La Cueca has been around in Chile for generations. Rooted deep in the country’s working-class culture, the dance is believed to have European Spanish, African and indigenous roots. It arrived in Chile in the 19th century, becoming popular in its working class and rural taverns in the early 20th century.
La Cueca is all about romantic conquest. It imitates the mating ritual of a rooster and a hen, and hence, requires a male and a female participant. The use of a handkerchief is vital to, as partners raise it above their heads or behind their backs as they stomp their feet and circle one another. It is important that the dancers maintain strong eye contact throughout the different steps and movements. The dance ends with the man on his knees, having symbolically been able to woo his woman. The dance is a celebration of love.
After the CIA-backed putsch against Salvador Allende’s socialist government in 1973, the cueca came under the shadow of Augusto Pinochet’s tyrannical regime. Apart from the curfews, torture and enforced disappearances, the cueca, too, did not evade his gaze. He expropriated the dance from the working class and incorporated it into his military parades, so much so that the dance became a symbol of the dictatorship’s oppression. It was also declared Chile’s national dance in 1979.
With fear permeating the very fabric of society, any form of political dissent was cracked down upon extremely violently. Painters, poets, intellectuals and writers were tortured for merely expressing their aversion to the dictator’s authoritarian rule. Special ire was reserved for leftists and socialists. Enforced disappearances were routine, with those picked up rarely ever heard of or seen again.
It was in these times, at the height of Pinochet’s oppression in 1983, when la cueca took on an entirely new meaning. Several women whose husbands and sons had been ‘picked up’ by Pinochet’s regime and had been missing for years decided to perform the cueca in public without their partners. The aim was to force those in attendance to ask where their partner was. The women had a picture of their loved one around their neck. Thus, was born the la cueca sola.
A Chilean writer later writing about the dance described it poignantly: “Through la cueca sola, the dancers tell a story with their solitary feet, the story of the mutilated body of a loved one. Through their movements and the guitar music, the women also recreate the pleasure of dancing with the missing person”. The striking visual of the solo dancer, thus, externalised the absence of the lost lives.
These brave women were known as the ‘arpilleristas’, because with the men of their households gone, the women depended on these brightly coloured patchwork pictures called ‘arpilleras’ for a living. These arpilleras were made of simple materials such as burlap and scraps of clothing, often from the clothes of the men who had gone missing, as economic constraints meant these women could not afford to buy new fabric. The pictures depicted scenes of hardship and violence that these women experienced during the dictatorship. These arpilleras depicted politically motivated messages.
Thus, la cueca sola was an expression of disgust at Pinochet and his regime, while also being just one part of the diverse womens’ rights movement that the women led against the Pinochet regime. These women had become familiar with each another after seeing each other daily on their visits to jails, courthouses and mortuaries as they searched in vain for their loved ones. Predictably, the Pinochet regime did not take all this lightly. Many of these women were detained by law enforcement, and were stripped naked, humiliated and tortured. This only further strengthened their resolve to fight for their loved ones’ emancipation. The beautifully crafted arpilleras were the only way their message could penetrate the print and broadcast censorship, which had barred all outlets from reporting on any human rights violations of the regime.
However, la cueca sola, did not escape the attention of the world. Rock icon Sting wrote and sang the song ‘They Dance Alone’ in 1987 in which he poignantly pointed to the pain and grace of these women:
They’re dancing with the missing/ They’re dancing with the dead/ They dance with the invisible ones/ Their anguish is unsaid.
Sting’s effort made the world sit-up and take notice of these extraordinary women, and the atrocities carried out by Pincohet’s regime. However, there are few happy endings in life. Very few who had been detained and tortured ever returned to tell their tale – and the tales were ghastly indeed.
Pinochet was never convicted of the many crimes he was accused of. He was charged for murder, torture, developing and using nerve gas on his opponents, partaking in the trans-continental drug trafficking operations, among other crimes. He died of heart failure in 2006 while he was under house-arrest. Since the return of democratic rule in Chile in the 1990, the country has tried its best to forget its past, but the ghosts still linger.
In those dark times, the arpilleristas were those remarkable women who raised their voice for their loved ones when there was no one to do it for them. They gave Chilean women a brand new identity and, using dance as a medium of dissent, reclaimed the cueca for the Chilean people from Pinochet’s clutches, all the while bearing their unspeakable grief with a grace that cannot be put into words.
The arpilleristas are a lesson for all autocrats around the world that no matter how tightly they curb freedoms and no matter how furiously they attempt to stifle all voices of dissent, resistance will arise from where they least expect it. Democracy sustains in a strong society and flourishes only where people are masters of their own destiny, and retain the will to resist any efforts made to alter it against their wishes.