For Mother’s Day, I’ve been thinking about some of the powerful and provocative creative nonviolent activist work that mothers have done through the ages — and there is a lot of it. So much of popular history tells the stories of the men who “led” the charge in struggles, but my thoughts went to South America, and Chile in particular, because of the richness of the cultural methods used, and the leadership of mothers in the face of brutal and patriarchal regimes.
“You can’t have a revolution without songs,” read the banner behind Salvador Allende when he became president of Chile in 1970, highlighting the role of Nueva Canción (New Song) in the emergent resistance movements in South America. This style of musical resistance didn’t just include the voices of women, though one of its early proponents was Violeta Parra, a mother, who wrote the song “Gracias a la Vida.” Nueva Canción was intentionally used to unite and identify concerns of oppressed peoples, as it integrated native and rural musical instrumentation with urban and European styles to speak to ever larger communities. Only three years later, when Augusto Pinochet seized power in Chile, his regime outlawed several instruments identified with Nueva Canción, recognizing and attempting to stop the powerful spread of political ideas, courage and resistance through music.
Still, the music lived on. Today, the tradition continues thanks to, among others, the son and daughter of Violeta, who instilled a love of this music in her children. What an amazing gift.
Even as music served functions of education, empowerment, community-building and the putting forward of alternate visions for society, it was not the only cultural work that significantly contributed to the effectiveness of the movement for justice. During the brutal dictatorship of Pinochet, mothers spent hours stitching stories of resistance and suffering in the 1980s into a traditional tapestry form, arpilleras. Disregarded as inconsequential women’s work, it was possible to smuggle and sell these beautiful quilts both into and out of jails, and outside of Chile — moving information to sons and husbands, and spreading news beyond the borders even when a suppressed press corps could not. This galvanized anti-Pinochet sympathizers globally and resulted in both financial and political support for the resistance.
As the arpilleraistas gathered, often in church sanctuaries, the threads of their handiwork not only provided income to support their families, but also sewed together a growing consciousness of their own power. The craft provided a very accessible and low-risk entry point to the movement for many, while preserving collective memory and building capacity to go public with their demands, both on the political and home fronts — confronting the dictatorship and later the culture of machismo itself.
Another protest against Pinochet evolved from Chile’s national dance, the cueca. As thousands were “disappeared” by the regime, a symbol of resistance became “la cueca sola.” Originally done with partners, it was now being performed solo by women, clutching photographs of their missing loved ones, to confront the denial of the death squads.
Chilean women’s integration of cultural resistance into movement strategies seems to have contributed greatly to the outreach, education, accessibility, endurance and, therefore, effectiveness of their protracted struggle. The mothers’ motivation to better their children’s lives and future living conditions inspired many to take action, however risky. Day to day concerns of finding food for empty bellies moved mothers to stitch together rags to not only fill wallets but also to make change.
Thank you, arpilleraistas, singers and dancers for giving us more reasons to celebrate mothers today.