About Jubilee Crafts
This collection of Chilean arpilleras comes from Jubilee Crafts, a nonprofit women’s collective with origins in 1974 to market international handcrafts at fair prices. During the two decades of its existence, Jubilee Crafts imported and sold these handcrafts from over two dozen cooperatives in sixteen countries. At its peak, Jubilee Crafts distributed 70,000 mail-order catalogs a year. It also established a nationwide network of 100 unpaid volunteers who sold the handcrafts at house parties for neighbors and friends, at holiday craft fairs, and in presentations to church and community groups. From the beginning, education about justice issues was central to their presentations.1
Over those years, Jubilee Crafts contributed to the livelihood of struggling people and to the consciousness of its American customers, staff, and volunteers. Its efforts to pay the craft makers fairly for their products and to champion women’s cooperatives and feminist work-styles made Jubilee Crafts a pioneer in what has since become the “fair trade movement.” In its nationwide volunteer network, Jubilee Crafts created a model for nurturing grassroots involvement on a broad scale. And its educational component was a distinction that sets Jubilee Crafts apart from other handcraft importers, then and now. As former director Melissa Moye emphasized:
“Jubilee Crafts was part of a movement; it wasn’t just a job. It was about the dream of a time when there wouldn’t be repression and about the biblical idea of jubilee.”3
In ancient Jewish teaching and the book of Leviticus, jubilee was the time when land would be returned to its original owners or heirs, remaining debts forgiven, and slaves freed.
At its founding, Jubilee Crafts partnered with The Other Side, a magazine for Christian advocates of social justice. Both were closely tied to the community where their nonprofit organization was headquartered, an African-American neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Most of the Jubilee Crafts staff, rarely more than eight employees, lived within five or six blocks of the office. Former Jubilee Crafts director M. J. Heisey recalls a commitment to not only hire recent college graduates like herself but also staff from the neighborhood mothers. The children of these local women would often come to Jubilee Crafts after school, and the office began to feel like a home.
Jubilee Crafts Building
The building which housed both Jubilee Crafts and the progressive magazine The Other Side was purchased and remodeled in the working class neighborhood of Germantown in Northwest Philadelphia.
Connections with Chile
Aware of the violent repression under Pinochet’s dictatorship, Jubilee Crafts director M. J. Heisey contacted the Vicaria de la Solidaridad. A Roman Catholic human rights office, the Vicaria helped to market various pieces from working-class neighborhoods and political prisoners in order to provide an income to economically vulnerable populations. Handcrafts included hand knitted vests and bone necklaces depicting doves of peace. The most visually striking items were the hand-sewn arpilleras, a traditional form of folk art made from cloth pieces sewn onto burlap, forming intricate three-dimensional tapestries. The women sometimes used the clothing left behind by their “disappeared” loved ones.
Subsequently, from 1984 into the early 1990s, the Vicaria shipped hundreds of arpilleras to Jubilee Crafts, which sold them nationwide to help provide livelihood for the Chilean families. Just as importantly, Jubilee Crafts used the arpilleras to educate Americans about the situation in Chile.
Because the arpilleras had to pass through Chilean inspections to reach the United States, the political messages within them were subdued. Most scenes depicted Andean rural and urban landscapes in bright primary colors, without direct political reference to the dictatorship. Former Jubilee Crafts director Melissa Moye, however, points out that if one understood the dynamics of the Chilean economic and political repression, the hidden messages of defiance in some pieces became evident. For example, urban scenes of shantytown neighborhoods pirating electricity from utility poles showed the ingenuity and resistance of working-class Chileans to the Pinochet regime’s economic policies that exacerbated their poverty.
The most politically explicit apilleras did not reach Jubilee Crafts until 1987, after Melissa Moye had travelled to Chile. Moye had never before visited a country under a military dictatorship, and because she knew her main contact there (the Vicaria) was one of the more vocal opposition groups, she was nervous about Santiago’s passport control. To her surprise, she breezed through the airport checks without much delay. But when she arrived at her lodgings and opened her backpack, which had been through security screening at the airport, she was shocked to find an alarm clock placed carefully at the top. This was not her clock; the fear returned. After hearing about the incident, staff members at the Vicaria interpreted it as a subtle example of state harassment. They assured her that this was probably meant as a message to the Vicaria, not to her, to let the Vicaria know that they had wiretapped a call from Moye and knew of her travel details in advance of her arrival. By leaving the clock, state forces signaled that they could easily monitor and track the Vicaria’s international allies as soon as they arrived in Chile.
During Moye’s visit, she observed several church-sponsored arpillera workshops (or Talleres) in different Santiago neighborhoods, including one on the way to the port city of Valparaiso. The Vicaria saw Moye’s visit as an opportunity to secretly export some of the more politically explicit protest arpilleras. Chilean travelers would likely be searched and face reprisals for transporting anti-dictatorship art, but Moye, as a U.S. citizen, could hand-carry the art out of Chile with less danger.
The majority of arpilleras on display in this exhibit were hand-carried from Chile in this way. Unlike the previous arpilleras sold by Jubilee Crafts, these pieces are more diverse in terms of themes and style. These politically explicit arpilleras were not intended for sale but rather for educating the U.S. public about the repression during Pinochet’s last years in power in the late 1980s. Moye believed this was especially important considering the support the U.S. government had provided to Pinochet’s regime. Once the new arpilleras arrived at Jubilee Crafts headquarters, the Jubilee Crafts staff collaborated with the Taller Puertorriqueño in North Philadelphia to exhibit the political pieces publicly, with an open invitation to the local press. The educational campaign did not end there. The Jubilee Crafts volunteer network, which had been instrumental in selling handcrafts around the country, also spread the word. These volunteers would order the arpilleras and other Chilean crafts and then exhibit them in their own communities to educate Americans about the political repression in Chile.
Jubilee Crafts: A History
In this nine minute video, SUNY Professor M.J. Heisey narrates the history of Jubilee Crafts. As a former staff member (1978-1986), Heisey recounts the foundation, mission and accomplishments of this early fair trade non profit organization.
Heisey also explains the collection of Chilean arpilleras, which will be on display at SUNY-Potsdam's Gibson Gallery, and St. Lawrence University's Brush Gallery in Spring 2019. Eventually, this collection will be donated to the Chilean Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago.
Jubilee Crafts Ends & the Arpilleras Find Their Way Home
In the early 1990s, Jubilee Crafts was overtaken by the growing explosion of the commercial fair trade movement. According to Moye, this wasn’t necessarily bad, as it meant the ethos of Jubilee Crafts and other early fair trade organizations was reaching a larger audience. But it was the end of an era for Jubilee Crafts and the close-knit collective that had grown around it. The last staff member, Lila McCalla, passed on most of the remaining inventory to other fair trade organizations when Jubilee Crafts finally shut its doors. But the strong bonds forged among the staff outlasted the organization itself. Former Jubilee Craft staff members remained in contact despite their dispersal across state and international boundaries.
At a 2015 reunion, staff members learned that McCalla had stored a collection of about fifty political arpilleras in her home in Philadelphia, in astute recognition of their special value. The women were later informed that Chile, after returning to democracy in 1990, had created a permanent state-run Museum of Memory and Human Rights. They quickly decided to donate their arpilleras to the growing collection of repatriated arpilleras at the Santiago-based museum.
Former Jubilee Crafts director M. J. Heisey has spearheaded this donation of arpilleras. Years after her departure from Jubilee Crafts in 1986, she became a history professor at SUNY Potsdam. Joined by her Chilean colleagues in SUNY Potsdam’s Spanish Studies program, Liliana Trevizan and Oscar Sarmiento, Heisey is coordinating one last project to educate the U.S. public on these political and cultural artifacts before their return to Chile. In Spring 2019, the full Jubilee Crafts collection of arpilleras will be displayed in the North Country of New York State, spanning two university campus galleries: St. Lawrence University’s Brush Gallery and SUNY Potsdam’s Gibson Gallery. Oral histories, music, lectures, and a collaborative mural project will complement the exhibits.
After the twin exhibits close, the arpilleras will be returned to Chile to be housed in the Museum of Memory and Human Rights. Joining them will be a Mapuche síquel (a traditional indigenous ornamented breastplate), which the Vicaria gifted to Melissa Moye during her 1987 visit. Moye decided to return this last piece of history, alongside the arpilleras, after keeping it with her for decades. In thinking of the soon to be donated síquel, Moye reflected:
“I think this represents the struggle of a lot of people, the honoring of that struggle, and the work of people together across borders to make ties and to resist repression of communities, of women, of working people, of teachers. I think it’s important what Chile is doing in remembering what happened, so that it never happens again. This needed a new home, and it’s about to find a new home.”4
A ceremonial indigenous breastplate, called a síquel, which was gifted by a Mapuche community to the Vicaría de la Solidaridad for their work protecting indigenous people from repression. The Vicaría subsequently presented the síquel to Melissa Moye in 1987, during her visit to Chile, for the work done by Jubilee Crafts to distribute Chilean handcrafts and educate the US public on the arpillera movement and political repression in Chile.
Moye plans to donate the síquel to the Santiago based Museum of Memory and Human Rights, as an addition to the larger Jubilee Crafts donation of arpilleras.
1. Philip Harnden, “Jubilee Crafts: A Timeline of Some Highlights,” (guide for The Other Side archival donation.)
2. Melissa Moye, interview by Mahala Nyberg, Potsdam, New York, 8 November 2017.
3. M.J. Heisey, interview by Janis Broder, Canton, New York, 6 May 2018.
4. Melissa Moye, interview by Mahala Nyberg, Potsdam, New York, 8 November 2017.