Chilean women stitch a record of political oppression

ONE day in 1974, Jorge and Carmen Silva were walking arm in arm down a street in Santiago, Chile, when a police car pulled up to the curb beside them. Three men got out, surrounded the young couple, hurriedly bundled them into the car, and drove away. Jorge and Carmen have not be seen or heard from since. The story of this detention, and of countless others that have taken place in Chile since Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte seized power in 1973, has gone officially unrecorded. Such disappearances -- estimated by Chilean human rights groups at more than 5,000 to date, out of a population of 10 million -- are not reported in the government-controlled Chilean news media, and statistics and police or legal records are impossible to obtain.

But a record is being kept by a group of women in Santiago -- a chronicle of daily sorrows and protest, terror and hope, is being stitched in secret on colorful rectangles of cloth called arpilleras.

Marjorie Agosin, a young Chilean poet born in the United States and married to an American, teaches Latin American literature at Wellesley College and is writing a book about the arpilleras. Traveling to Chile at least once a year, meeting with the women who make the arpilleras, she is one of the principal channels for the export abroad of their handiwork, and a communicator to the outside world of what is happening to many in her country.

``Since I live outside Chile, I believe that I have to do something,'' said Ms. Agosin, a petite, blond woman, during a recent interview in her book-lined, Gothic-style office on the Wellesley campus. ``I have started showing [the arpilleras] in different places, mainly at universities across the nation. I usually give a talk, because you have to understand the history of them, when it happened, when it started.

``I never imagined the marvelous results that have happened from my representing the arpilleras,'' Ms. Agosin continues. ``At first I started with very few and I tried to sell them. But then, since I'm talking in more places, more people got interested. I have seen a lot of letters in support of these women from the same people that have bought [the arpilleras]. I try to open up people's vision of what Latin America is.''

The making of arpilleras in Chile, says Ms. Agosin, began after the 1973 coup, when General Pinochet took power. The economic crisis resulting from political turmoil put many out of work, and women in the shantytowns sought help from their local churches. As many of them had been seamstresses, it was suggested that they make needlework products to sell. Soon small groups of women formed in various churches, and the making of the arpilleras began. In some instances their sale is now these women's sole means of support.

``The original idea,'' says Ms. Agosin, ``was to do something that would create income. But after two or three weeks that the women started getting together, they started talking about their problems, which were the same problems, because all of them had relatives that had disappeared. So they decided to re-create all their histories in these arpilleras. Somehow these arpilleras are the history of Chile from 1973 up to now.''

The word arpillera means burlap in Spanish, and refers to the rough cloth that forms the backing of these small tapestries, usually about the size of a place mat. They depict scenes from the everyday lives of the poor of Santiago. In an appliqu'e of bright solids and prints, simple shapes become houses, streets, buildings, trees -- and almost always the jagged, towering Andes form a backdrop to the picture.

Often the arpilleras have small, doll-like figures sewn onto them: people going about their daily lives. In one arpillera, most of these figures are dressed in identical dark green or black. They represent the police, Ms. Agosin says. One figure raises a stick above his head, while another (wearing ordinary clothes) cringes at his feet from the coming blow.

Another arpillera shows a barrackslike building bearing the initials of the Centro Nacional de Intelligencia, the government arm said to be the perpetrator of the wave of unexplained arrests and detentions. Below this building the words ``No mas tortura'' (``No more torture'') have been embroidered in black letters.

There is much vitality and lively detail in the arpilleras. ``They always have dolls, because they want to give the idea of movement and of people,'' Ms. Agosin says. ``And almost all of them have a very big sun, because [the women] say that they always believe there is hope. They have an incredible sense that things are going to be better.

``They make two arpilleras a week and they take them to the church and the church pays for them and sells them abroad or inside the country. But most of the income they get is from abroad, because it's very dangerous to even carry one in the street.''

On Nov. 6 of last year, a ``state of siege'' was declared in Chile. This has meant a nightly curfew at 1 a.m. (2 a.m. on weekends), a tightening of police surveillance, strict censorship of the press, and the banning of six major magazines. Perhaps the most virulent aspect of this ``state of siege'' is that Chileans can now officially be arrested and held without charge. Ms. Agosin believes that the number of detentions has escalated in recent months. She also reports that 150 people have been sent to internal exile since November. Others very familiar with Chilean politics estimate the figure at almost 500.

A recent change in its leadership has also meant that the Vicary of Solidarity, the church group that oversees the making of the arpilleras, is urging the women to tone down the political messages they contain.

``Now, in the state of siege, the Vicary does not want the women to do political arpilleras,'' Ms. Agosin says. ``I was in a meeting where [the arpilleristas] were arguing with some church official and they said, `We want to do the political ones, we want to show how the police beat people.' But the church said no. The woman who is in charge said, `They are not going to hurt me, but they are going to hurt you. So you shouldn't do it.' ''

With about 260 women in 20 workshops making two arpilleras a week, however, the movement could hardly go unnoticed by the Chilean authorities. Ms. Agosin says that between 30 and 40 articles have appeared in print denouncing the tapestries as slanderous of the government.

``[The arpilleristas] live in the shantytowns,'' she explains. ``The government has made a point of invading the neighborhoods where most of these women happen to live. So it's easy to find them. It's a very racist junta, extremely racist. It attacks the poor. They would never dare to go into an upper-class neighborhood.

``I worked with the Association of Families Whose Relatives Have Been Detained or Disappeared,'' she continues. ``There are about 15 women, and they were the original arpilleristas. It started with them because their husbands were gone or their children had disappeared. It's the same phenomenon as happened in Argentina [under the military regime of the 1970s].

``It was very, very moving just to be with these women and hear them talk. They said that they don't even hope that their children will be alive, but it's very important that the outside world should know that there's no response from their children. Nothing.

``The Association of the Families of the Disappeared gets together almost once a week, because they're always doing something, like going to the minister of justice, or to different people. When they get together they bring their arpilleras with them, and they sew.''

To buy an arpillera, or to make a contribution to the Association of Families of the Disappeared, send a check marked ``for deposit only'' to Vicaria de la Solidaridad-Talleres, Plaza de Armas 444, Santiago, Chile. The international price of an arpillera is $20, which includes postage.

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