This article will feature in Issue 38: Language and Culture

Amidst empty streets in a fearful nation, Chilean women met at churches and in neighbours’ houses to stitch compassionately into fabric their accounts of an uncompassionate truth. These pieces documented the realities of life under Pinochet’s military dictatorship and provided the women who made them with a voice, a community, and a means of receiving economic solidarity from abroad.

The 1973 US-backed coup d’état carried out by the Chilean military against the democratic socialist government of Salvador Allende was characterised by widespread human rights violations and economic turmoil. In the immediate aftermath of the coup, thousands of activists and trade unionists faced torture and execution. The number of desaparecidos (disappeared) grew to roughly three thousand.  Meanwhile the implementation of a neoliberal economic “shock treatment” effected a rise in unemployment, food shortages, and the privatisation of utilities left thousands without water or electricity.

Women, many of whom had family among the disappeared and who were amongst the worst hit by the economic and political situation, met in studios organised by the Catholic Church to give a voice to themselves and to the disappeared through scenes sown with fabric scraps onto pieces of burlap. Termed arpilleras, many of these pieces depicted missing loved ones, or women and communities holding signs asking, ‘donde estan?’ (where are they?). By stitching their loved ones’ clothes into their arpilleras, lives and art became inseparable; the bright blue of children’s school uniforms provided the sky under which scenes of social, political and economic oppression took place. 

Others rendered scenes of solidarity, cooperatives called ‘Comprando Juntos’ (‘Buying Together’), where communities would band together in the face of economic hardship. The church’s ‘Vicariate of Solidarity’ facilitated similar solidarity from those in other countries by selling arpilleras to provide a vital source of income for arpilleristas. Though the production and distribution of arpilleras was outlawed during the regime, the subversive resistance art continued in secret. Through each piece a voice was aired, and a story was told which resonated with people across the world, and fuelled resistance in Chile.

Women’s voices were not just confined to these anonymous and secretive pieces. Women were also at the forefront of the street movement and the ‘Vote No!’ movement that ended the Pinochet regime in 1988. Arpilleras have since inspired similar works in other countries facing systematic oppression, from across South America to Africa and even Northern Ireland.

By Sarah Cundy

Header Image: ©Julio Etchart

Recommended reading: Marjorie Agosin, Tapestries of Hope, Threads of Love: The Arpillera Movement in Chile 1974 – 1994 (1996).