A guest post by Lucy Taylor
I first encountered Chilean arpilleras nearly 30 years ago now – shocking how time hurtles by. I was working as a waitress in London and volunteering at the Chile Solidarity Campaign (housed in the Red Rose Club – Labour party headquarters for North Islington MP Jeremy Corbyn…). It was 1988.
The transition to democracy in Chile was getting exciting – the plebiscite (which asked voters if they wanted another 10 years of General Pinochet) had just been won by the opposition and the election campaign – the first for 17 years – was underway. One of my jobs was to fulfil the mail-orders, and one of the items we sold were arpilleras – the hand-crafted embroideries which told tales of suffering, dignity and political resistance.
A year later I went to Chile to see – in the new democratic government. There I worked alongside student activists and absorbed the heady atmosphere of political freedom and occasional tear gas at the top of the Alameda. I didn’t meet arpilleristas. “No more need for arpilleras”, we thought – “that’s old news”.
And yet it was the courage of pro-democracy activists – including the shanty-town women who made the arpilleras – which inspired me to do a Masters in Latin American Studies, and then to do a PhD on social movements in Chile and Argentina. On fieldwork I spoke to human rights groups and women’s organisations, but no-one mentioned arpilleras, and I didn’t ask. They didn’t seem pressing – just an artefact from a different era.
And here I am now in Aberystwyth, 30 years later, teaching about women, social movements and politics in Latin America. When we’re ‘doing’ feminism and democracy, I show pictures of the arpilleras in lectures, but they don’t speak from the screen, and I can’t convey their meaning.
But Dani brought the Mexican handkerchiefs into a lecture and spoke of the human stories. I watched the students – some at least – touch the stitching with awe and grasp their deep personal and political significance.
Seeing and touching the arpilleras as part of the Stitched Voices exhibition brought it all back – my trajectory. Intellectually, I blush to think of my idealistic innocence of those days. How naïve I was, how black-and-white my thinking, how complex I now know the world to be.
But I miss it – the simple passion, the importance of politics, the possibility of change in the face of injustice. Looking at the arpilleras alongside the handkerchiefs, stitched by Mexican hands to name and dignify loved ones, a spark of that passion and anger reignites. I recall that arpilleras were – and are – not an object to be taught but a struggle to be fought.
To embroider one needs sharp needles. And we can use them as a weapon.
Lucy Taylor is a Senior Lecturer in Latin American Studies at the Department of International Politics at Aberystwyth University. In her current research, she asks critical questions of the mythologies that surround the Welsh in Patagonia. Lucy contributed to Stitched Voices, among others, by brilliantly facilitating our roundtable on “Women’s Activism and Crafting Resistance”.