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Immigration Stories Told in Quilts

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A new exhibit at the National Museum of Mexican Art tries to put a human face on immigration. It’s called A Declaration of Immigration, and it features photos, paintings and multi-media projects from several ethnic groups. As part of the exhibit, some Chicagoans are telling their families’ stories, by sewing them in muslin and ribbon.

Karen Musgrave stands with a group of women at a long skinny table. They lean in for a better look. Musgrave is a master quilter who’s leading the museum’s “Quilt Me a Story” workshop for the next month. Some of the women here have never sewn on anything but a loose button. Musgrave tells them there are no mistakes because there’s nothing you can’t fix.

MUSGRAVE: I’ve watched so many women in so many places, their whole body language change, from being very nervous and very tense, to very loose, very free. And I love that process.

Musgrave says she hopes to connect cultures, one quilt at a time. She tells the women it’s important to share their stories.

MUSGRAVE: The wonderful thing about quilts is, you’re going to make a quilt, and that quilt is going to outlast you. So a part of you is going to be around here for a very long time. And who knows, maybe in a hundred years, it will end up in a museum. You know, we just never know.

Norka Perez Lozada is from Puerto Rico. She left her warm, island home last fall just in time to see her new city turn cold and gray. She’s laid out a grid right in the middle of her quilt, just over a mountain and the ocean. The grid symbolizes the streets of Chicago to show how boxed in she feels sometimes.

LOZADA: It’s difficult for me to be inside of a place when you want to be outside. But you can’t because it’s too cold. So being inside all the time, I have to escape, I have to go.

She came here to become an artist and teacher. Someday she plans to go back.

LOZADA: I think I’m knowing more myself outside, and even though it has been difficult, I’m still here, trying. That’s what I want to represent there. The hope of catching the dream.

The students begin ripping strips of muslin. Luisa Santoyo digs through bins of fabric, and pulls out a delicate floral pattern.

SANTOYO: I am making my grandmother’s hands because her hands symbolize her strength. I feel she was a very strong person, someone that lived before her time.

Her grandmother came from Mexico. She helped raise her brothers and sisters, and then her grandchildren. Santoyo says there weren’t many Mexican families in Blue Island at the time.

SANTOYO: You could see the reaction of some of the people if you dressed traditionally, if you ate the foods. It was very frowned upon. So I was expected to speak English.

She never became fluent in Spanish.

SANTOYO: Now, I don’t like it. I really don’t like it. I feel that a part of me has been taken away.
MUSGRAVE: Can everyone come over here for just a second?

Karen Musgrave pulls out puffs of netting, and lays them over a quilt.

MUSGRAVE: You can use tulle to mute a sky….

Maria Guadalupe Herrera returns to her quilt. She’s basing it on her dad and calling it the man of a thousand journeys. He’s told so many tall tales, she doesn’t know what’s true or not. He likes to talk about struggling across the border, but really, she says, he came on a plane.

HERRERA: My dad, ever since I can remember, since a child, has been telling stories of how he came here. Yet every story, even though it’s the same, has a different ending or a different journey. I was a pilot in the war, then I became a butcher, and then I was a gardener, and then -- I’m surprised he hasn’t said he’s the president of Mexico.

Herrera plans to decorate her quilt with tiny figures of her father in all the uniforms he’s claimed over the years. She says her family’s been lucky. But they struggled in the early years.

HERRERA: We were poor. With seven sisters, by the time you got the hand-me-down, it wasn’t even a hand-me-down anymore. It was torn and bad.

There were lots of gangs and shootings in Little Village when she was a kid. But her dad’s stories were like a journey somewhere else, and they made her feel safe.

HERRERA: At the end, we were still happy. Even though we didn’t have a lot growing up, 10 of us, it never really made a difference. I think, to me, it was because of his stories, and the love and my mom.

She says she’s grateful that she and her siblings have more to give their children. And she credits her mom and dad.

NOTE: A Declaration of Immigration at the National Museum of Mexican Art runs through Sept. 7. Several quilts are part of this art show. The museum hopes to someday display the quilts currently being made by local women at the “Quilt Me a Story” workshop.

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