Champions of Peace: Chilean Arpilleras

Weaving the Tapestry of Dissent

Tapestry called arperilla

Arperilla with the iconic phrase “Donde Estan? (Where are they?)” Pic Courtesy: Ulster University

A quilt. A comfort furnishing, something you can snuggle in, and feel secure in its enveloping warmth, like a father’s hug.

Ironic then, that a type of quilt was the epicentre of a resistance movement in Chile in response to the disappearance of scores of fathers, brothers and sons (not to mention mothers, daughters and sisters) during the reign of Augusto Pinochet from the 1970s through the 1980s.

When scores of dissenting men (and women) went missing, entire families were left broken, with no relief from the government. With no way to support entire families, mothers of Chile, supported by the Roman Catholic Church, began making a version of the quilt, called the arpillera, a tapestry featuring applique, embroidery and patchwork.

The arpillera would provide more than just money to feed hungry bellies, as the women would discover.

Many of the women who undertook this work were also members of an organization – AFDD—for families of those detained by the regime who had simply “disappeared.”

The scenes that the tapestries depicted were scenes of daily life from the women’s lives, brutal in their imagery—a scene of a dinner table with an empty chair with a question mark, a scene of a protest of mothers outside the Supreme Court demanding information on their loved ones’ disappearance; women dancing with the photographs of their disappeared loved ones; long lines for rationed necessities, etc.

Arperilla with vacant chair at dinner table. Pic courtesy: Cachando Chile

The Church had organized the sale of the arpilleras in neighbouring cities and countries. Guards rarely bothered with the arpillera as they were considered harmless “women’s craft”. This helped spread the word of the brutality of the regime nationally and internationally, not to mention getting messages in and out of jail, as imprisoned women worked on them as well.

What’s more, the activity of creating these works of art provided more than just a means of sustenance to the women—it helped the women realize their strength—at an individual level, and as a community. The camaraderie during the sewing helped some of them enter the resistance formally and for many others, it was a growing sense of the patriarchy that hemmed them in.

In the beginning, the women did not sign the arpilleras they created. However, by the 1990s, this had changed and women freely initialled their names on it. In fact, the display and sale of arpilleras was banned by the Pinochet regime. However, by then, the arpilleras had reached a wider audience: the world.

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