Chilean Women’s Resistance in the Arpillera Movement

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During the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship, many Chilean women created complex tapestries depicting the harsh conditions of life and the pain resulting from the disappeared victims of Pinochet’s repression. These tapestries, known as arpilleras, get their name from the Spanish word for the burlap backing they used. However, through their art they came to represent much more in the history of modern Chile.

Arpilleras came to symbolize women’s protest against the brutal Pinochet dictatorship. Although these women worked quietly and used a traditionally feminine method, their arpilleras had wide influence within Chile and internationally. The tapestries and the art of making them preserved the memory of los desaparecidos (the disappeared people) and the dictatorship’s brutality, as well as the unemployment, food shortages, housing shortages, and other hardships of daily life which were attributed to Pinochet’s rule. Simply preserving this collective memory was itself an act of protest, but creating the arpilleras also empowered the women in other ways. Many women experienced cognitive liberation through their work in the arpillera workshops, and became involved in other protests against Pinochet’s regime. They also began to confront machismo in their own homes and in society in general by claiming a wider role for women.

Traditions of Political Protest in Chile
Before the Pinochet dictatorship began in 1973, there was not a well-established tradition of significant grassroots social movements in Chile. This stemmed in part from the very strong political parties that existed at the time, because, “even if social movements arose, they were mobilized and sustained by the political parties.”1 While this co-optation by political parties may have served to help make the movements stronger, it also meant that Chileans were not accustomed to initiating grassroots movements to fight for social change.

However, this changed completely when Augosto Pinochet came to power on September 11, 1973 in a bloody coup. His regime, supported by the Nixon administration, was determined to exterminate the effects of the previous president, socialist Salvador Allende. The secret police, called the Directorate of National Intelligence, rounded up thousands of Socialist Party members, Allende appointees, union leaders, and any other suspected leftists. Almost 28,000 people were detained and tortured; some of these “disappeared” and to this day have never been accounted for. In addition to arresting and torturing its victims, the Pinochet regime exercised complete control over civil society, manipulating the press and outlawing political parties.

The military envisioned women as being politically passive and uninvolved. Women were encouraged to embrace traditional gender roles and focus on being wives and mothers rather than being politically active. While the Mother’s Centers that had formerly facilitated women’s political participation still existed under the dictatorship, they were controlled by the military and now functioned to dissuade women from becoming involved. Although the dictatorship sought to prevent women from being active outside of the house, its economic policies and political structure had the opposite effect: the extreme poverty forced women to seek employment and social involvement in order to survive, often by joining some form of pro-democracy communal group.

As a result, thousands of women started participating in grassroots social movements fighting for women’s rights as well as basic human rights. In the early period, many women became involved in social protest networks or other grassroots organizations, many of which revolved around immediate issues of day-to-day survival. Such survival organizations included workshops (such as the arpillera groups), “buying together” groups (enabling women to buy goods in large quantities at cheaper prices), and communal kitchens. Women also formed dozens of organizations such as Women for Life and the Movement for the Emancipation of the Chilean Woman. Additionally, thousands of women searched for their disappeared relatives and tried a variety of methods to pressure the government to release information.

Arpillera Workshops
It was in this context that the arpillera workshops came into existence. The workshops typically consisted of about twenty women meeting several times a week in a church building.2 Participants were exclusively women, and about 80 percent of the participants were poor or working-class, while the rest came from middle-class backgrounds.3 The majority had husbands who were unemployed or relatives who had “disappeared.”

Most arpillera workshops were organized by the Vicariate of Solidarity, a pro-democracy group run by the archbishop of Santiago.4 The Vicariate was responsible for finding a place to meet, providing supplies (scraps of fabric), and buying the finished arpilleras and selling them abroad.

Women in the workshops often held administrative positions in addition to sewing the arpilleras. Each workshop had a treasurer, a quality control manager, and someone to deliver the completed arpilleras.5 Despite this division of labor, the workshops were very egalitarian. One arpillerista noted that “there are no class differences here. We are a real family.”6 Indeed, wages were distributed equally among the members of a workshop, and workshops made decisions collectively. Thus, on some levels the arpillera workshops themselves served as democratic models of society.

The finished arpilleras portrayed the brutality of the dictatorship as well as the harsh conditions of everyday life. A typical arpillera might picture people being tortured in Santiago’s soccer stadium, or a sea of graves labeled “N.N.” for “no name.” Other arpilleras depicted the disappearances more symbolically, such as a son being torn away from his mother by four black vultures, representing the four leaders of the military junta.7 Others illustrated the hardships of daily life, such as the food shortages, soup kitchens and closed factories, or other protests against the dictatorship, such as hunger strikes or women marching in the streets.

The Transformation from Survival to Social Protest
Women began making arpilleras for reasons of day-to-day survival. This need for supplemental income arose directly from the political and economic conditions of the time, when unemployment was rampant. With their husbands either disappeared or unemployed, it often fell to women to provide for the family. The arpillera workshops thus emerged not from a desire to be politically active, but rather out of necessity. In fact, many of the women were isolated and apolitical before joining an arpillera group, and did not envision their involvement in the workshops as a form of political protest, much less clearly understand how their poverty stemmed from Pinochet’s policies.8

Social interactions within the arpillera workshops, however, transformed the workshops from a way of earning money to a social movement. Simply being able to talk freely about political and social issues had enormous consequences for the women. The arpillera workshops thus facilitated an experience of cognitive liberation whereby activities initially intended to improve daily life became tools of empowerment.

Women also began creating new roles for themselves as a result of this empowerment. The arpillera workshops provided a context for them to earn money and become involved politically, allowing them to “assume a new identity that added an important dimension to their traditional female role” of domestic work in the home.9

Women also became involved in political protest activities beyond simply creating the arpilleras. In this sense, the workshops themselves served as mobilizing structures or movement centers; women started out in the workshops and moved on to become involved in other forms of protest. Many women, for example, joined in hunger strikes or chained themselves to the gates of Congress; others marched in the streets or joined groups like Mothers for Life in fighting for human dignity. One arpillerista who participated in a 1979 protest compared the demonstration to the arpillera movement and stated, “The fact that we meet here in the [arpillera] workshop is very important because we give each other courage to go out in the street together.”10 Other women expressed similar ideas, that their participation in the arpillera groups, although originally begun for economic reasons, made them more willing to participate in other forms of protest.

Indeed, this transformation from survival mechanism to political voice is a common thread that links many women’s movements around the world. A similar change occurred in the Peruvian comedores (collective soup kitchens). They began as survival organizations, but later started to offer training in health issues, women’s rights, and other relevant topics, thus moving “from serving a basic need to teaching and empowering women, broadening their horizons far beyond the familiar domestic role.”11 The early women’s movement in the United States is another example of this. In the late 1800s, the working class women’s movement focused on improving working conditions and other community issues that affected women as mothers. For example, the Illinois Women’s Alliance, formed in 1886, emphasized “community issues [such as] education and child labor” as a way of getting women involved in political protests and working towards collective empowerment.12 Similarly, Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai and her Green Belt Movement fight for women’s rights in Kenya by linking them to environmental concerns. These social movements all stem from women’s traditional responsibility as caretakers of the family, using that position as a way to work towards empowerment.

In addition to encouraging women to join other protests, the arpilleras were themselves a form of protest. The arpilleras served to preserve the memory of the dictatorship’s brutalities, and especially of the disappeared people, at a time when almost all other voices of protest had been silenced. When confronted about the disappeared people, the dictatorship usually insisted they simply did not exist or had never been arrested. Thus, using arpilleras to preserve the memory of the disappearances and of other government atrocities was in itself a defiance of the regime and a powerful form of protest.

1 Dandavati, Annie G. Engendering Democracy in Chile. New York: Peter Lang, 2005. 5.
2 Adams, Jacqueline. “The Makings of Political Art.” Qualitative Sociology 24.3 (2001): 320.
3 Agosín, Marjorie. Tapestries of Hope, Threads of Love: The Arpillera Movement in Chile. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008. 49.
4 Franceschet, Susan. Women and Politics in Chile. Boulder, CO: Lynne Reinner Publishers, 2005. 65.
5 Moya-Raggio, Eliana. “Arpilleras: Chilean Culture of Resistance.” Feminist Studies 10.2 (1984): 280.
6 Agosín 49.
7 Agosín 73.
8 Adams, Jacqueline. “Movement Socialization in Art Workshops: A Case from Pinochet’s Chile.” The Sociological Quarterly, 41.4 (2000): 623.
9 Agosín 53.
10 Agosín 51.
11 Moser, Annalise. “Happy Heterogeneity? Feminism, Development, and the Grassroots Women’s Movement in Peru.” Feminist Studies, 30.1 (2004): 213.
12 Tax, Meredith. The Rising of the Women: Feminist Solidarity and Class Conflict, 1880-1917. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001. 56.