Fabric inspires me. I love to collect it and stitch quilts, bags and other objects from my stash of new and vintage cloth. But when the opportunity arose to collaborate with two other women to create a Migrant Quilt, I encountered fabric as something other than pretty designs and colors. To me, the discarded items of clothing from which we were to sew this unique quilt still contained vestiges of the spirits of the people who had worn them and later discarded them on their journeys north to what they hoped would be a better life in the United States. It was a humbling and emotionally-fraught experience to handle the shirts, jeans, bandanas and embroidered serviettes that were left behind, and then to deconstruct them and reconnect the pieces into the form of a quilt documenting the demise of fellow travelers whose dreams were cut short in the inhospitable deserts surrounding Tucson. I had never worked on such an evocative art object or been involved in such a meaningful act of consciousness-raising. Thank you for allowing me to be a part of the Los Desconocidos project.
Working with the materials felt like a sacred act. Not beautiful in and of themselves, the cotton knit and denim reflect the sacrifice and embody the remnants of deceased immigrants’ dreams and hopes of a new life in “El Norte.” By virtue of being born in the U.S., most Americans never need to sacrifice for freedom and opportunity and may misunderstand or feel threatened by those who strive to join them. My intent was to make the harrowing journey tangible and real for others, like me, who were blessed to be Americans by birth. Through my choice of fabric and subject matter I tried to bridge the gap between viewer and the deceased and have the viewer see through the migrants’ eyes.
Cornelia Bayley of Green Valley, Arizona, has been making art quilts for many years. Moving to Arizona in 2012, she became aware of the humanitarian crisis taking place in the Sonoran Desert because of the militarization of the border. “Making these quilts, recording the names of those who died crossing the desert, using their clothing and other artifacts left in the desert by travelers, is very difficult, but also an honor. Those with names, and those who have not been named, should be remembered and our quilts help to do that. I hope it raises awareness of the dangerous crossing these people attempt. I use fabrics with Mexican themes, Mexican milagros, and other religious artifacts that have cultural origins in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and other places where these travelers started their perilous journey, leaving behind their families, full of hopes and dreams for their future.
Looking through the stacks of clothing and personal items that were collected in the desert turned the purpose of the quilt project from foreign to familiar. Handling the very clothing that the migrants wore as they attempted to cross the border made me feel a real connection to them as people rather than numbers. I was attracted to items that were clearly worn or stained because they had more energy….and I could imagine the person who wore them.
Eventually, my need for cohesiveness within the piece determined which articles I would include in the quilt. Since there was a large number of blue jeans, that seemed the most appropriate “background”. I wanted the finished piece to be readable. I wanted their names to be written in an elegant font because that seemed respectful, so I printed them from my computer onto fabric. I placed the denim pieces on top of the names, stitched around and cut away the denim fabric to reveal the names underneath. Both the process and the final visual effect replicates the brutal circumstances of their deaths.
In addition to using the migrants’ jeans, I incorporated three hand-embroidered handkerchiefs. The one with red and pink flowers reads “Duerme amor mio”, which translates “Sleep with angels my love”. “Contigo en la distancia” is embroidered on the other and means “With you from a distance”. The fact that these handmade items were found in the desert makes me certain that the women who had stitched these had lost their loved ones to the harsh desert environment. I included a baseball cap with our Lady of Guadalupe embroidered on it because it represents the importance of religion in day-to-day life for many of the migrants.