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.