The Needle as the Pen. Part 7: The Unravelling: Cutting Cloths

A guest post by Andrea Liu

Feminised Protests: Chained, Burned, Marching, Chile // Argentina

Due to ‘disappearances’ and economic insecurities, women increasingly participated in social movements and protests (Sutton, 2007b: 167). Sutton describes the phenomenon of activist women as the “feminization of resistance” (Ibid.).

Six women and one man are chained to the gates in front of the Congress building. Each has an image of their loved ones who had disappeared stitched onto the front of their clothes. Displaying their photos front and centre on their clothed bodies, they protest for answers and against the action of the Pinochet regime. All who took part in this protest were detained for five days. Encadenamiento / Women Chained to Parliament Gates is a Chilean arpillera made in the 1980s (Bacic, 2015c: 1).

‘Encadenamiento / Women Chained to Parliament Gates’, Anonymous, Chile, 1980s. © Conflict Textiles collection. Provenance Arpillera collection, Kinderhilfe, Chile/Bonn. Photo: Martin Melaugh.

The setting is bright. The sun is out. Nothing seems out of place until we notice a massive flame stitched onto the pink car. There are two faces looking out of the car. Their faces are blackened. People around the car in shock, one points, another covers half her face. Carmen Gloria quemada viva / Carmen Gloria burnt alive is a Chilean arpillera stitched by Elizabeth Zelada in 1990 (Bacic, 2015b: 1). This event is strongly engraved in Chilean collective memory. As Bacic notes:

“On the 2nd of July 1986, as part of a two-day national protest against the Pinochet dictatorship, a group of demonstrators near the Estación Central in Santiago de Chile were intercepted by a military patrol as they erected makeshift barricades. Most people managed to escape except for Carmen Gloria Quintana, an 18-year-old university student and Rodrigo Rojas DeNegri, a 19-year-old photographer who returned from visiting his exiled mother in the USA.” (Bacic, 2015b: 1)

Carmen Gloria quemada viva
‘Carmen Gloria quemada viva / Carmen Gloria burnt alive’, by Elizabeth Zelada, Chile, 1990. © Professor Masaaki Takahashi, Japan. In the care of Conflict Textiles collection. Photo: Martin Melaugh.

Elizabeth, the arpillerista, placed a letter in the pocket of her arpillera that reads:

“In one of the many protests that we had during the dictatorship Carmen Gloria Quintana was set alight with acid and in other occasions many people died in the struggle for their ideals.” (cited in Bacic, 2015b: 2)

Official accounts “at the time said the two victims accidentally set themselves on fire while constructing a burning barricade to hold back law enforcement officials” (BBC, 2015: 2). In 2015, the case was reopened “when a military conscript, Fernando Guzman, changed his previous evidence” (Ibid.). Carmen recounts the moment the officer soaked them in kerosene “as if he was watering a plant”:

“All of a sudden one of the soldiers threw something close to us, like a Molotov cocktail. And as it hit the ground it exploded, and Rodrigo and I turned into human torches…” (BBC, 2015: 2)

While in flames, Rodrigo and Carmen Gloria were wrapped in blankets and dumped in a ditch off the main highway. When they woke up, Carmen remembers how her skin was black and sore, and their clothes were shredded. She remembers looking at Rodrigo: “Half of Rodrigo’s hair was missing, all his face was black and burnt” (Ibid.). Rodrigo died four days later and Carmen Gloria survived despite having over 60% of her body burnt (Ibid.). Although the truth came late, one cannot help but respect the courage of the arpilleristas to remember and memorialise such events that were erased from official records. If Fernando Guzman had never found the courage to tell the truth and the arpilleristas never stitched Carmen and Rodrigo’s story, Rodrigo’s death and Carmen’s life-long scars would have been in vain.

The Grandmothers with white headscarves are walking around the Plaza de Mayo, the oldest public square in Buenos Aires. The white stitches that circle around the square marks the weekly walk for the old grandmothers. For over forty years, every Thursday, their march around the obelisk in front of the government buildings in Plaza de Mayo demonstrated their anguish and determination (Bacic, 2015a: 2). They march to protest the disappearance of their loved ones and to denounce the actions of the military junta, demanding answers. The grey, swirling tones that these grandmothers are set in marching allude to this dark period of history in Argentina and a sense that their walk is never ending (Bacic, 2015a: 2).

Ausencias - Presencias
‘AUSENCIAS –PRESENCIAS Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo/Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo’, by Ana Zlatkes, Argentina, 2014. © Conflict Textiles collection. Photo: Ana Zlatkes.

AUSENCIAS – PRESENCIAS Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo / (ABSENCES – PRESENCES) Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo is an Argentinian arpillera made by Ana Zlatkes in 2014 (Bacic, 2015a: 2). For Ana and other arpilleristas, she explains:

“As artists, we would like to give a testimony of the story lived in our country. …whilst the numbers who maintain the weekly nonviolent protest have declined due to ill health, time and death, their sense of purpose and determination in walking together to denounce these atrocities.” (cited in Bacic, 2015a: 2)

Nora Cortiñas is a Grandmother of the Plaza de Mayo who has been marching on the streets against the injustice of dictatorship for forty-one years since 1977 (Cortiñas and Keene, 2017). On the 15th of April 1977, her son Gustavo ‘disappeared’. Gustavo was a young father who left behind two children (Ibid.). He, along with the 30,000 ‘disappeared’, will never enjoy their family. These young activists disappeared because they were fighting for social injustice. To silence young men and women, the dictatorship forced disappearances to happen and took their identities. Similar to Nazi and Fascist methodology, the regime on the 24th of March 1976 partook in a systematic mass repression targeting young professionals (e.g. doctors, engineers, psychiatrists) who were from the ages of 25 to 29 and Jewish people (Ibid.). They also took activists as young as the age of 17 to 18. According to Nora, Argentina was never in warfare (Ibid.). It was a peaceful country. And yet, there were more than 500 concentration camps, having thousands of political prisoners (Ibid.) Many left the country to preserve their lives, but herself and the mothers of the ‘disappeared’ went to the streets to look for their children, knocking on every hospital and house. Even the pregnant mothers had their babies stolen from them after birth. Mothers searched through nurseries for their newborns. From Nora’s perspective, the dictatorship was not just militaristic, it was also ecclesiastic (Ibid.). The head of the Catholic Church helped steal babies for wealthy businessmen and the military. 500 babies were missing, but the Abuelas recovered 125 of them (Ibid.). Yet not all Catholic churches participated. There were priests who also went to look for these stolen babies. Bacic as well reveals: “Pregnant women, who gave birth under abysmal circumstances in detention centre were then generally killed whilst many of their babies were illegally adopted by military or political families affiliated with the administration” (Bacic, 2015: 2). The government negates all these atrocities and hides the real statistics of how many people have disappeared. According to the Nunca Más (Never Again) report (1984) by the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons:

“…[estimated] up to 9000 cases of forced disappearance and other human rights violations were perpetrated and concluded the real figure to be much higher. Approximately 30% of victims were women with children under the age of 15 numbering 200.” (cited in Bacic, 2015a: 2)

The heartbreak for Nora and the Abuelas is the fact that this was not the cause of war. The army fought with their young people who were only fighting for social justice, peace and a dream. Nora and the Abuelas “never wanted revenge, only seek justice” for their children and their grandchildren (Cortiñas and Keene, 2017). This is why Nora and the Abuelas put their own bodies and their safety on the line.

Activists often use their bodies as political “arguments” (De Lucca in Sutton, 2007a: 140) or “text” (Peterson in Sutton, 2007a: 140), as symbols that convey political meaning. Calling attention to their own bodies, activists construct “compelling images that attract media attention” (De Lucca in Sutton, 2007a: 140) as well as the attention of other protesters and onlookers at the scene. Women in Argentina have engaged, as men have, in a variety of political actions in which the body is a useful “argumentative resource” (De Lucca in Sutton, 2007a: 140). For example, they clothe or unclothe the body in particular ways (Sutton, 2007a: 140). The white headscarves of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo evoke children’s diapers and affirm the political aspect of motherhood (Sutton, 2007b: 140). The body just as the Abuelas and their white headscarves “serve as a symbol, a text that conveys political meanings” (Sutton, 2007a: 143). Women’s embodied resistance has contributed not only to their own survival and sense of power but, as Matoso argues in reference to broader social projects and protests, also to rebuild the social body:

“The body of resistance constructs a social body with a new, mended, sewn-up skin. The popular assemblies, the concrete protests, the cacerolazos, [and] the solidarity networks repair the skin and in that way fortify and give time for the skin to regenerate” (Matoso in Sutton, 2007b: 155).

To be continued…

About Andrea Liu

Born in Orange County, California, Andrea Liu is a writer, researcher and designer.  Graduating from Central St. Martin’s in 2018, she specialises in woven textile design and has honed her skills in material research and off-loom woven construction.  She endeavours on making sustainable designs, approaching every project with the goal of turning waste into material of value.  Prior to Central St. Martin’s, she worked as an Executive Assistant and ghostwriter for a film producer.  As well, she attained a B.A. (Hons.) in Chinese Studies from The University of Manchester in 2011 and a M.phil in Creative Writing from Trinity College Dublin in 2012. Read more about Andrea and her projects on her website.

About “The Needle as the Pen” post series

The series of “The Needle as the Pen” blog post is based on Andrea Liu’s unpublished B.A. dissertation in Textile Design at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London, in which she investigated–under the same title–why and how needlework moved from the private sphere to public sphere in context of activism. With Liu Zhuanghuan’s coat in mind, I examine why and how the needle, the cloth and the body actively work together. Blog posts will discuss the needle, the cloth and the body, and explore conflict, resolution and activism experienced by the needle, the cloth and the body when the private and public spheres collide and crash into one another. Examples of arpillerasfrom South America and Conflict textiles from Northern Ireland will be used to illustrate how textiles speak truths about the women’s experiences in pain and healing.


Bacic, R. (2015). Arpillera Journeys.  Ulster: CAIN. Available at: [Accessed 17 Aug. 2017].

Bacic, R. (2015a). AUSENCIAS – PRESENCIAS Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo/Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo. CONFLICT TEXTILES. Available at: [Accessed 7 Apr. 2018].

Bacic, R. (2015b). Carmen Gloria quemada viva / Carmen Gloria burnt alive. CONFLICT TEXTILES. Available at: [Accessed 6 Apr. 2018].

Bacic, R. (2015c). Encadenamiento / Women Chained to Parliament Gates. CONFLICT TEXTILES. Available at: [Accessed 3 Apr. 2018].

BBC (2015). Chile charges former soldiers in 1986 burning students case. [online] Available at: [Accessed 4 Apr. 2018].

Cortiñas, N. and Keene, B. (2017). Nora Cortiñas UK Speaking Tour: Human rights, Disappearances, Debt and Free Trade: Struggles for Justice and Sovereignty in Argentina and Latin America.

Sutton, B. (2007a). Naked Protest: Memories of Bodies and Resistance at the World Social Forum. Journal of International Women’s Studies, [online] 8(3), pp. 139-148. Available at: [Accessed 28 Nov. 2017].

Sutton, B. (2007b). Poner el Cuerpo: Women’s Embodiment and Political Resistance in Argentina. Latin American Politics & Society 49(3), pp. 129-162. Available at: [Accessed 1 Dec. 2017].

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