Most of the colorful, three-dimensional quilts known as arpilleras that you see today come from Peru, and reflect tranquil scenes of rural life in the Andes mountains. But these powerful works of art actually originated in Chile as expressions of grief and protest during the oppressive dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.
On September 11, 1973, Pinochet led a dramatic coup against Chile’s democratically elected government. In the months that followed, many so-called subversive Chilean citizens were murdered or disappeared. These desaparecidos (the disappeared ones)—primarily men—left behind wives, mothers, and sisters who were not only were frantic with worry and grief about their loved ones, but now also had to find a way to support themselves and their families.
The Catholic Church stepped in, providing workshops to teach the women useful skills such as sewing, laundry, and the like. The instructor for one of these workshops was an artist, Valentina Bonne, who recognized that the women were too upset and grief-stricken to be able to learn anything. She encouraged them instead to express their emotions through their needlework and sewing.
It was in these difficult circumstances that arpilleras were born—a unique form of protest as well as art. The first arpilleras were made from fabric scraps, and in some cases, pieces of cloth from the clothes of the missing men. The women worked together in co-operative groups to make and sell their arpilleras. Through their art, they were able to say what they could not say in words.
With bold lines and colors, the arpilleras depicted powerful messages of military violence and bloodshed. Although the word, arpillera, literally means “burlap” in Spanish (the fabric most often used for the backing), they became known as “the cloth of resistance.”
But because the arpilleras were needlecraft, they were considered “women’s work,” and were initially viewed by military guards and regime officials as insignificant. Eventually, some of the arpilleras that were smuggled out of the country by Peace Corps volunteers helped to alert the world to the atrocities that were taking place in Chile.
Even after democracy returned to Chile in 1989, the initial group of arpilleristas continued to meet. Although mass graves were later discovered, the fate of many of their loved ones remains a mystery. Yet, the bonds they formed with one another enabled them to cope with the pain and uncertainty, and they were able express their grief through their works of art.
A few years later, when the Shining Path began terrorizing the rural population of the Andean highlands, the art form crossed the border, and arpilleras served much the same purpose for the people in Peru.
Over the years, the subject matter has become lighter, and the colors brighter. What began as one of the most important and fundamental political resistance movements, now has its place in Latin American popular culture.
As we struggle to come to grips with the recent violence in Arizona, arpilleras serve as a powerful reminder that art can help us heal.
Picasso painted Guernica; Edvard Munch, The Scream. What you create may not be a priceless masterpiece—it doesn’t need to be. But when you give yourself an artistic outlet for your sadness and grief, you will be creating a peace of art. And that is worth a lot.
For Further Exploration:
For more information about the history of arpilleras, you might enjoy Marjorie Agosín’s wonderful book Tapestries of Hope, Threads of Love: The Arpillera Movement in Chile 1974-1994.
Isabel Allende’s classic novel, The House of the Spirits, is set during Pinochet’s reign of terror.
We also carry wonderful examples of actual Peruvian arpilleras.
And teachers, you may be interested in our PowerPoint curriculum: Arpilleras! The Colorful Appliques of Peru
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For more information about arpilleras, visit our Squidoo lens on the topic