Arpilleras—colorfully enchanting patchwork images depicting daily life—you’ve probably seen them in crafts fairs in Chile and even in Peru. Maybe you’ve even bought some. They’re bright and cheerful, perfect little gifts and ideal for children’s rooms—but they didn’t start out that way. These colorful appliques–arpilleras de adorno (decorative arpilleras)–were born of a much darker past.
Today is September 11, el Once de Septiembre, the first one of great historical import, although for the rest of the world, that has largely been eclipsed by the more recent version in the US. But in Chile, “el Once” marks the anniversary of the 1973 military coup, el golpe—or pronunciamiento—militar, depending on your perspective. And whatever that perspective is, one thing is certain. September 11, 1973 changed the life of everyone in Chile.
A state of martial law was declared and dissenters were rounded up. Some were questioned and released, some imprisoned and tortured, some exiled, and some—the desaparecidos (the disappeared)—were just never heard from again. Most—though certainly not all—were men, and many left dependent women and children behind with no means of support.
The Catholic Church stepped in and formed the Vicaría de la Solidaridad and set about helping these women resolve their basic legal, financial, and emotional problems. One of the many things to come out of that organization were workshops that both helped women develop ways of earning money from home while still being able to take care of their children. It also provided a space for them to share information and express their jangled emotions. One of the outcomes of these workshops was the arpillera.
Arpillera (pronounced ahr-pee-YAIR-ah) literally means burlap, and in this context it refers to a design appliquéd on burlap. Violeta Parra, the famous Chilean singer, folklorist, and artist, is often credited as the original arpillerista, although hers (like the famous Isla Negra arpilleras) are heavily embroidered and not appliqued. They may indeed have inspired the arpillera that grew out of the Vicaría, but they are in no way the same. The Vicaría met with groups of women in their own neighborhoods and gradually, the patchwork arpillera developed in its own distinctive style with bits and scraps of cloth and other found materials cut and arranged and sewn and and embroidered to depict a bit of life as they knew it.
These arpilleras began to tell a story, to leave a history, a testimony in cloth, of what the women were experiencing. It was an emotional release, and for many it was a way of expressing what they could not bring their voices to say.
As they pieced their stories together—often working late at night and by candle light so they wouldn’t be caught and charged with subversive activities—something amazing happened. The Vicaría began to sell them to foreigners who smuggled them out of the country, and these patchwork messages began to travel the world, telling the stories of people whose words could not be spoken or written. As these women perfected their craft, their needles and thread, scraps of cloth and bits of yarn became powerful language-independent tools with which to tell their tales.
In 1991, Violeta Morales told me:
For us an arpillera is an open book…a blank page on which we can write to the world…and tell of everything that is happening in this country…”
In the early days, the work was always anonymous. They would never dare to sign their names.The materials were often cut from old clothes and bits of found objects–even their own hair–were woven into the designs. By the time I arrived in 1991, the danger had passed, new materials and brightly colored fabrics were available, and many did in fact write their first names on the back, along with the year, AFDD (Agrupación de los Familiares de los Detenidos Desaparecidos), and sometimes more information. Now, so many years later, I have chosen to include their full names here, to give these wonderful women the full credit they are due but never sought for themselves.
For me, September 11 is a day of reflection. I was not present for either of the September 11th horrors–neither “el Once” in 1973 nor “911” in 2001–but I live in Chile. And although the tragedy of the events that occurred in my home country 9 years ago shakes me to my roots, in many ways I have been touched more deeply by the “Original Once.”
Today I am remembering the long hours I spent sitting and sipping tea with the arpilleristas. I am thinking of Violeta Morales, and Anita Rojas, and Doris Meninconi, and Inelia Hermosilla, and Gala Torres, among others, all members of the AFDD, who showed me their work and patiently explained the symbolism of the different elements, many of which need no explanation at all.
Also related: Last year I wrote about “The Original September 11” and the experience of attending the 20th anniversary memorial.
**UPDATE March 2011:
This article started receiving a lot of hits in early 2011, and I’m very curious about why! If you are working on a project, or coming to this site doing research, or are taking a course on the subject, please let me know! I’d love to hear what you’re doing! You can either leave a comment below or write to me at cachandochile (a) gmail . com (you know, with the real @ and no spaces of course… just trying to fool the spam machines!)