A Brief History of Pots and Pans

It is no secret that there has been a lot of economic turmoil in the hemisphere (and the world) in the last few years, and as a result, we’ve seen a growing number of protests and social movements emerging that challenge the current socio-economic structure and the concentration of power in the hands of the few. As a result, a wave of protests have erupted throughout the Americas in the last couple of years, from student protests for educational reform and economic changes in Chile to the Occupy movement that erupted in the US and spread to other countries in Latin America and other parts of the world.

While the US media stopped paying attention to the ongoing Occupy movement a long time ago and never really paid more than perfunctory attention to protests in other parts of the Western Hemisphere, that does not mean they have gone away; indeed, from the northern to the southern tip of the Americas, people continue to take to the streets to express their anger and dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs in the political and economic climate of the early-21st century and to demand change. A couple of weeks ago, students in Montreal began to protest the conservative government’s use of austerity measures and the increasing privatization of education, with all of the fiscal burdens that puts on students, just as their Chilean counterparts have done over the past year. Meanwhile, in Argentina, some groups have begun to mobilize against the economic slowdown and rising inflation that has begun to emerge.

Although they are virtually two continents apart, the protesters in Montreal and Buenos Aires share much in common, especially in what many perceive as an increasingly uncertain economic future for the middle classes. However, there is another feature they share in common:

Pots and pans.

When the protesters in both Montreal and Argentina took to the streets, they brought with them pots and pans, banging on them to make noise, a tactic that simultaneously made their presence harder to ignore (by the sheer noise it created) and while it also symbolized the increasing economic uncertainty, with the empty pots implicitly suggesting empty plates on the table, even as powerful business leaders and politicians continue to implement policies that benefit the few over the many. Thus, in one of the most basic utensils for cooking, these protesters have found a potent symbol to express the struggles they feel they face daily.

However, this tactic is not particularly new. Indeed, as far back as the 1960s, protesters in Latin America were using pots and pans to protest their governments. Ironically, though, it was not progressives or leftists angry at their government who first used the tactic; it was conservatives, church leaders, and housewives who turned to pots and pans as symbols of their anger with their then-progressive governments.

The most famous instances of the use of pots and pans came in Chile in the early-1970s. Although socialist president Salvador Allende had won the 1970 presidential elections, he did not receive a majority of the vote (there were three candidates in the 1970s election who split the decision). In the context of Cold War politics in Latin America, the right saw this as nothing less than the first step towards a Communist dictatorship, and by 1971, they were taking to the streets to protest shortages in foodstuffs and other consumer goods (shortages that were spurred in no small part by conservative entrepreneurs and businessmen who withheld goods in an attempt to destabilize the economy under Allende). To symbolize the lack of food available and the growing black market, women took empty pots, or “cacerolas” in Spanish, and beat on them to symbolize their struggles. So it was that the “cacerolazo” (literally, “hitting pots”) form of protest became one of the most common and powerful symbols of conservative protests against the Allende government, and they continued up well into 1973.

And even those Chilean protests were not the first of their kind. In early 1964, Brazil became increasingly polarized even while inflation increased. When president João Goulart moved toward the left and called for agrarian, electoral, and educational reform in March of that year, hundreds of thousands of women, conservatives, and church leaders protested against the government in the cumbersomely-named “March of the Family with God for Liberty.” While awkwardly named, the protest made clear exactly what the protesters, including many from the middle class and what they (implicitly) believed the government was against: family, God, liberty. By the end of the month, the Brazilian military, encouraged by the popular mobilizations against the government, rose up and overthrew Goulart, establishing a twenty-one year military dictatorship. Although the use of pots and pans was nowhere near as dominant as it would be in Chile 7 years later, Brazilian women’s rhetoric that claimed governmental economic policies were destroying people’s ability to put food on their tables was an important part of the protests.

In this way, Brazil’s 1964 protests were a harbinger for the similarly-conservative protests against the democratically-elected president Salvador Allende in Chile in the early-1970s. And as was the case in Brazil, these popular protests in Chile ultimately played no small role in convincing the military leaders, including Augusto Pinochet, that they had the support of a significant portion of the civilian population when they launched their own coup that set up Chile’s own brutal, repressive right-wing dictatorship.

While these conservative protests brought an end to the progressive democratic governments and ushered in right-wing dictatorships, the tactic would not disappear. In 1984, as Brazil gradually returned to democracy, millions of Brazilians took to the streets in the Diretas Já movement to demand direct elections in the 1985 presidential election. These protests, which were the largest in Brazil’s history, saw the return of pots and pans, this time not from conservatives protesting a progressive government, but from broad sectors of society demanding direct participation in their return to democracy. Although the movement fell short and Brazilians would only participate in direct presidential elections in 1989, the use of pots and pans was again a powerful symbol and instrument of protest, one Chico Buarque even commemorated in a song about the Diretas Já movement (of which he was a major participant). And as Chileans grew increasingly resistant to the repressive tactics and lack of democracy in Chile in the 1980s, they too turned to pots and pans to protest against the government, just as they had in the 1970s; however, this time, the target was not a democratically-elected leftist leader, but a right-wing military dictator. The ideologies had changed, but the methods of resistance and protest had proven to be remarkably adaptable. Indeed, in Argentina in 2001, as the full effect of neoliberal policies became apparent, with devaluation, inflation, and a freezing of bank accounts, Argentines used the pots and pans to protest against the austerity measures and fiscal policies that had begun under Carlos Menem in the 1990s.

In this way, then, the use of pots and pans has proven to be a remarkably adaptable and effective tool for protest for both the left and the right. And so it is that while Montreal becomes the new site of the latest wave of protests against economic conditions, the methods they turn to have their roots in Latin America in the 1960s, revealing the ways in which social movements of the past continue to impact and shape those of the present.

About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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