In The Media

Art and Funky Clothing

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Fabric of Our Lives

Quilts with powerful messages are on display at Tucson Meet Yourself

On July 31, 2006, Maria Elena Rojas Nieto of Mexico drowned in a wash in Nogales.

A few weeks later, on Aug. 20, Maria Santa Lopez Comacho, 19, of Guatemala, baked to death in the sun in the flatlands east of the Baboquivaris.

In between, on Aug. 7, nine Mexican migrants, including 28-year-old José Daniel Mejia Vasquez, died together in a car crash in Yuma.

To make sure that these dead were not forgotten, Tucson artists Alice Vinson, Suzanne Hesh and Peggy Hazard stitched a quilt memorializing not only Rojas, Lopez and Mejia, but all 205 of the migrants whose bodies were found in Southern Arizona between Oct. 1, 2005, and Sept. 30, 2006.

“They died out there, and we honor them,” Hazard says. “The effort of making these quilts is to make the names known.”

The artists’ migrant quilt will be on view this Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 12-14, in the outdoor exhibition Quilts Making a Difference at the Tucson Meet Yourself festival. A companion exhibition, Symbols and Traditions of AIDS Activism, will display quilts commemorating the victims of the disease, along with memorabilia documenting the 25-year history of the Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation, or SAAF.

Hazard, a curator now retired from Tohono Chul Park, co-curated both exhibitions, working with Maribel Alvarez, a UA folklore scholar who now leads the popular festival. (The quilts will be displayed just south of El Presidio Park and north of Congress Street, on the walkway between two Pima County buildings.)

Despite the somber nature of the quilt exhibitions, the beloved folk-life festival, affectionately nicknamed Tucson Eat Yourself, will still be what it has always been: a joyous extravaganza of music, dance, workshops, demos and—of course—food. The goodies and the performances are courtesy of at least 45 different ethnic groups inhabiting the Old Pueblo, and 180 traditional artists.

Specialty events this year will be a celebration of Duke’s, said to be the oldest lowrider car club in the country, and Powwow 101, where festivalgoers can learn all about American Indian singing and drumming, and get their own feet moving in a community dance. The lavish Carnival of Trinidad will be re-created by native Trinidadians dancing calypso, soca and limbo.

But the quilt exhibitions hint at changes to the festival in recent years. Not only does Tucson Meet Yourself have many more performers; it also has dramatically expanded its visual-art component—and enlarged its definition of folkways.

“This is a different way of thinking about folklore,” Hazard says. “I treasure my Czech grandmother’s recipes, and I make them in her honor, but culture is not only about ethnic and familial traditions. Culture is something that binds a group together, combined with practices that are ritualized.”

The two quilt exhibitions demonstrate the ways different clusters of people have converted the quilt from a functional bed covering into an art “canvas” used to make political statements, to raise money or to memorialize the dead.

Hazard and company put together their quilt, “Tucson Border Sector 10/2005—9/2006,” under the auspices of Los Desconocidos (The Unknowns): The Migrant Quilt Project. The group was founded by Tucsonan Jody Ipsen, who collects the clothing left behind in the desert by migrants, washes it and distributes it. Her volunteers cut the discarded garments into patches and embroider them with the names of the dead.

Hazard got mostly denim fabric, the remains of migrants’ jeans pierced by cactus spines. Vinson landed men’s plaid shirts. Like any folk artist, each followed her own vision.

“All of us used our own technique,” Hazard says. “Alice did reverse appliqué and put the names inside. Suzanne used machine embroidery and wrote the names in script. I did computer printing on the fabric.”

The names—such as Maria Santa Lopez Comacho—were so long, she adds, “I went to digital. I didn’t want to embroider them.”

Lopez’s name is neatly computer-printed in red letters on cloth and stitched to a blue-jeans patch.

The quilt is rough by design—it has irregular edges and fraying scraps of material—to convey the rigors of the journey and the sufferings of those who died. In between the name patches, and the squares marked “unknown” for those bodies never identified, are embroidered flowers cut from Mexican bordados—cloths stitched by mothers or sweethearts as reminders of home.

Ipsen’s project aims to document the dead from each year since 2000, when migrants first began dying in large numbers in Arizona’s deserts and mountains. The job just keeps growing. Fiscal 2012 ended on Sept. 30, and Derechos Humanos tallied the year’s harvest of migrant dead at 177, making for a grim total of 2,464 bodies found since 2000.

The quilts to be displayed in Quilts Making a Difference cover a range of issues, traveling in time from World War I to Sept. 11 to Tucson’s own Jan. 8. Tucsonan Caroline Ellermann sewed up T-shirts worn by first responders to the World Trade Center attacks, arranging NYPD and FDNY shirts between U.S. flags and notes imploring God to bless America. Her quilt is now in the collection of the Arizona Historical Society, which also owns a Red Cross quilt stitched in 1918, in Phoenix. A giant red cross stands in the middle of a white field; each of the 225 patchwork squares surrounding it has a tiny red cross—and tiny names.

“It was used to raise money,” Hazard says. “Donors could pay 25 cents to get their names on it, $5 to $25 for a prominent location.” Among the famous who forked out the bucks for a good spot: sitting Arizona Gov. George W.P. Hunt.

Gloria Wadlow’s “Faith, Hope, Love,” the Jan. 8 quilt, reproduces in cloth the offerings left in front of University Medical Center by bereaved Tucsonans.

The local quilts exhibited in Symbols and Traditions of AIDS Activism are inspired by the NAMES Project and the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Sewn in the shape of coffins, 3 feet wide by 6 feet long, most honor a single lost loved one.

Lahanna Heyde is remembered in a quilt of black stitched in silver. Her photo is garlanded in a girly, pink cord—she was only 23 when she died in 2000.

On a white quilt remembering Ken Hannon (1958-1993), a long, lovely photo of the Catalinas unfurls horizontally against the background.

“It’s more fiber art than quilt,” Hazard says.

Hazard has also pulled together some examples of “material culture” from SAAF, including a big red AIDS ribbon, T-shirts from the annual AIDSWALK, key chains and “paper prayers,” the homemade cards volunteers send to the sick.

“The AIDS community is very interesting,” Hazard says. “SAAF is all about testing, treatment and support.”

But this being Tucson Meet Yourself, the quilt shows are also about activity. Quilts Making a Difference will offer demos, sewing circles and storytelling. The AIDS section will stage story circles and talks.

Sunday morning, for the first time, AIDSWALK is joining forces with Tucson Meet Yourself. The walkers will parade—or sprint—around the perimeter of the festival grounds. They’ll end at the Main Library plaza, and gather to watch the traditional unfolding of the AIDS memorial quilts, a modern-day ritual as folkloric as any ethnic dance.


On Thursday, July 9th, as temperatures soared above 95 degrees, 13 humanitarians were cited for littering on the Buenas Aires National Wildlife Refuge, 118,000 acre grassland that borders US/Mexico, and approximately 45 miles southwest of Tucson. The dying season, which steals the lives of approximately 250 migrants in the Tucson Sector every year, weighed down on the 40 faith based individuals who looked on as members of clergy, teachers and students placed one gallon jugs of water on four different active migrant trails.

Just two days prior, the body of a migrant woman perished on the refuge, a first this fiscal year. Her body was found by Border Patrol off of Cemetery Road in the southwest corner of the refuge.

In an attempt to pressure land manger, Michael Hawkes, to increase water availability to migrants, volunteers with No More Deaths and Samaritans, stood in solidarity on the dusty shoulder of Arivaca Road, while others placed jugs of water along migrant trails.

Ten law enforcement officers from BLM, DOI, US Fish and Wildlife and US Forest Service were on hand to cite the humanitarian workers. Officer James Casey took video footage as aid workers maneuvered under barb wire fences to specific water drop sites.

Among those cited was Rev. John Fife, a tall, lean man and cofounder of No More Deaths, Presbyterian Minister and activist with the Sanctuary movement in the 1980’s. Rev. Fife said the real criminals are the policy makers that drive migrants into remote regions, a policy of death by deterrence. He said, “International Law is in violation of government law. Humanitarian aid organizations not only have the right but the responsibility to provide food, water and medical care to victims when government violates human rights.”

As the cadre of officers removed the water from nearby mesquite trees, Fife and others asked that the lifesaving water not be removed. “Please don’t take that water. Don’t take that water. It’s here to save lives.”

In response to the incident on Thursday, Hawkes, a 33 year veteran with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, insists the refuge provides enough water to wildlife and migrants, claiming over 30 existing water sites available for migrants. Hawkes claims, “There is more water per acre on the refuge than any other comparable land mass on the southern Arizona border. However, as Hawkes talked about heat prostration, he said, “Just putting water out there is not the cure for some of those.”

In regards to the man who died on the refuge on Tuesday, Hawkes said, “The man who died was probably sick. He was found about a mile north of the border near an old ranch house that has water.”

In June, No More Deaths sent an open letter to Mike Hawkes at BANWR and to Ken Salazar, Secretary, Department of Interior, requesting a meeting to discuss cooperative efforts to save lives on the refuge. Several attempts were made by NMD to discuss the measures outlined in the letter; however, Hawkes declined a formal meeting, and instead suggested, a “virtual email meeting.”

Eight years ago, Humane Borders, an organization that maintains approximately 70 water stations on public and private land in the Sonoran Desert, sent a similar letter, requesting permission to place water stations on Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge, a hostile region known for the endangered pronghorn. The Department of Interior and Fish and Wildlife initially denied access to the refuge. Weeks after the denial, 14 men perished along the Devils’ Highway—most of who went without water for more than a day. Their bodies were charred from desert temperatures that soared above 110 degrees.

After the horrific deaths, US FWS granted Humane Borders access to the refuge, allowing them to install flags at water sites and place spickets at wells.

Dan Millis, an employee of The Sierra Club, was the first among desert aid workers to be ticketed in February 2008. He was found guilty but the judge declined to sentence him. Bill Walker, Millis’ defense attorney, has filed an appeal in the 9th Circuit Court. Hawkes claims, “The judge sent the wrong message.”

In a separate incident, Wildlife officer, James Casey, cited Walt Staton, No More Deaths volunteer, for littering on December 4, 2008, along with three other humanitarians; the latter three charges were later dropped. During the trial, defense lawyer, Bill Walker, held a full gallon jug of water in front of the jury and claimed, “When the government tells you this case isn’t about water or this isn’t about saving lives, they’re wrong! This is valuable, life-sustaining water.” Nonetheless, Staton was found guilty, and is currently awaiting sentencing on August 11th.

Lois Martin, Professor Emeritus from Salem State College, picked up trash a long the migrant trails. “We pick up whatever we find because of environmental reasons and to track migrant traffic so we know where migrants are moving. It’s part of monitoring the traffic and usage. We mark the bottles with drop points so when we find them it tells us something about the migrant traffic.”

Last week, the Senate approved 300 miles of new border walls. Staton said, “Every mile of new wall is a guarantee for another death–a part of overall policy that has turned the desert into a graveyard.”

Humanitarian workers and land managers are caught in the crosshairs, redefining the definition of littering. According to No More Deaths, Secretary Ken Salazar, Department of Interior, has requested a meeting with the organization’s leadership in Washington DC Tuesday.

Jody L. Ipsen is a freelance writer, covering border issues from Tucson, AZ.

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