Threads of Hope:

The Story of the Chilean Arpillera

Marjorie Agosin, poet/activist, professor of Latin American Studies, Wellesley College visiting professor of Latin American Studies, Brandeis University

Marjorie Agosin discusses the Chilean arpilleras, small tapestries made from leftover cloth that told the stories of a variety of human rights abuses at the hands of the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. In Spanish, "arpillera" means "burlap."

I would like to speak now of the power of telling personal narratives, with the body, with threads, with words. One must not measure the power of transforming and saving lives through official discourses or fabricated or supposed truths.

I am a poet, and therefore I believe that human beings are formed by words as much as by bread. This is a century of violence that can only be measured in magnitudes. We must not fear to look at violence, human rights, with innocence. Perhaps we may surrender to a higher calling than ourselves. I believe this is the power of human rights, to transcend to something beyond ourselves, and that is the power of poetry, the power of truth which cannot be distorted in art.

Different disciplines have taken great interest in this art form. A very important organization in the United States – Facing History and Ourselves – an organization that educates students against intolerance and prejudice, has taken the story of the arpilleras as a case study.

The story of the arpilleras began in my country, Chile, in Santiago, in 1974. It was one of the most stable democracies of the West. You know what happened; U.S. involvement in the coup that overthrew freely elected president Salvador Allende, Colin Powell later apologizing... The country that was considered to be Latin America's strongest democracy became its greatest horror. One thing was not censored: the power of women's hands. When we speak of human rights, we must also speak of the body. When we tell stories about human rights, what we really search for is a body.

It began with a group of mothers, almost 14 mothers. They met in morgues, hospitals, former tribunals of justice, and realized that all the elements that were such an important part of Chilean society were closed. Completely vanished. And they sought help by contacting a newly developed organization that was a branch of the Catholic Church, called the Vicariate of Solidarity. The Chilean Catholic Church took a very courageous position towards the disappearances and abuses at the hands of the Pinochet government, very different than in Argentina or Guatemala. The more I think about this story, the more I believe that it's a story of belief – belief, magic, and storytelling. The women that suffered the most, as we know throughout the stories that we see in the media, as we know through Katrina, were the disadvantaged. The poor. Poverty is also a punishment for authoritarian governments. These women were trained in the most traditional art of femaleness in Latin America, which was to sew, to embroider. So after all the doors were closed, after they examined the bodies in the morgues and could not find their loved ones, they went to the Vicariate of Solidarity and one of the women at the Vicariate said, "Why don't you create stories, why don't you tell what happened through cloth?" At the beginning, the women resisted, because to tell the story about what happened, to tell about the abduction or to tell about the search, was extremely painful. But all of a sudden, the arpillera movement began when this group of women told through the cloth what words were not allowed to speak.

How do you construct an arpillera? Here I would like to share with you how to construct a human rights story. First of all, you create a narrative. All of the arpilleras have very similar narratives: disappearances, abductions, mothers sitting at a table waiting for an empty seat to be filled. The narrative then is transformed and transposed into the arpillera. The material of the arpillera, it's also a very important component in the telling of the story. It is made out of the remnants of the poor. So you create a story, a narrative, a work of art out of leftover things, remnants. In the very beginning of the years of the dictatorship, the women made arpilleras out of the clothing of their missing ones and told a story that was silence inside the country.

How do you measure the success of a human rights story, how do you document the workings of the arpilleras? Who knows about them? What do you do with them? Think this is exactly what I was thinking when we saw the pictures of the genocide in Rwanda. I see an image: how am I going to integrate this image into my daily life, or am I going to just watch it and be removed from it? I think that the power of the arpillera is exactly what the photographs make us question. The arpillera wants you to think about a personal memory that becomes public. I wonder how much we think that the pictures of Rwanda are our personal memories. The arpillera touches upon a universal human grief, which I think those photographs also touch: the loss of life, and especially the loss of children. There is an intersection between history, memory, and individual lives, and I think all of these elements that come together are able to construct a powerful narrative.

The arpilleras were made in the basements of churches. They were also made in the very early morning in these women's houses – not so much out of fear of being abducted or detained, but because they were so poor that they did not have enough light to sew, and they were able to do this in the early mornings. They were made individually but then gathered collectively at the Vicariate of Solidarity, the branch of the Catholic Church, and they were sent abroad in small packages of four or five. Here comes the other element: these arpilleras were able to tell a story because the story had a witness. We must not only tell stories but become witnesses ourselves of the stories we hear. They were sent all over the world, almost at random. Amnesty International has always been a great supporter of this work; the World Council of Churches; the United Methodist Church. And all of a sudden the story became larger and more fundamental and more universal than a small arpillera made in the basement of a church in Chile.

I do not know if the arpillera helped the overthrow of the dictator. I believe it really didn't. But I also would like to believe that you measure change and power by small acts of courage, and this is an essential idea of human rights. I would like to say that the arpilleras were a state of mind of hope, and they were able to move beyond Chile's secrets, beyond Chile's frightening dictatorship, to the outside world. Everyone who received the arpilleras became engaged. It was innocent. It was unassuming. Then you begin to think, "Where did she sew it? What was she feeling? Did she use the clothes of her loved one, now dead? How many mothers made these?" All of these components completed a story that was not only an individual story, but a collective one. I would like to say theirs was a story of reciprocity, a mutual shared engagement. The difference between art forms and official newspaper reports is that art allows you to become engaged in a very emotional way, in a very human way. You cannot be distanced from the poem that speaks about a mother crying for her child. If we think about the power of art and the power of narrative and the power of poetry, it's a power that has to do with empathy, with engagement, and with compassion. We live in a world that is very much afraid of using these words and making them our own.

The arpilleras were sent abroad for almost 17 years. Sometimes, not often, the arpillera told another narrative within the arpillera. The back of the arpillera had a little pocket. And sometimes the people used to turn it around and open this pocket, and the pocket told another story. So, first you had this story in images, and you imagine how each woman constructed these images, and then the arpillera told another story. Usually, the pocket contained a little description written in the back that said something like, "My son has been disappeared since 1974. I wonder where he is." So, again, this very simple message engaged you in a story. The story was effective, in the sense that it brought awareness. People watched it. People became engaged. People went to art galleries. One of the most important art exhibits in London around the 1976 and 1977 was the work of the arpilleras. Amnesty International used them in their calendars. So, this art form traveled, revealed, and triumphed. The reasons why it triumphed, I've already shared them with you.

The last part of the story and then I will pose some questions has to do with what happens to societies that live in a platitude of democracy and what happens to these art movement that really was born out of necessity, out of horror. And when I say necessity, was both economic necessity and an ethical necessity. Economic necessity to survive and an ethical necessity to tell and to heal.

The arpilleras continue to be made in Chile now. If some of you are students in this room, I urge you to really think about how grassroots movements evolve and how so much can still be done within democratic societies. The original makers of Arpilleras are gone, they are dead or very old. But a new group of women from Santiago shantytown continue to meet once a week at the Vicariate of Solidarity or in other neighborhood churches and continue to make arpilleras. These arpilleras do not have the same narratives of disappearances, abductions, and torture, but they tell another important story. They speak about economic injustice. They speak about unemployment. They speak about the very difficult condition of the women that are called in Spanish "temporaras," temporary fruit pickers. The arpillera evolved, inspired, and it never became something that was static. I met with these women, in January 2005, and I have stayed in touch with this new group of women. Their passion and their belief of – to use a very ancient Jewish phrase – "tikkun olam," to mend the world, and to mend the world through cloth, is very much alive to day in Chile.

I think that the problem with all of us is that we have the stories, and we have the information, and we have the belief. But how does one act from that belief? So, here are some questions for all of us to think about:

The arpillera is made out of the materials of every day life. How do we live with these materials? How do we stitch the arpillera into the fabric of our own lives? How do we begin to move from the outer landscape of the arpillera to the inner process of mending? This is, to me, one of the most important questions this conference will have to pose.

Another question to think about: Are the arpilleras part of public memory, or do they live in the company of the women who make them? How do we integrate this story as a daily reminder of a violent world, and how can we imagine and feel the thousands of hours that took to make these arpilleras? How do we imagine the solitude of these women's hands? If these arpilleras become the fabric of memory, how do we think of memory?

I would like to suggest that the arpillera is not only a public and personal story, but it takes memory to a very challenging dimension. It takes memory to a physical place. It is the hands that make it. It is made out of leftover materials of someone that lived. We must look at the physical activity of memory as a process of time, as an extension of fingers, women's hands, and at the same time, as the process of telling a story. We must ask ourselves why these stories matter. And we must also see the commonality of other similar stories. These stories are undoubtedly the products of war, the products of a controlled violence, and they must be told and understood in this context. But at the same time, the arpillera must not only be public art or public memory. We must reflect on the inward story that each woman makes. We must think about what happened to them, individually. We must challenge ourselves to know history through their hands, not necessarily – and all of you journalists must forgive me – through the lens of a photographer or the pen of a journalist. I think these clothes are part of a historical record that must be looked at and understood radically differently.

Finally, and this has to do with this conference, what is it to tell a story? What is the process of telling a story? And how does the telling of a story become our own? In the midst of globalization, each story has to stand on its own. And the stories we activate imperative acts of ethics. An arpillera, for me, is a letter to the wind, a message of the interior of the soul. Who will receive it? Will we step into the shadow and remains of one who is disappeared? Are the memories of the arpilleras part of our own? And ultimately, the fundamental question, are we going to become the witnesses that will tell their stories?

I will pass some of these arpilleras to you. This arpillera dates from 1977, and this is the only picture, a physical picture that Violeta Morales had of her brother, Nuto Morales, and she put it here. You will see that there is a very deep connection between the cloth, the objects that you incorporate into the cloth, and the physical, actual writing, which says, "truth and justice for the detained-disappeared." The back is made out of burlap, and you can see, right here, there is the pocket that tells a story.

These are the contemporary arpilleras made in 2003, 2004, 2005. Actually, I've never read what's in this pocket, so we will share it together. "These arpilleras are the product of humble, poor women. Thank you for buying our products." Let me show you what this arpillera reveals: it is women going to a health care center. The symbolism that arpilleras speak about has to do with what I addressed first: the power of hands. Hands that were not contaminated with murder or killing. Hands that were transparent. But, when we live in a globalized time, there's practically no place for handicraft. There's not a place for what is made with people's hands. I think that this message is telling us that we must also respect and understand the story, but we must not forget the hands that actually made it.

Questions, Comments and Responses

Elizabeth Goldberg, assistant professor of English, Babson College: When you were speaking of the idea of hands, and the arpilleras moving from a very specific story of a violation – almost too horrific to imagine in its specificity, in its targeted, direct, bodily harm – to a much more nebulous, sustained, constant degradation, the humiliation of economic injustice and the bodily suffering that accompanies that, it made me think of a song by Sweet Honey and the Rock called, "Are my Hands Clean?" The song traces the genesis of a shirt from each raw material, where that material journeyed, what hands made it, each place, each stop on the journey, the shipping, the companies, how it goes back and forth, and ends up in Sears on a 20 percent discount. The song asks at the end, "Are my hands clean?" and uses the word "sister" quite consciously, "my sisters made this blouse." I share that song because, to me, it has always been so powerful, but it feels linked to this idea of creating – but also that all of us will we be witnesses, and part of that is witness to our own complicity, in very simple ways of spending. I was struck by the term "consumer" as opposed to "reader," because it just made me realize the extent to which we simply consume. I wonder how we might move, globally, from being consumers of images and things to being witnesses to them.

Agosin: It also reminds me of a poem by Robert Pinsky, "Shirt," which is very similar. He speaks about the buttons of his shirt, who made them ,and in which country. I think that it's very important to think about the history of cloth and its relationship to work, to women, from ancient times to now. But I also think that an important message of the arpilleras is that they are works of art. They are creations. They are artistic creations out of a very inner place.

I think a way to help us not become consumers is to return. To think, "How many hours did it take for some woman to make this? What must she have felt when she was stitching memories of her loved one being tortured?" To relate it to a fundamental, personal story.

Bridget Keller: My name is Bridget Keller. I'm a Swiss lawyer, and I'm here as a private person, not representing any organization. I wanted to say that the story Marjorie was telling made it so clear that it is very important that we not describe victims of human rights violations just as victims, that we're not using them as objects to tell a story that we find important and that is important. It's important that we see them as more than just victims of human rights violations, that we see their resilience, their courage, and their engagement. These women might not have been politically active at all, but they took their story and became very active. They were not only victims.

Agosin: The majority of the women that made arpilleras were not involved in official politics. Maybe their children belonged to parties, but they were mothers, housewives, had menial jobs. They were victims of a dictatorship, but they were courageous in addressing their victimization. When you look at an arpillera, there's something that speaks about hope. There's a movie made about them, called "Threads of Hope." I urge you to see it. It's very powerful. They're very colorful. There are always flowers. I also think that they've tried to humanize a dehumanized world. And that's also why they are so successful.

Elena Gonzáles, professor of Spanish Language and Culture, Brandeis University: You mentioned internationally the arpillera art was embraced and at the moment it served the purpose of raising awareness. You also said the arpillera artistry is very much alive today. What I would like to know is, internationally, is there still an interest in this type of art, or did it decrease after democracy came back to Chile? If it has decreased, what is your view on that? How do you feel about this art, which is obviously so important to the Chileans, being of interest to the international public?

Agosin: There are many answers to your question. First of all, in the very early years of the arpillera movement, Chile was a country of tremendous interest for Europe – especially for the socialist democracies in Sweden and Norway, and then to other democracies, such as France and Germany – because Salvador Allende was an incredible experiment of democracy – and of socialism. I believe socialism is always democratic. He only governed for a thousand days; what is so amazing is that people, after 30 years, are still talking about those thousand days of Salvador Allende's government. The Socialist party, the Communist party, Spain, everybody had a tremendous stake in the story of Chile – and, therefore, the arpilleras. But I would like to add that, like everywhere, not everyone in Chile even knew of the arpilleras, because they were clandestine. You could go to the Vicariate and not see them, because they were hidden in a room. So, within Chile, there were human rights people who took an interest and others who didn't. Those members of the human rights community who knew about the arpilleras embraced them. When Pinochet was arrested in London, the arpilleras resurfaced. Many arpilleras were made of his arrest, and they gained the same international interest.

Your question about democracy is interesting, because I think sometimes democracy allows you to become too comfortable, be too sure of yourself. There are times in Chilean history when this has happened. But I think the constant trials of General Pinochet helped maintain the interest of the arpilleras' allies. The arpillera is really a fundamental part of Chilean history. They are very much alive, and there is tremendous interest now from many fields. College students are so interested in this story. I think this story can move to the shantytowns of Peru and Guatemala. I believe there is a revival of cloth to tell stories. I think women must believe that we are empowered. Not empowered through CNN or FOX News, but empowered to think. The arpillera allows you to be empowered and allows you to tell a story, using the most precarious materials, the materials of the poor. That, in itself, is of tremendous significance.

Jennifer Raul, senior, Wellesley College: I'm particularly moved by the image of the hand, as somebody else already mentioned, particularly how it's an extension of language. It's an extension of the voice box, really. It's poetic to think of the hand as giving voice. One of the most interesting things about the arpillera is that it really creates an aperture for language, for voicing language, for being able to talk about things these women couldn't speak about, something so overwhelming. Perhaps something that would create so much emotion that it was too painful. And I feel, because I'm also a poet like Marjorie, that it's very difficult to find the language for human rights. It's very difficult to express yourself when something is so painful. It would be immensely interesting, Marjorie, if you could talk about how the arpilleras did create an aperture for speaking about what was going on at the time.

Agosin: Thank you, Jen. I like what you said about the hands becoming language – and, therefore, poetry. Even though the women that made the arpilleras were not involved in official politics, Latin America is place of a tremendous political culture, and I think they were aware that words were going to be censored. When you look at an arpillera, you kind of have to look at it twice to really catch the meaning of it. You may think, "This is just done by some mothers. It's so sweet," when you see a pot of flowers and a house full of windows painted with colors. Then you see a man with his hands tied, or a picture of a national stadium and a body hanging, all made through the cloth. Then you realize the tremendous power that this has. So, I like very much what you said, Jen. I think we have to look at the hands as a language for human affection. Language has to do with healing, which is something so fundamental. You cannot speak about human rights without thinking about how to heal. The hands have the power to heal, because they construct the stories that, like you say, were so difficult to express through words.

Woman: I have a question that goes back to my experience in El Salvador. Several grassroots movements there became politicized, and the four rebel movements in some ways hijacked their pain and used it as their voices. Even the non-governmental Human Rights Commission and the aid organizations and churches were used in there. Was there an effort to try to use the arpilleras, to hijack them and use them for another purpose within that political context?

Agosin: You know, the question is interesting. I would have to say no. A lot of the women never joined the political parties of their children. They were not religious, but they went to the church to use the facilities of the church. I think this is why the art is so poignant, because it was not politicized. It told the truth, a truth that cannot be distorted. A lot of the mothers had children who were student leaders, labor leaders, but in a very simple way, they were just mothers, and that's also part of their courage.

William J. Chalmus, senior, Brandeis University: This is very interesting. I stumbled in here by accident, to a certain respect, but I'm glad I was here to be a witness. I consider myself an artist too. I'm somewhat of an urban kid, and I'm the youngest of my group that I hang around with. What this makes me think the most about is, how do you make them witnesses? It's easy to be a witness here, because we're all in such an intellectual environment. But this doesn't really happen to make other people witness where I'm from. That type of interaction can't really happen. I don't really see such a problem with being a consumer witness, because there are a lot of other things that people consume that are not as important. It might be a good thing to be a consumer witness for different issues like this. And it is a positive way to do it through art. Because, like you said, if it's accurate, then it's accurate and you can't deny that.

Leigh Swigart, associate director, International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life, Brandeis University: As an anthropologist, I'm trying to think of the larger, cultural background of the arpilleras, and I'm thinking it's not just working class mothers who lost children and lost family members. What were the competing human rights narratives that were being produced in Chile? Also, one of the things you didn't address is what the creation of these did for the people who created them, and how that's different from what the competing narrative producers experienced.

Agosin: Yes, yes. Thank you, Leigh. First, your first question: I don't know if I like the word "competing" narratives, but there were several other narratives. The arpillera was the most vivid one, I would say the most important. There was the work carved in stone by political prisoners in very remote parts of Chile; there was the work of writers and poets that was, in a way, clandestine, published through handwritten material that was distributed in buses. People wrote protest poetry and songs. It was there and it was ephemeral, but it was there. The arpillera is also ephemeral in the sense that you make it, then you send it elsewhere. But you can hold it. Written work was more diluted than the material word of the arpillera. This was the work that touched the people the most, because there was a visceral connection to the story.

Now, how did this change the women? I think it changed them tremendously. It empowered them. A lot of them, at first, were even afraid to make their arpilleras and they hid them from their husbands. A lot of the women were from very traditional, patriarchal households. But the arpilleras gave them freedom, and freedom as women. This is the work of a feminist consciousness, because it uses the materials that have been sometimes so devalued. And these materials become powerful. So, women, in a way, transcend the very conventional status that they've always had, really, in Latin America. Another important narrative that took place was the testimonies of shantytowns. Many, many people wrote down what was happening in their shantytown. The great tragedy is that all of it is very much vanished now, and people are trying to reclaim it. So, there were many narratives happening. But this one was the one that was able to transcend Chile and move abroad.