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Arpilleras, Threads of Hope

As I walked into Spanish class in early December, I spun around in a circle, noticing how beautiful Señora Villalobos’ classroom looked. There was brilliantly colored patchwork cloth at every table, and thread to match each color. When Señora Villalobos told us what our project was for the trimester, the whole class was excited, despite not knowing how to sew. While we stitched what was most important to us, we discussed the importance of the arpillera in Chilean history.

Señora explained that the brightly colored patchwork pictures sewed into sacking were used to chronicle the lives of the poor and oppressed during the Chilean dictatorship in the 1970’s. Women whose brothers, sons or husbands were murdered or imprisoned and tortured by the military coup used these arpilleras to demonstrate their sadness and loss, and the anger they had for the corrupt government that ruled over them.

Each week, hundreds of women crowded into one-room workshops in Santiago, where they came together as a community and shared their sorrows. With each stitch of their needles, the women documented the oppression they faced in a country where their basic freedoms had been taken away. The government of Chile did not like these arpilleras, for they exposed them as killers and oppressors, though rightfully so. In order to protect themselves, women who made these pieces of art, known as arpilleristas, did not sign their work. These patchwork designs, originally used to express sorrow and loss, became fuel to the fire of the political unrest in Chile. These women wanted their missing family members back, and they protested in the streets by waving these arpilleras and shouting cries like, “Where are our men?” These protests brought the attention of the government, and many times the government targeted these women, attempting to silence their pleas. These women changed history in Chile, and their artwork spread to many other countries and has lasted throughout decades.

Many students in our classes used the arpillera project to exhibit a value important to their family, their culture, or their life. Other students designed their arpillera with happy memories, or beautiful pictures. The arpillera project provided each student with a different opportunity to express what they truly value.

Even though each student designed a unique arpillera, each with a different meaning, the sense of community and love was felt throughout the class. Each time we walked into Spanish class, we knew we would bond with our classmates over the general feeling of care and the need to make a difference in the world. We were constantly reminded of the struggle and success of the women who lost family members during this hard time in 1973.

Please come see our arpillera projects and experience our sense of community, which are on display in the Helen Temple Cook Library at Dana Hall.