Chilean Women Searching for Peace through Needles & Thread

They are called “Las Arpilleras”

“The arpilleras are so moving, they are an extraordinary example of the value of women amid adversity. They have strength and can speak without fear”.

By Javiera Bruna (El Mostrador)

HAVANA TIMES – The writer, narrator and promoter of Latin American women’s literature, Marjorie Agosín, has published a book of children’s stories “Las Arpilleras: a story told with a needle and thread” (Editorial Mis Raíces), a selection of children’s stories that recounts the life of Chilean women who, through their craft, managed to mourn the loss of their relatives during the Pinochet dictatorship.

As someone who has long addressed gender issues throughout her work, Marjorie begins her interview with El Mostrador talking about how she was inspired by Nobel Prize winner Gabriela Mistral. “I felt that Gabriela’s extraordinary creativity and humanistic dimension was minimized; she was often seen as a simple rural teacher who wrote poems for children, but really she was, and continues to be, an extraordinary artist and activist for human rights”, she said.  

The aim is to make visible the lives of women who were silenced and who only managed to express their feelings and inner worlds through arts such as quilting, embroidery or weaving, preserving not only the legacy of great women of mythology and history such as Athena, Penelope or Violeta Parra, but also others whose names were not known, and who this text makes visible.

“Embroidering, weaving and mending have been part of the legacy of women throughout history. All of these metaphors make up much of women’s writing. We also write with fragments that help us tell stories. Each fragment is an instant as is each stitch, and we could say that the interiority of women, the peace found in embroidery, are important expressions of our subjectivity”, the author says.

The art of arpillera, women and invisibility: a way to make your voice heard

“Delfina Nahuenhual”, “Military coup”, “A long walk” and “Returning to the happy hill”, are four stories that bring us closer to the experience of the Chilean arpilleristas, who in the 1970s made their voices heard through cloth and fiber, daring to tell their experiences as they brought to life scenes that mark our country’s history. 

The main catalyst for Agosin’s creation was the silence that characterized that time — secrecy that she also directly relates to being a woman. “I have dedicated myself to disseminating the works of Latin American writers through anthologies. I always felt that women who write are only invited to dessert, it is very difficult for them to access a publisher, so I committed myself to the job of writing and occupying a position at the table”, she said.

“I think that embroidery is a way of writing, let’s remember Ariadne who through a thread was able to get out of the labyrinth, let’s also think of Penelope’s cunning and loyalty with her weaving and unweaving”, she said, referring to the work of the women artisans who denounced to the whole world the social injustices happening in Chile.

Among the selected texts it is possible to find stories that invite girls, boys, adolescents and adults to reflect on the present and the past, along with the construction of female references and manual arts as a form of personal reconstruction:

“I also understood that cutting out pieces of cloth and then joining them taught us many things, such as the possibility of restoring, of recomposing something of the dignity of those who had been devastated” (text excerpt).

Autobiography, disappearances, justice and reparation

Marjorie Agosín’s career was marked by issues associated with the female condition, from mythological characters to great women in Chilean history; such as the folklorist Violeta Parra and the poet and Nobel Prize winner Gabriela Mistral. However, from a more personal experience, the author comments that her family life also had something to do with this project, noting that “my family always embroidered, and my grandparents and great-grandparents were tailors.”  However, her motivation for constructing a literary portrait of the lives of these Chilean arpilleristas goes beyond their blood ties. “The arpilleras are an extraordinary example of the value of women in the midst of adversity,” she says.

The stories collected touch closely on the experience of hundreds of women who are still looking for their relatives who disappeared during the military dictatorship -an issue that in some way connects her again with the history of her family as she says, “I did not have anyone in my family go missing, but I am Jewish and a large part of my family were murdered in the concentration camps. That experience has defined my life in a very profound way, and I learned solidarity towards all persecuted beings, among them, of course, the mothers of the disappeared in Latin America”, she noted.

Finally, Marjorie refers to the women’s groups with their origins in the creative women who began a tradition decades ago that continues to this day. “The arpilleristas from the time of the dictatorship have passed away and I don’t know if they found any sort of reparations in life, but there is an extraordinary Memorarte collective that continues their legacy, traveling the world with arpilleras to protest the injustices still affecting our country. They did so much to denounce the injustices, and they are our future”, she adds.

The stories contained in “The arpilleras: stories told with needle and thread” are in a printed version for children but can be read by people of all ages via Editorial Mis Raices or on Amazon, along with all the books by the author.  

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