Arpilleras and the Catholic Church
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Hi and welcome to this edition of the Chile in the Cold War Podcast, I’m Jack Patterson coming to you from St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York. This podcast is being presented concurrently with the North Country Arpilleras Exhibit with St. Lawrence University and SUNY Potsdam. Today, our discussion revolves around the role of the Catholic Church in Chile and their prominence in the production and distribution of arpilleras during the Pinochet regime.
I hope that during our time together today, you will have grasped the importance of the Catholic Church and the women who produced these arpilleras during the early days of the Pinochet regime, and also have some background while viewing our exhibit at the Brush Art Gallery.
Let’s get into it.
Latin America historically has been a major hub for the world’s Catholics for a large part of the 20th Century. Drawing from the colonial powers of Spain and Portugal, Catholic views have been almost permanently embedded in daily life and society. It should come as no surprise that when values and ways of life are threatened, that the response would come from this base.
The production of arpilleras in Chile by Catholic Church backed groups began in March of 1974, 6 months after the coup deposed President Salvador Allende. The goal of these groups was to draw attention to the issues of mass disappearances, arrests, and killings by the government of Augusto Pinochet. Through representations of events going on and experienced by these workers in daily life, the arpilleras created dialogue in countries such as the United States and Canada. This was important because the mainstream media coverage of the events was not telling the whole story, and Pinochet’s regime had tight control over the local media.
The production of arpilleras was very illegal, and when caught, workers would be arrested and thrown into the same prisons as their family members while their workshops would be destroyed. The Church in Chile smuggled these arpilleras out of the country, using Holy See diplomatic pouches that the government troops and police could not touch. When the arpilleras reached their destinations, they were often sold to patrons at events to help fund the cause against Pinochet and to help create more arpilleras. In addition to that, the sales of arpilleras provided income for the poverty-stricken women who produced them. These women had often lost the money maker in their family to the regime, and had no way to provide for themselves outside of the arpillera production. By the late 1970s, arpilleras had become a major industry for those who wanted to fight against oppression. The women who produced the arpilleras were also involved in protests against the government, asking where their sons, husbands, and other family members had been taken.
The Catholic Church also had hands on experience helping to shelter people from the regime. Often without cause, people would be arrested and thrown in prison for being associated with anti-Pinochet rhetoric or actions.
From a 2013 interview with Chilean art professor Mario Irarrázabal for Amnesty International, we can see the power that the Catholic Church wielded during and after the coup. It states:
“For Mario, things took a turn for the worse a few days after the coup. At around 3:00 am, Pinochet’s political police, the DINA, came knocking on the door of the vicarage where he was staying with his brother, a local priest. The police officers questioned Mario and several priests who were in the vicarage, accusing them of supporting left-wing activists. Eventually, they took only Mario with them, probably fearing a backlash from the Catholic Church if they targeted priests” .
This account shows how the church was the only entity that could stand up to the regime without fear of reprisals against them. Unfortunately, Mr. Irarrázabal was taken into custody, but countless other people were spared torture through the Church’s actions.
I hope as you have seen from our journey into this period that the Catholic Church played a pivotal role in allowing the hidden voices of the Chilean people to be heard. Without this support, who knows how long these atrocities and crimes against humanity would have continued. When you view our exhibit, remind yourself of the struggle and sacrifices that these people went through in order to find some form of justice. These arpilleras are a testament to their will power to seek social change.
Thank you for visiting the North Country Arpilleras exhibit and interactive website, and thank you for listening to this edition of the Chile in the Cold War Podcast. Once again, I’m Jack Patterson signing off from St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York. Goodbye!
 "Life under Pinochet: "The only thing we could hear were church bells and people screaming"," last modified September 4, 2013, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2013/09/life-under-pinochet-only… .
Bowers, Steven R. "Pinochet's Plebiscite and the Catholics: The Dual Role of the Chilean Church." World Affairs 151, no. 2 (1988): 51-58.
Lepeley, Oscar. "The Cueca of the Last Judgment: Politics of Chilean Resistance in Tres Marías Y Una Rosa." In Imagination Beyond Nation: Latin American Popular Culture, edited by Bueno Eva P. and Caesar Terry, 142-66. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998.
Life under Pinochet: "The only thing we could hear were church bells and people screaming"." Last modified September 4, 2013. https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2013/09/life-under-pinochet-only…. [A first hand interview from a survivor, who noticed the regime had a certain fear around the Church.]
Quigley, Thomas E. "The Chilean Coup, the Church and the Human Rights Movement." America Magazine. Last modified February 11, 2002. https://www.americamagazine.org/issue/360/article/chilean-coup-church-a….