En la Clase: “Comparing Herstories: The Arpilleristas of Chile and African American Women Quilters in the U.S.” (part 2 of 2)

Monday’s post was the first in this two part series on teaching about the history of Chilean Arpilleras as women’s protest art in Pinochet’s Chile.  In collaboration with the National Hispanic Cultural Center, we held a series of workshops this spring around the exhibition, “Stitching Resistance: The History of Chilean Arpilleras,” which is on view at the NHCC from October 19, 2012 through January, 2014.  If you missed Monday’s discussion, definitely check it out, as it will provide some necessary historical content on the topic.  Today’s post looks at some possible ways to integrate a unit on Chilean arpilleras into your curriculum, through hands-on activities. You’ll find supplementary guides and a lesson plan for creating your own arpillera at the end of the post, so be sure to scroll down.

Arpillera coverI know when I was teaching in the classroom, it wouldn’t have necessarily been easy to justify a unit on the history of Chilean arpilleras.  This certainly wasn’t a standard for elementary or middle school.  In order to teach this, I would have had to be a little creative–integrating it into an already existing standards based Social Studies unit, or creating a literacy unit around the lessons provided by Facing History and Ourselves.  As we prepared for our second teacher workshop this spring, I was focused on finding ways to make it easier to integrate this content into the classroom.  While talking explaining the arpilleras to a friend, he suggested that these sounded like they played a similar role to African-American quilting in the United States.  There was the connection I was looking for: the majority of elementary school teachers discuss African-American history, touching on slavery and the civil rights movement in one way or another.  An art based activity on quilting could easily be included in such a thematic unit, which could then itself to a comparative study of arpilleras.  Superficially speaking, these two topics may seem to have very little in common, yet when one delves a little deeper quite a few commonalities emerge–for example, art and craft as social protest, women’s social movements, or story-telling through art.

In Monday’s post I described arpilleras with the following: “Their artistry with humble cloth is vibrant testimony: history in textile form, every bit as compelling as any other of the visual media. The detail and composition of the works can be simple or intricate. Each one tells a story; each one conveys a message.” I believe that we can make a very similar statement about quilting in the African American community.  In Crafted Lives: Stories and Studies of African American Quilters, Patricia Turner discusses her own realizations on the significance of quilting. She writes about how she came to think of “the role art and craft can play in anchoring the stories that African Americans tell about   themselves and their pasts.  In the two decades since, I’ve come to realize that stories of individual and black collective experience can be narrated through quilts” (p. 1).  Just as the arpilleras tell an important story, so do quilts.  While the story they tell, and the manner in which they tell it, are different, there are enough similarities to make the comparison of quilts and arpilleras an interesting area to consider.  As so many teachers already cover content areas like slavery, the Underground Railroad, and the Civil Rights Movement where a study of quilting could easily be included, a comparison study of the two art forms offers a way to bring in the story of the arpilleras.

While quilting certainly isn’t limited to African American women in the United States, that is our primary interest here, as the role of quilting in this community has significant similarities to the role of arpilleras in Chile. There are a number of easily accessible and informative resources on quilting available.  Listed below are the resources used to put much of the following information together.  Where possible, they have been linked to their online location.

One of the most obvious connections between the role of African American quilts and arpilleras may seem to be the use of quilts as part of the Underground Railroad.  Yet, this is a controversial subject that has been hotly debated within the quilting community, especially among quilting historians.  Many argue that the idea that a Quilt Code was used to help direct runaway slaves is merely a myth.  For more on this, read Susurro’s discussion of this debate in her blog post.  Not only does she explain the controversy, but she also shows how, regardless of the truth of the Quilt Code, it’s now an important part of the dialogue.

Despite (or maybe because of) the controversy, the idea of the Quilt Code can be a powerful lesson for our students.  A number of children’s books have been written about the Quilt Code, and it’s a valuable discussion for the classroom.  In examining the arguments for or against the reality of a Quilt Code students can learn how historians study and examine the past to come to conclusions about what is historical reality.  Even beyond this, it’s important for students to consider why or how historical myths come to be presented as truth, and why they become so powerful.

Below I’ve listed various books and lesson plans for teaching about the connection between quilting and the Underground Railroad.  Keeping in mind the controversy surrounding this topic, it will be up to you how you present the information provided in the books and lessons to your students.

Related Books:

  • Grady, Cynthia. (2012). I Lay My Stitches Down: Poems of American Slavery.  Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s Books for Young Readers.
  • Hopkinson, Deborah (1993). Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt. New York: Scholastic.
  • Hopkinson, Deborah (2001). Under the Quilt of Night.  New York: Atheneum Books.
  • Vaughn, Marcia (2005). The Secret to Freedom.  New York: Lee and Low Books.

Related Lesson Plans:

My guess is that many of you have already completed your units on slavery and/or the Civil Rights Movement, but you can still implement many of these activities as you wrap up your school year–perhaps a thematic unit on art as social justice? I loved to integrate art throughout the school year, but always found it a really helpful tool as we got closer and closer to the last day of school.  It always seemed to have both an engaging and calming effect on my students.

Click here to be taken to our curriculum guide on teaching about the Chilean arpilleras. This guide includes supplementary materials on the aprilleras, lesson plans for cretian your own arpillera and materials on “Comparing Herstories: The Arpilleras of Chile and African American Quilters in the U.S.”

Be sure to check back in the fall–we have more events connected to this exhibit in the works! Since the exhibit is here until January, you have plenty of time to plan a class field trip!

–Katrina

3 thoughts on “En la Clase: “Comparing Herstories: The Arpilleristas of Chile and African American Women Quilters in the U.S.” (part 2 of 2)

  1. I know embarrassingly little about Pinochet-era Chile except that it was the staging ground for what Naomi Klein termed “disaster capitalism” and today we call austerity. Thank you for this wonderful resource on the Chilean arpilleras and their amazing artwork.

    • Thanks for stopping by the blog and checked out the resources on the Chilean Arpilleras. They really are beautiful–in multiple ways. If you ever get a chance to see them in person, it’s definitely worth the time. I think they’re a really amazing classroom resource for teaching about social justice and art.

  2. Pingback: En la Clase: Stitching Resistance through Chilean Arpilleras | Vamos a Leer

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