In Chile, women piece together a picture of life under dictatorship

In the sprawling capital and other cities of Chile, hundreds of women are using their traditional skills of sewing and embroidering to piece together torn lives and tell a story of their country ``that was not supposed to be told.'' These are the arpilleristas - women of all ages and classes who for 13 years have used scraps of cloth and other objects to create vivid pictures of their families' lives under the Chilean dictatorship. For the majority, they are lives uprooted years ago by the sudden disappearance of husbands, sons, or brothers.

In ``Scraps of Life, Chilean Arpilleras'' (Red Sea Press, $9.95; translated by Cola Franzen), Marjorie Agos'in - a Chilean poet living and teaching in the United States - tells the story of these women and the wall hangings that are forbidden to be sold in Chile but have become prized in many parts of the world.

She recounts a poignant story of women growing in courage out of their shared experience, helping each other to reject fear and the ``evil of silence'' to embrace a new, more unconventional role in defiance of the military regime. With the continuous creation of their works - the arpilleras - they are, she says, ``methodically filling in what was meant to be a blank in Chile's history.''

As with Argentina's Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, it is a saga of brave, persistent women confronting a government determined to eliminate without a sign large numbers of those who oppose it. In Argentina, some mothers pushed for seven years until a new democratic government in 1983 began the investigation that revealed secret torture centers in which some 9,000 Argentines died.

In Chile, some have already spent 14 years visiting government offices, prisons, detention centers, searching for some sign of a child or husband. They have been met by stony faces, bland denials, or, as one woman puts it, those in charge ``always answer in a bored, laconic way: `He couldn't have been detained. He is not in our Cardex file.'''

The women's response has been to record in brilliant color the story of their relatives' disappearances - exactly as they occurred - and then to depict the effects of those disappearances and other aspects of the dictatorship on their own and their communities' daily lives. Each produces an arpillera a week.

After the September, 1973, coup that toppled the elected Socialist government of Salvador Allende Gossens, thousands of Chileans were detained by the new military regime. Some were eventually exiled, some imprisoned, and others have never been heard from. Since then, the regime has carried out periodic sweeps - particularly in poor shantytowns - rounding up men and sometimes women.

Ms. Agos'in does not intend a history of the dictatorship nor of Chilean politics. Her focus is the experience of these women and the workshops organized by the Vicarate of Solidarity - the indepedent human rights agency of the Roman Catholic Church - under whose auspices the arpilleras are created and sold in other countries.

After the coup, an ecumenical group of Catholic and Protestant churches called Pro-Paz (pro-peace) tried to help families by looking into the disappearances and providing food and shelter for those left without a breadwinner. Eventually, small groups were formed to help the women earn some money to live on - thus the arpillera workshops were born. After the government forced Pro-Paz to dissolve in 1975, the Catholic church created the Vicarate. There are now more than 30 workshops in various parts of the country. One of the interesting aspects of this tale is the way in which the women have taken advantage of the regime's traditional view of women - including an inability to take them seriously - to carry out protests that would land men in prison.

Agos'in spent many hours over several years with these women - watching them craft images of hope and strength as well as anguish, and listening to their stories. Hers is a passionate, loving book, its whole purpose being to share their story with the world.

In an effort to put their accomplishments in perspective, she also presents a brief historical look at women's role in Chilean politics and society, including a description of the feminist movement. Though informative, this section does not seem wholly at home in this story. Agos'in points out that the arpilleristas are not feminists, but her own feminist sensitivities led her to consider the significance of their activities for the role of women in Chile's future.

The final chapter consists of testimonies from the women themselves and those who helped them undertake the work. They are simple, heartfelt stories, sometimes providing a glimpse from a different cultural or political perspective.

Though the book is rambling at times, it is a moving testimonial to the efforts of these women to rise above their government's attempts to intimidate them and to work for their own sense of what their society should be. While many of their works are fervent, antigovernment protests - one cries out, ``Cain, where is thy brother?'' - others are clearly tinged with hope and faith. One wishes the book contained more than two pages of pictures of the arpilleras themselves.

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