A Brief History of el Pañuelo Verde

Last December, as the world remained on lockdown, Argentinian women were celebrating. The country’s senate legalized abortion at 14 weeks, making Argentina one of the few Latin American nations to decriminalize and legalize abortions. The Marea Verde, as the country’s long standing reproductive rights activists are known, erupted in a fury of tears, screams, and hugs. Of course, their pañuelo verde danced on. 

For years, the pañuelo verde has become a symbol of reproductive rights. It’s a small piece of cloth worn by feminists worldwide, embedded with the slogan: “Por un aborto legal, seguro y gratuito.” While it’s impossible to trace the exact birth moment of the pañuelo verde, feminists and historians worldwide agree that it was born in Argentina. 

“A pañuelo verde, that makes visible the vindication of rights, and at the same time, reverberates a potent message exercising our freedom of expression: we do not accept the cruelty of a patriarchal society and we are bent on creating ‘a world in which we can just be’,” writes Soledad Quiroga in LATFEM, a Latin American feminist magazine.

Green is often associated with ambivalent concepts like greed and nature. But, for the pañuelo verde, it’s the color of reproductive justice. (The official color is known as “verde Benetton,” according to Vogue México, found in the Pantone color charts as 347 C y el 3415 C.) In short, the pañuelo verde is an important symbol that goes beyond a piece of cloth. It’s a piece of armor that’s historically served Latin American women to resist injustice from all facets of patriarchy. 

The history of the pañuelo verde is directly entwined with the white pañuelos used by first Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo, according to Mexican newspaper El Universal. The group of mothers and activists was formed  in 1977 in response to human rights violations during the dictatorship of Jorge Rafael Videla. Since then, more than 40 years later, they have held over 2,000 marches demanding the Argentinian government to recognize los desaparecidos– their kids– and sentence the military officers behind the tortures and kidnappings of thousands. As of 2016, the government has tried more than 1,000 military torturers and killers and tried 700. 

While the pañuelo verde is a nod to Las Madres, today’s feminist movement goes beyond the motherhood politics to embrace the fundamental right of choice, using the slogan: “La maternidad será deseada o no será.”

But across Latin America that right is still held hostage. Only Uruguay, Cuba, Guyana, French Guyana, Puerto Rico, Argentina, and some parts of Mexico allow women to access a legal abortion. El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, República Dominicana and Haití still criminalize all forms of abortion. Waters are murky in other countries, like Paraguay, Venezuela, Guatemala, Perú y Costa Rica, where abortion is only permitted if the life of the fetus or mother is in danger. Other countries like Ecuador base their legalities on several causes, including a threat to the mother’s life or mental disabilities. Groups like Las Borders in Mexico, Las Parceras in Colombia, and Operação Milhas pela Vida das Mulheres in Brazil are some of the colectivas pushing governments to grant free and accessible legal abortions, as Emperifollá reported in 2020. In Argentina, the sweeping mass of green scarves is known as “Marea Verde,” a name that’s derived from the visuals created by multitudes of women protesting against restrictive, anti-abortion reproductive measures. It’s often inscribed with a logo and motto by the Campaña Nacional por el Derecho al Aborto, a 15-year-old Argentinian organization that educates, lobbies, and protests for the right to choose

“Educación sexual para decidir, anticonceptivos para no abortar, aborto legal para no morir”. 

– Campaña Nacional por el Derecho al Aborto

In the midst of all these fights, the pañuelo verde remains a contentious symbol that outrages conservatives and empowers progressives. Mexican senator Lily Téllez is one example. In 2019, the PAN legislator took to the senate floor to criticize fellow senators from Movimiento Ciudadano, who left a pañuelo verde on her desk. “Leaving a ‘trapo verde’ on my desk makes other citizens and women think that I support abortion, but I don’t,” she said. Later, in 2020, Téllez tweeted, “El trapo verde es muerte,” accompanied by non-medical illustrations of abortion proceedings. 

Meanwhile, the trapo verde has become a symbol for women to embrace each other in support of reproductive justice, with artists and celebrities joining in the gesture. In 2019, Spanish artist Rosalía wore a pañuelo verde during a set in Mexico, while Barcelona-based Argentinian singer Nathy Peluso wore it during a concert in her native Argentina. In 2019, the pañuelo verde inundated the Cannes Film Festival red carpet when director Juan Solanas presented his documentary “Que sea ley.”

Beyond the performance, the pañuelo verde has revolutionized the way Latin American women communicate their support for abortion and reproductive justice. One glance at each other and we can recognize the sisterhood that’s emerged from a tiny piece of cloth, that tells Latin America and the world que será ley, indeed.

Frances Solá-Santiago

Born in Puerto Rico, based in New York City. She is the editor-in-chief on Emperifollá. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, NPR, Glamour Magazine, Numéro, Refinery29, Remezcla, and Bustle.

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