Weaving Pain with Hope

Chilean tapestries depict oppression in Pinochet’s Chile.

By Samantha Allen '11

Threads of Hope: The Chilean Arpillera Movement, an exhibition at the College’s Handwerker Gallery, showcased last fall from October through December. On display were hand-sewn, three-dimensional tapestries, relics of the arpillera social movement of Chile.

The arpilleras, a word that means “burlap” in Spanish, were on loan from the collection of Chilean poet Marjorie Agosín. She visited the College for a second time last November 4–5 to discuss the political meanings behind the colorful works.

Traditionally, threads were woven into burlap to depict scenes of nature, the country, and city life. When Augusto Pinochet took control of Chile in September 1973, many women lost their sons and husbands in the siege or became political prisoners themselves. To earn money or smuggle messages to outside helpers, they took to weaving and created tapestries about their horrifying experiences, featuring images of torture, violence, police brutality, and death. The tapestries were sold to support their families and unintentionally became a staple in the human rights movement for justice in Chile when they were snuck out of the country and shown around the world.

Agosín came to the College to read her poetry and discuss the arpilleras’ history in a roundtable discussion. Her family narrowly escaped to Chile after the Nazis took control of Europe, and she relates her experiences as a Jewish student living in a South American culture to the issues Chilean woman faced three decades later as they grappled with their changing government.

“Agosín knew what it felt like to be marginalized,” says Annette Levine, assistant professor of modern languages and literature who illustrated the catalog for the exhibition and teaches Latin American Civilization and Culture. “Being Jewish, she couldn’t go to certain schools. Her poems capture a shared experience. They are powerful and speak about annihilation.” Levine says it is important for students to learn about the history of other countries.

“Seeing the arpillera exhibit on tour was very powerful for me,” says Alejandro Chavarria ’11. “Usually in college we'll study the history of the various political and social struggles that are taking place or have taken place in other countries, and we can still never arrive at a well-rounded understanding of the actual human experience. Real people with real families are affected by these tragic events, and it's very difficult to even come close to understanding that as a privileged U.S. citizen….[In this exhibit] you could see every thread and every detail that went into preserving the feelings and frustrations that these people experienced.”Levine’s students complemented their exposure to Chilean politics by creating their own arpilleras.

“Making an arpillera that depicts my understanding of someone else's experience is different from the experiences of the women who made the arpilleras on display in the Handwerker,” says Gabriel Ely ’10. “But I tried to keep the process as authentic as possible. It took a really, really long time. I can imagine the Chilean women sewing for their loved ones and pouring grief, anger, anxiety, and other emotions into their stitching.”

Although Chilean women began crafting arpilleras primarily to earn a living, the depictions of oppression woven into their work helped expose human rights violations and, ultimately, influenced the return of democracy to Chile.

Levine says that she wants her students come away from this exhibition with hope and a belief in change.