Waiting at the border, migrants lean on tradition

Photo credit: Lourdes Medrano

One early afternoon, Sandra Vázquez is sitting on an old metal bench in front of a bus station, next to two other women who, like them, are carefully decorating a piece of cotton with decorative patterns. Buses come and go, day after day, but the women stay. And with needle and thread in hand, she continues sewing.

Vázquez and the other women are among the dozen of migrants stranded in Mexican border towns waiting for their US asylum cases to be handled amid ever-changing guidelines and an ongoing pandemic. After fleeing their mountainous hamlet in Guerrero, a state in southwest Mexico where conflict and violence have uprooted many residents, Vázquez and eleven members of her extended family ended up in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico in July.

Sandra Vázquez and two migrants. Photo by Lourdes Medrano.

They found shelter near the border crossing at the bus station, a place that has gradually become a makeshift haven for the growing numbers of migrants arriving in the city south of Arizona. There Vázquez soon joined other women who embroidered shawls every day, called Mantas or Napkins in Spanish, used to keep tortillas, bread, and other foods warm. “When I embroider, I don’t think about everything that happens, everything that I’ve experienced,” says Vázquez.

About two decades before Vázquez and her family arrived in Nogales, embroidered manta rays appeared in the border areas. When the United States introduced a new strategy to deter illegal border crossings in the 1990s, urban migrants were pushed into remote, rugged desert areas. The number of victims rose in the following years, migrants died in the relentless heat, others were picked up by the border patrol and some simply disappeared, leaving only their belongings behind. Under the shoes, handkerchiefs, and backpacks that were strewn on the desert floor and the residents of the area were relaxing, lay the manta rays, some of which were torn apart by the elements. Many people viewed the remains as trash, but Valerie Lee James, an artist who lived on a ranch near the border, says she understood what the mantas she picked up meant to migrants. In Latin America, mantas or servilletas, which are decorated with colorful representations of people, animals and objects, are family treasures that are often passed on from generation to generation.

“I wanted nothing more than to find its rightful owners one day,” says James. She never found the owners of those she met, but these desert mantas later led to cross-border alliances that culminated in an embroidery project for migrants under the auspices of a nonprofit organization, Artisans Beyond Borders, which she founded.

Vázquez is one of dozens of women and a few men in various Nogales shelters participating in Bordando Esperanza, Embroiding Hope. The program, which includes volunteers from Arizona and Sonora, is designed to provide comfort to migrants in times of uncertainty, says James. “All of these people are now stuck on the border and need this kind of work more than ever. Often times, this type of work comes closest to any kind of psychological wellbeing they can have, to take a moment to find some rest. “

To cope with the huge influx of asylum seekers from Central America, the Trump administration put the controversial migrant protection protocols into effect in 2019, which forced migrants to wait for a trial south of the border rather than the U.S. program and allowed about 10,000 asylum seekers to enter the country, but the program has since resumed. For some migrants in Nogales, the embroidery craft makes the wait a little less agonizing.

Studies show that engaging in embroidery and other textile crafts can relieve stress and reduce anxiety. Migrant lawyers in Nogales say sewing pleasant memories onto cloth can alleviate emotional wounds suffered before or during the often arduous migration journeys north. For Vázquez, a mother of two, the handicrafts keep her from murdering her cousin, the threatening blackmailers in Guerrero who charge a fee for keeping her stall open, and her family’s long wait for one Opportunity to present her case for political asylum in the US. “We can’t go back home,” she says. “I want my children to be safe and have a good life.”

Vázquez’s family is one of 14 from Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras who live on the bus station premises, says Norma Ascencio, who works there and oversees the embroidery project. Not far from a US port of entry, the station has become a meeting point over the years for Mexican migrants who have been deported from the US and, more recently, for many Central Americans and other asylum seekers who now have to wait for their legal fate in Mexico . “Some people have been here for 16 months,” says Ascencio.

Migrants only get one meal a day at a nearby soup kitchen, so they have to find ways to earn an income for basic necessities. For the craftsmen, embroidered mantas bring in some money for bus tickets, groceries, and personal care products. Their crafts are sold online and at festival locations north of the border. On a new day, Ascencio stood behind a kitchen table folding up a pile of ready-made manta rays that James would take to Arizona with him – as she and other volunteers have been doing for about two years.

Now well established, Bordando Esperanza will soon be heading in a new direction. Manta makers and project coordinators in Nogales are working on developing a self-sustaining cooperation model to create a market for the handicrafts of migrants.

A few kilometers from the bus station, in the migrant shelter Casa de la Misericordia, a 2 hectare property on a hill, the project participants sew multicolored threads onto square pieces of fabric. When not cooking or cleaning, migrants often embroider at outdoor tables, where they have a bird’s eye view of wing houses similar to American-owned homes maquiladoras, Factories that assemble electronics and other products for export.

Beatriz Alvarado started making manta rays shortly after arriving at the shelter almost a year ago. Although the 26-year-old was not embroidering at home in El Salvador, she soon picked up the intricacies of the work from the other artisans. Like many asylum seekers who are frustrated with long waits in Mexico, she snuck across the border with her 9-year-old daughter. Smugglers separated mother and daughter, and while the girl made it to Florida and lives with relatives, US authorities captured Alvarado and sent her back to Mexico. Torn by the circumstances separating her from her daughter in the United States and her husband and five-year-old daughter in El Salvador, Alvarado turns to embroidery to recover.

One recent afternoon, Alvarado was in the shelter’s kitchen gathering ingredients for the Salvadorans pupusas she would do it the next day, when it was her turn to cook. During a break from her housework, she showed a cell phone picture of a manta ray embroidered with a pastoral scene reminiscent of her homeland. There is beauty in El Salvador, she says, but criminal elements make it difficult for law-abiding citizens to live peacefully. Alvarado left her country, she explains, because a gang member who charged her to sell clothes in her mother’s neighborhood threatened to kill her when she refused to pay any more. At the shelter, when her thoughts wander to these days, she takes out a manta and starts sewing. “Embroidery helps me relieve stress, not spending so much time thinking about my situation and the long wait,” she says.

Alvarado’s handicrafts will be part of a national traveling exhibition of 75 manta rays that will be on display in churches and schools in cities across the United States starting next year. The first public screening will be held on January 15 at the Good Shepherd United Church of Christ in Sahuarita, Arizona. All funds raised through the exhibition and donations will support the project for artisans on the border and other migrants who are now waiting for their asylum cases to be resolved in the US, says James. As the Nogales Cooperative continues to develop, James and other volunteers on the Arizona project will focus on educational events in the United States. Her aim is to strengthen the understanding of migration to a country that is still a promise of hope for many, even amid border restrictions that are intended to keep rising numbers of migrants away.

In the Casa de la Misericordia, the home manager Alma Angélica Macías Mejía saw the calming effect of embroidery on asylum seekers. The craft flourished after several women who were already making manta rays elsewhere arrived last year after the pandemic forced smaller shelters to accept fewer migrants. Strict protocols kept the coronavirus in check, although the population at the shelter, mostly from Central America, grew to nearly 300 migrants, the director says.

Finished mantas. Photo by Lourdes Medrano.

Embroidery helped the first manta-makers weather the worst of the pandemic and waits of up to a year and a half, she says. “They went under the trees and other outdoor areas and it was like they were family. They shared their stories, they talked about what each of them was going through, and they encouraged each other. “

Most of these asylum seekers have since moved to the United States awaiting immigration hearings, and now a different group of artisans among the 120 migrants at the property continues the manta-making tradition. You work closely with the project coordinator Ana Delia Chavarín, who offers advice and ensures that embroidery and crochet accessories are fully in stock.

Back at the bus stop that became a shelter, Sandra Vázquez focuses on the repetitive rhythms that lines and shapes create on fabric, and recalls the days her grandmother taught her to embroider. She was twelve then, only a year younger than her own daughter today. The two of them often sit together on the old metal bench, sew mantas and wait for news about their asylum application.

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