because of the rampant unemployment and the forced disappearances of their husbands and sons – who were known as desaparecidos – and had to find a way to earn their living. Crafted as embroidery on burlap and scraps of cloth with colourful thread, the arpilleras became a vehicle of resistance when they began to work toward denouncing the violence and violations of the Pinochet regime.
They were a form of subversion against the backdrop of an authoritarian political regime – one that left the Chilean government feeling insecure. When it got wind of the political colour this movement had taken on, the government cracked down on the women and sought to punish both those who created arpilleras and those who supported the creation of arpilleras.
Arpillera workshops were conducted for women in rural areas at first, particularly in Isla Negra, as a means of economic emancipation. The women who trained to produce arpilleras were encumbered by the challenges of poverty, unemployment, and alcoholism, and slowly gained a global market for their art work through the government and museums around the world (Bradshaw 2019). When the coup d’etat took place, Catholic Church groups took a leaf out of the book of liberation theology and began to mobilize against the military regime. They set up the early round of arpillera workshops in Santiago, drawing inspiration from the Isla Negra workshops. As the methods they followed in Isla Negra involved expensive materials and were time consuming, the women in Santiago developed their own methods (LaDuke 1983). By 1975, this church was forced to dissolve (Schell 2015).
Around this time, the Vicariate of Solidarity took up the struggle for human rights in Chile, and remained a vociferous champion for human rights. It provided support for those affected by the dictatorial regime in the form of legal aid, healthcare, food, and employment (Bradshaw 2019). The first arpillera workshop it hosted took place in 1974, under Valentina Bonne, a church official (Hunter 2019). The idea was to help the women earn an income and to find emotional support, while also silently documenting the regime’s brutality and selling the denunciatory artwork world over (Adams 2001). Aside from these, some arpilleras were also created in prison (Schell 2015). By 1975, ten such workshops had place in Santiago. At the height of the movement, over 200 workshops were held in Santiago alone, with around 20 participants each, meeting thrice a week (Adams 2000). Sometimes, the women would include a written description of the work tucked inside a pocket sewn onto the back of the arpilleras (LaDuke 1983). These notes called for solidarity and presented stories of human rights violations (Franceshet 2005). Most arpilleras did not bear the name of the women who created them, to protect them from reprisals.
Speaking Truth to Power
The arpilleras portrayed interrogation scenes, body bags, scenes of hungry children eating at communal kitchens, and individuals waiting in line for food. Some showed women standing outside a prison where their friends and family members were imprisoned. Still others depicted women chaining themselves to prison fences in protest (Bradshaw 2019).
The arpilleras gained international attention when the Vicariate began distributing them abroad. This attention was amplified by several international human rights organizations, and North American and European human rights activists who expressed solidarity with the victims of the regime (Adams 2001). Each woman would contribute 10% of her payment to a collective fund that worked to keep the workshops going (Moya-Raggio 1985).
The Pinochet government came down heavily on the arpilleristas. Establishing censorship policies over artistic expression (Valenzuela 1991), the government also confiscated several of the pieces produced and called them “defamatory tapestries of infamy” (Hunter 2019). Despite this, the women persisted: oftentimes stitching behind thick curtains over their windows and using candlelight (Bradshaw 2019). When their houses were searched, they hid the arpilleras in the lining of their bedsheets (Bradshaw 2019). When they were physically searched, they hid the arpilleras in their coats and skirts. Domestic galleries did not display or sell their wares, and their workshops – though declared illegal – continued to operate through the dictatorship (Onion 2014). The arpilleras found solidarity globally: showcased in Washington DC and London, for example (Onion 2014). With the reestablishment of Chilean democracy, the workshops ended in 1989 (Agosín 1996).
A significant form of protest of its times, the arpilleras were a powerful means of edifying and memorializing the truth of the violent, dictatorial regime (Agosín 1996). Even as the government did all it could to silence voices, the arpilleras spoke volumes of the violence that unfolded, and preserved the memory of the disappearances and government atrocities.
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