Heart, Mind, and Body in Quilting ResearchBy Sonia Arellano, University of Arizona
My mom, Christine Moreno, is a self taught seamstress. She learned to sew in her teens to make clothes for herself, her sisters, and even for my grandma. The sound of a sewing machine at medium pace is the peaceful sound that filled my childhood. I always had the best costumes at Halloween, and my pants were always just the right length despite my short height. I learned to sew the way I learned to cook, from just watching my mom, but I couldn’t tell you exactly how to thread a bobbin or what basting was. As I entered the dissertation stage of my Ph.D., I sought a tactile action to give me a break from reading and writing, so my mom gave me a sewing machine for Christmas and sewing lessons later that summer. What an incredible teacher she is, although an accountant by profession. She taught me with ease and reassured me that if I mess up, I can just rip the seam and try again. She made sewing a fun and low stakes activity.
I never thought I would start quilting in my 30s, and I surely never thought I would ever be a quilter. My stepmom, Kathryn Arellano, was not a quilter, but she came from a family of feminist quilters from northeastern Oklahoma. When Kathy passed three years ago, I inherited a beautiful shadow box dedicated to my great grandmother and a double wedding ring quilt that my grandmother made for my stepmom and dad when they married.
Because these material objects have what Nora Ruth Roberts calls “heirloom-value,” inheriting them has made me deeply contemplate our relationships to things, especially in death. Both of these women, my mom and my stepmom, made their ways in the world as single moms and feminists, and they passed along sewing and quilting which brings my heart to my current research, quilts.
My research focuses on textile projects that address social justice issues. My current work focuses on the Migrant Quilt Project, a project based out of Tucson, Arizona, and facilitated by the volunteer group Los Desconocidos. This group makes quilts that memorialize migrant deaths by naming each migrant found in the Tucson Border Patrol Sector in a particular year. When the migrant is not identified, they are listed as "Desconocido/a," meaning unknown in Spanish. When I tell people about this project, they are intrigued, but they often are most interested to learn that the quilts are made from clothing left behind at migrant lay-up sites. The clothing presumable belonged to migrants who were crossing the Sonoran Desert to enter the US. I decided to focus on this group for my dissertation work, completing interviews and analyzing the quilts. However, I quickly got folded into the group as I agreed to complete a quilt.
Starting the quilt for the year 2002-2003 which has 205 names, took me a while. The pressure I felt, especially as a rhetorician, was overwhelming because I wanted to accurately, thoughtfully, and effectively memorialize the migrant lives lost in this year. As I cataloged the clothes, I realized their details told stories. For example, one pair of jeans had been worn down at the hem of both pant legs, and the owner had hand sewn the pants themselves. Another pair of light jeans had rust colored blood stains splattered on them. How the blood got there is left up to our imaginations.
These are the material manifestations of the stories that writers such as Luis Alberto Urrea (The Devil’s Highway) and Jason De León (The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail) chronicle of the crossing journey. I decided to craft the state of Arizona by piecing denim and then map the deaths onto the desert using the Arizona OpenGIS Initiative for Deceased Migrants. I’m still working through how and where to include the 205 names. Some days I cry as I sew. Other days I cry as I cut. My sewing machine has a thin layer of desert dirt on it from piecing the jeans together. I am acutely aware of my privilege in completing this quilt as it is starkly juxtaposed with the migrant stories conveyed through the clothing.
As I quilt, the pressure to respectfully and thoughtfully represent migrant deaths weighs on me more than writing my dissertation. The stakes feel different. Quilting has proven to be an incredibly rigorous and emotional research process. My research and heart is necessarily connected to the migrants memorialized in the quilt and the women in my family who have a legacy of producing textiles. My heart, my mind, and my body are all involved in this research process, which is an incredibly exhausting, critical, and productive space to work in.
Sonia C. Arellano is a Ph.D. candidate in Rhetoric, Composition, and the Teaching of English at the University of Arizona. Her dissertation tentatively titled “Quilting the Migrant Trail: Crafted Rhetorical Text(iles) and (Counter) Narratives” explores what lives are deemed grievable through the rhetorical contributions of quilt projects that memorialize migrant lives.
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