In the 1980s, the United States and the U.S.S.R. were the international superpowers and Latin America was the world's political hot spot. Military coups and guerrilla warfare continually disrupted the region from Mexico through South America.
In Chile, the democratically elected Socialist government of Salvador Allende was forced out of power by a coup led by General Augusto Pinochet. Pinochet was supported by the American government, which feared Soviet influence on a government so close to its borders. Under Pinochet's military dictatorship, people suspected of anti-government activities were routinely seized from their homes and made to disappear.
At first glance, these textiles look like joyful representations of life in Chile. The colourful fabrics and embroidery suggest holiday souvenirs. However, if you look closely, these images are evidence of a much darker side of Chilean life. They are among the thousands of arpilleras made by women whose family members had disappeared under Pinochet's government.
Women were encouraged by the Catholic Church to create these textiles both as a source of income and as an outlet for their grief. Religious organizations provided materials to make the arpilleras, then purchased them to sell outside Chile. The churches used the profits to buy materials for more arpilleras and to fund social outreach programs.
As international attention on Chile's political situation grew increasingly critical, the government made it illegal to own or publicly show arpilleras. Nonetheless, many arpilleras were successfully smuggled abroad, including the ones you see here. The women had discovered a powerful way to share what was happening in their country, their neighbourhoods and their families with the rest of the world.
The images in the arpilleras reflect the lives of the women who made them. These women endured poverty, food shortages, government brutality, unemployment, police raids and many other hardships. Because the arpilleras depict everyday life, they testify to what was happening to ordinary people under the government of General Pinochet.
The women and their work became the voice of opposition to the military government. Although these women had no interest in gaining political power, their public displays of grief, constant visits to detention centres and jails, and unwavering determination to share their stories put them at the forefront of public resistance. The arpilleras came to represent not only the stories of the women who made them, but the story of Chile itself.