For some asylum seekers, the embroidery makes waiting at the border easier
An embroidered cloth hangs on the rope among the clothes and blankets belonging to asylum seekers staying at the Casa de la Misericordia shelter in Nogales, Sonora.
It’s a warm, sunny afternoon in Nogales, Sonora, when Valarie Lee James gets out of her car at the Casa de la Misericordia migrant shelter – a two-acre compound built on a hill overlooking the town, and in the distance, the United States-Mexico border wall.
Next to the shelter’s sleeping quarters, gardens, school and kitchen is what James calls the makerspace: a small room filled with sewing machines, threads and piles of embroidery hoops, where women migrant women – and some men – make traditional arts. They embroider fabric and weave clothes that they can sell in the United States with support from the binational nonprofit Artisans Beyond Borders.
Today, the director of the shelter Alma Angélica Macías Mejía, known to all as Sister Lika, draws everyone’s attention to Cecilia.
“Look at this wonderful work Cecilia is doing,” she said, as Cecilia, an asylum seeker, untied the patch she was weaving. “She did others, but you have to see this.”
Cecilia revealed a traditional garment in vibrant hues of yellow, red, orange and blue that she wove on a traditional knapsack loom donated by artists in Tucson.
She sat down to start working, and soon everyone watched silently as she used long sticks to guide the threads through the fabric.
Cecilia weaves at the Casa de la Misericordia shelter in Nogales, Sonora.
“Waiting and Waiting”
Cecilia and her three children fled their home in a rural, mountainous area of Guerrero, Mexico last July.
“I waited and waited,” she said as she sat weaving. “I have been here for over seven months. I asked for asylum but I didn’t hear anything.
Like so many others, Cecilia’s family has been barred from asylum in the United States due to policies such as the Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPPs, and a deportation policy implemented during the pandemic called Title 42, which has closed ports of entry to asylum seekers and allows the United States to deport those crossing the border elsewhere. Together, the policies have largely suspended the right to seek refuge at the US-Mexico border.
We call Cecilia and other asylum seekers by their first names only for their safety.
“I’ve been crying every day since I got here,” Cecilia said in Spanish, though she mostly speaks Mixtec. “I didn’t sleep well at night.”
The stress and uncertainty of what will happen to his family is hard to bear. She hopes to achieve safety with relatives in California.
In the meantime, she weaves.
“I like doing that,” she says, adding that she never had the chance to go to school or learn to read and write, but her mother taught her to weave. “I can sell them to earn something for myself and my children, and I profit from it.”
As well as helping her support her family, she said it allowed her to escape her many worries while she was stuck waiting at the border.
Valarie Lee James and Sister Lika, who runs the shelter, laugh in front of a mural in the main office.
The power of embroidery
This reprieve is part of the mission of Artisans Beyond Borders – also called Bordando Esperanza, or embroidering hope. James founded the group in 2019 as a ministry of Grace St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Tucson.
“We started on the street,” she said. “As volunteer artistic animators, we went where we were needed. We went down the street. »
At the time, the Trump administration was expanding the MPP to cities across the US-Mexico border. It has forced tens of thousands of people seeking asylum in the United States to wait in Mexico, sometimes in life-threatening situations.
“And suddenly we had thousands of people on the streets because people couldn’t claim asylum,” James said. “It was terrible, and it was winter.”
Many of those waiting could not find a place in the few shelters in Nogales, where migrants have historically only stayed for short periods.
Volunteers from Artisans Beyond Borders began setting up card tables outside, and hundreds of migrants gathered to embroider traditional fabrics known as mantas Where servilletaswhich are often used to wrap tortillas and other foods.
James, an artist and clinical art therapist, has been drawn to colorful fabrics since the early 2000s, when she first came across them while hiking in the southern Arizona desert near Amado.
“We were more and more, over the years, really haunted by what we found,” she said. “For us, this work was invaluable.
She called them treasured heirlooms, carried among the few personal effects migrants carried with them as they crossed the border, perhaps stitched together by a wife, mother or daughter.
Today, Artisans Beyond Borders provides waiting asylum seekers with materials to embroider and weave similar pieces.
“What’s amazing is that, all these years later, this work refuses to shut up,” she said.
About 75 of these mantas are currently part of a traveling exhibit at American churches and universities.
“It really draws attention to what’s happening on the frontier in a very family, personal, family way,” James said. “This creative work stands in contrast to the politics of destruction we so often hear about the border.”
Students at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles are now organizing an exhibit, then it will travel to Ohio, where Esmeralda lives – one of the migrant artisans who contributed to the exhibit.
An asylum seeker holds up a manta she sewed at the Casa de la Misericordia.
Farther and farther from home
Esmeralda learned to embroider during the more than 18 months she and her family spent waiting in Nogales under the MPP.
Then, when Biden canceled the program last year and began allowing those enrolled in the program to enter the United States, she was able to travel to Ohio with her husband and four children.
However, after Esmeralda and others were allowed to enter the United States, the MPP was reinstated, and since December asylum seekers have again been ordered to wait south of the border.
“I’m getting further and further away from my home, from my people,” Esmeralda said. “I was scared when I was allowed to enter the United States. I didn’t know what would happen to me here.
They’re trying to start a new life in Ohio, with the support of a sponsor and Artisans Beyond Borders. But it’s not easy. Her asylum case is still unresolved and she and her family do not yet have a work permit.
So she continues to embroider, to sell what she can at religious events and through Artisans Beyond Borders. She even asked her husband to help her sew.
“Pobrecito“, she said, laughing. “Poor thing.”
But there’s more to embroidery than making ends meet, she added. Esmeralda also wants people in the United States to see and recognize the work that Indigenous women do.
“And when I sit down to embroider, I feel like all my sadness is gone. All I can do is focus on my work,” she said.
Evelia sews a manta cloth that she hopes to leave at the shelter when her family can finally reach the United States.
“I can’t go back”
That feeling of escape is something many of the women who still sew quietly at the Casa de la Misericordia shelter in Nogales have spoken about.
“It really helps. It clears my mind,” said Evelia, a young mother from Guerrero.
She fled north to the border with her husband and three children last July after facing violence and extortion at home, she said.
Today, she is embroidering a manta she will leave with the shelter when she can finally be reunited with her family in Oregon.
Staying in Mexico is not an option for her family, she says, and after the violence they witnessed at home, her children are afraid to return.
“We cannot go back. And here, everywhere we go in Mexico, it’s the same. The same danger,” she said.
So for now, she’s sewing to speed up the wait.
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A young boy walks past the sleeping quarters of the Casa de la Misericordia shelter in Nogales, Sonora, where the sidewalk has been painted with the phrase “We are all one family”.
Cecilia weaves a traditional blouse at the Casa de la Misericordia shelter in Nogales, Sonora.
A mural at the Casa de la Misericordia shelter in Nogales shows people traveling from all over Latin America and other parts of the world to the United States.
James calls this room full of supplies the Casa de la Misericordia makerspace.