Latin American women take back embroidery in protest

Embroidery has a long history in the Americas – a profession once reserved for men, later imposed on women as a symbol of domesticity. But in recent decades, women have reclaimed the craft as a peaceful and powerful tool of protest, even amid the pandemic.

Just this week, after subway cars in Mexico City crashed in an overpass collapse, embroidery honoring the victims appeared online. Punctuated with orange and green lines, the same colors as the metro, it read “corruption kills”. Other artists use couture to call attention to femicide, the continuing legacy of colonization, or to encourage others to reclaim their history.

Why we wrote this

These women are shaking up stereotypes about couture. In their hands, the beautiful couture is an act of protest against violence – stitching together their pain, their resilience and their demands for change.

There is irony, say some artists, in using something so often associated with gentleness to send messages of anger and empowerment.

María Belén Tapia de la Fuente, a Chilean living in Madrid, joined a group of women she met online during the pandemic to talk about the power of embroidery as a political tool.

“When you embroider, you often have to undo the previous stitches,” she explains. “We are undoing the stitches” that society has sewn to create today’s world – full of violence and inequality – “and sewing our own stories instead”.

Mexico City

Before the pandemic, Lala Abichain Balberde enjoyed spending free time embroidering with friends in public squares in her city of Córdoba, Argentina. The craft could be meditative, but the highlight was when strangers approached to see what she was working on.

“[I] always adorn things with colors and flowers and it’s really beautiful, and people come up and say, “How beautiful!” “, she says. “Then they read the text. And it is so often horrible, hideous.

Ms. Abichain Balberde’s art is an act of protest, raising awareness of the high rates of violence and femicide in Latin America. It’s not what passersby expect — and that’s exactly why “it’s conversation starters,” she says.

Why we wrote this

These women are shaking up stereotypes about couture. In their hands, the beautiful couture is an act of protest against violence – stitching together their pain, their resilience and their demands for change.

Embroidery has a long history in the Americas – a profession once reserved for men, later imposed on women as a symbol of domesticity. But in recent decades, women have reclaimed the craft as a peaceful and powerful tool of protest, even amid the pandemic.

‘Virtual protests’ on International Women’s Day on March 8 invited followers to embroider messages ‘for and by’ women, while groups on Instagram sewed face masks with words or emotions they shared. often felt unable to express, such as “fury” or “not quietly, no.” There are online embroidery conventions, where participants embroider the life stories of victims of violence – an act of resistance and remembrance. Others post embroidered artwork of the continuing legacy of colonization online, hoping to help others reclaim their culture and history.

There’s irony, some artists say, in using something so often associated with family life to send messages full of anger and frustration — and empowerment.

“An innocent practice can turn into a weapon that will not kill anyone but will teach a lot,” says Ms. Abichain Balberde. She belongs to an Instagram collective called Des-Bordando Feminismos, made up of women spanning from Chile and Argentina to Mexico.

Courtesy of @Quiriquitana

On March 2, 2021, the “textile activism” Instagram account @Quiriquitana posted this embroidery, which reads “Justice for Berta”, referring to indigenous land rights activist Berta Cáceres, who was killed in Honduras in 2016.

Power Points

“Raquel Padilla Ramos. A woman who loves, believes and hopes. Victim of femicide on November 7, 2019,” reads a message embroidered in fuchsia oblique letters on a white handkerchief, made by a member of the Mexican feminist embroidery collective Fuentes Rojas last year.

Embroidery in black lettering punctuated with orange and green lines – the same colors as Mexico City’s Line 12 subway cars that crashed after an overpass collapsed on May 3 – appeared online the morning after the fatal accident, simply declaring “corruption kills”.

“In the face of abandonment by government, grassroots organization,” says a small, embroidered sampler of a boat and floodwaters. Lara Bohórquez of Instagram account Quiriquitana created the piece following two deadly hurricanes that hit Honduras late last year amid a slow government response.

Since the late 1990s, women in Latin America have increasingly used embroidery to draw attention to acts of violence – against women, migrants and citizens caught in the crosshairs of drug trafficking or forgotten. by elected officials. Often their work hangs like a clothesline in public squares or near political marches. Other groups have taken to embroidering political messages on public transport, often sparking conversations with other commuters. But their activism may have become even more visible during the pandemic, as life has been pushed back indoors – and online.

María Belén Tapia de la Fuente, a Chilean living in Madrid, joined a group of women she met online during the pandemic to talk about the power of embroidery as a political tool.

“The intention is not to embroider for beauty but for political change,” she says of Des-Bordando Feminismos, made up of about 20 women and growing. “What we want to share is the process, the thinking that goes hand in hand with the job,” she says.

“The decision to use embroidery is important because it comes from this ‘feminized’ side of things. It’s not traditionally associated with power,” says Alejandra Mayela Flores Enriquez, who teaches art history at the Iberoamericana University in Mexico City and is finishing her doctoral thesis on the history of embroidery and feminism.

“On the other hand, you put your body into the act of embroidering, your time, your concentration. He carries the pain; sometimes it literally carries blood because you get stung in the process,” she says.

Ms. Tapia de la Fuente also sees other elements of power. “When you embroider, you often have to undo the previous stitches,” she explains. “We are undoing the stitches” that society has sewn to create today’s world – full of violence and inequality – “and sewing our own stories instead”.

Courtesy of @Quiriquitana

The “textile activism” Instagram account @Quiriquitana posts embroideries on social resistance and the legacy of colonialism in Honduras. Clockwise from the top left corner, the works read: “heal your soul”, “existence”, “solidarity”, “respect”, “be kind” and “fight”.

Women’s work?

Embroidery is often associated with women. But for hundreds of years, it was considered “a man’s job”, says Ms. Flores.

One of the first professional guilds in Mexico created during Spanish colonization was for embroidery, she says. Its central rule? Forbidden to girls. But that didn’t mean women weren’t creating on their own. Later, the pendulum swung to the opposite extreme, where embroidery became part of what defined a “good” girl. This was central to female education, and being a talented embroiderer was tied to being pious, virginal, and a promising mother and wife.

Yet embroidery has also given women a platform, says Ms. Flores, who runs an Instagram account which displays historic examples of embroidery. There is evidence that embroidery was used to make women’s voices heard, long before they were seen as political actors. When Benito Juárez was president of Mexico in the late 1800s, for example, he took steps to diminish the power of the Roman Catholic Church in government. Many women sent him messages of support – embroidered on handkerchiefs.

During the so-called Dirty Wars that ravaged Argentina and Chile in the 1970s and 1980s, activism and embroidery became even more overtly linked. Grandmothers in Argentina’s Plaza de Mayo carried handkerchiefs embroidered with information about their missing children and grandchildren. In Chile, where most voices of protest have been silenced by intimidation or death, women’s groups have created arpillères – finely embroidered hessian bags – illustrating the atrocities committed during the reign of Augusto Pinochet. They have been exported all over the world.

“They played a very important role because they informed people outside of Chile about the situation,” says Katia Olalde Rico, a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Morelia, who focuses on the intersection of embroidery. and protest. “It showed that so many people did not take textiles seriously and therefore were not subject to censorship. At least at first.

“A moment for yourself”

Ms. Bohórquez, who sewed the hurricane sampler, turned to embroidery at a time of personal crisis. She was studying for her bachelor’s degree, but “I didn’t feel productive. I didn’t feel like I was serving society,” says Ms Bohórquez, based in Tegucigalpa, the mountainous capital of Honduras. “So I started to embroider.” She found the stitching of her thoughts and frustrations therapeutic, tackling themes of capitalism, politics, and violence against women. When the pandemic hit, she decided to launch Quiriquitana, where she tells the story of Honduras through embroidery: hurricanes, political corruption, violence, lost traditions, indigenous history.

“Embroidery can give us tools to think about our life in a new way. We expose ourselves all the time, but we don’t give ourselves a moment to assess what we feel, what we think, what we do” It’s easy to get swept up in frustration and anger at the government, or sexism, she adds, but “embroidery can give us a moment for ourselves.”

Embroidery and Latin American women “are undervalued, made invisible,” she says. “There is power in reclaiming that.”