As Protests Rage in Chile, These Patchwork Pictures Are More Relevant than Ever

During a dark period in Chile’s history, colorful hand-sewn pieces called arpilleras told stories of people’s struggles

In detailed scenes sewn together with colorful patches of fabric, Chilean women documented the darkest years of the country’s history. They told the story of a brutal dictatorship and resistance against it, of families struggling after the disappearance of loved ones and of women working together to ensure that the needs of their communities were met. Arte, Mujer y Memoria: Arpilleras from Chile, which opened at the Museum of Latin American Art in late November and runs through March 29, is a powerful visual history of the Pinochet regime as told by the women who witnessed it.

On September 11, 1973, Chile’s democratically elected president Salvador Allende was overthrown in a CIA-supported coup that ultimately brought Augusto Pinochet to power. In the years that followed, more than three thousand people were killed. Tens of thousands of Chileans were imprisoned and tortured. Because men were the primary targets, many women were left to support their families with little means to do so. These arpilleras, textile art made with pieces of fabric sewn on burlap, developed as a response to this situation.

“They started putting these together as a form of therapy in a way, dealing with the trauma, and then selling them,” Gabriela Martinez, director of education at MOLAA and curator of the exhibition, explains by phone. Through workshops organized by human rights groups, women would gather to sew their pieces, which would then be sold outside of Chile.

“Women gradually moved from the depicting everyday scenes to depicting scenes of the dictatorship,” says Alicia del Campo, an anthropologist and Cal State Long Beach professor who is part of Movement for the Emancipation of the Chilean Woman-Los Angeles, the group that collaborated with MOLAA on this show. “In many ways, the arpilleras that started in the ’80s to the ’90s became a visual memory of the struggle of women against dictatorship.”

While the arpilleras were a means of fundraising, they also informed people outside of Chile of the brutality that the government was trying to deny and of the hardships that people endured as a result. Some of the arpilleras depict horrifying scenes, like the disposal of bodies by helicopter. There are somber reminders of the disappeared, a dinner table with an empty seat and the dance la cueca performed only by women. Protests appear in the works, as do efforts to secure food and electricity.

“In many ways, the arpilleras that started in the ’80s to the ’90s became a visual memory of the struggle of women against dictatorship.”

“It was a way of them smuggling news out of the country and making other people aware,” says Martinez.

Making and distributing the arpilleras was covert work, as those known to be critical of the Pinochet regime could be harassed or worse. A number of pieces in the MOLAA show are anonymous. Others are credited only with the initials of the arpilleristas. Finished pieces were smuggled out of the country and sold with the help of diasporan communities throughout the world, including Los Angeles. MEMCH-LA, a local branch of the longtime Chilean women’s rights organization that launched here in the 1980s, was a part of that movement. “MEMCH-LA started receiving shipments of those arpilleras and sold them in solidarity and sent the money to Chile to provide for these women,” says del Campo, who began working with the group after she moved to Southern California in the 1990s.

Although historic, these works also connect to current protests in Chile, where demonstrators have been met with frightening use of force by authorities. The New York Times recently reported that at least 285 people have incurred serious eye injuries as a result of the rubber bullets and tear gas used against protestors. Amnesty International has documented multiple instances of human rights violations, including five deaths. Del Campo, who is originally from Chile and is currently working on a book about the 2011 student protests, was in the country a week before our interview. “On the one hand, there’s strong repression,” says del Campo of the current protests. “On the other hand, it’s absolute certainty and absolute solidarity among people.”

The show includes one contemporary arpillera. For the Right to Live with Dignity by Victoria Diaz, creates three scenes that speak about environmental degradation and the need for clean water in Chile today. Martinez points out that these contemporary issues are similar to those people face in the U.S. as well.

“I think that this exhibition will hopefully make people more curious for the situation of their fellow human beings,” she says, “and [help them] understand how we’re so interconnected through politics, economy, and culture.”

RELATED: Amid the Threat of Ramped-Up ICE Raids, a Famed Boyle Heights Arts Organization Is Keeping People Informed

Stay on top of the latest in L.A. food and culture. Sign up for our newsletters today.