Needle and thread: Quilting the migrant experience

By: Julia Blumberg

“As I’m hanging these quilts, and doing all these things, I realized what if my parents had been born at a different time. What if my mom was able to come over but my dad wasn’t, what like I wouldn’t be here first off. What if neither of them came over? That idea of what if, would I have been in Mexico, what is that where I would be living? Would I be one of these people on these quilts? Would my parents be someone on these quilts?”

-VANESSA FAJARDO, museum curator at the Arizona History Museum

The Migrant Quilt Project was started in 2007 and each quilt is meant to memorialize the people who lost their lives crossing the desert, the identified and the desconocidos. It now has a home at the Arizona History Museum. 

Julia Blumberg has our story.




Outside the Arizona History museum, the street is often bustling with cars, students walking with friends to and from class, and the public shuttle service, the Sun Tran. I’m meeting up with Vanessa Fajardo, who has long black hair and so much passion for history. As a first-generation Mexican-American, she thinks back to her family’s history of crossing the border while she’s setting up a new exhibit about quilts. 

VANESSA FAJARDO: As I’m hanging these quilts, and doing all these things, I realized what if my parents had been born at a different time. What if my mom was able to come over but my dad wasn’t, what like I wouldn’t be here first off. What if neither of them came over? That idea of what if, would I have been in Mexico, what is that where I would be living? Would I be one of these people on these quilts? Would my parents be someone on these quilts?

BLUMBERG: Each quilt varies in size and memorializes people who died crossing through the dangerous terrain during a given year in the desert around Arizona. 


BLUMBERG: Vanessa is the museum curator at the Arizona History Museum. She has worked at the museum for 5 years and also conducts research. She gives me a tour, weaving through the two room gray-walled exhibit located on the first floor of the museum, where 20 quilts are displayed. 

FAJARDO: Each quilt is a memorial piece. So it is to pay tribute to those who are crossing the border trying to find a better life trying to escape, you know, their government different things like that they want to be safe. And that’s first and foremost, what we want people to remember is that these are people, these are humans, and these are people who are risking their lives to try and find a better life.

BLUMBERG: The first quilt is a little smaller than a queen size blanket. 

FAJARDO: None of the quilts are the same. They’re all made by different quilters and groups. So sometimes, for instance, this one, I believe, has about 10 quilters. And it’s a group from Santa Fe, New Mexico, each quilt is dedicated to the Tucson sector. So it’s people who are trying to cross the border in Arizona. So that’s kind of the first one and this one, they use the jeans, for example, they have the Virgin Mary in the middle. And each quilt square has the person’s name. And along with this, we have our labels over here, and it has the number of deaths. So this one for 2000-2001, there were 136 deaths. 


BLUMBERG: One of the volunteers incorporated the desert landscape at the very top of the quilt. It is painted with acrylics on white denim material. The quilt is adorned with many colors – tie dye, blues, purples, and yellows. Every thread pulled through the needle that inscribes the names of the migrants found in the desert is stitched into the jean fabric. 

In the exhibit rooms, there are also artifacts that were donated by Jack Dash, a naturalist and writer, and Luke Swenson, a documentary photographer. Shoes, used clothing, photographs, a red cross blanket covered in leaves and dirt, and a makeshift hospital stretcher made out of  wooden sticks, a border patrol belt, and shirts are some of the artifacts included in the exhibit. The stretcher was found along the migrant trail in Arizona. 

FAJARDO: It almost looks like a ladder because then you have limbs in different parts of trees going across the way and being tied to be able to carry her across the border. So that way she could get help and it was made for a woman that was so sick that she was not able to continue, and the people she was with knew they had to get her help. They made a stretcher and they carried her the rest of the way. Got her to St Mary’s, but she eventually passed away. So this is one piece for us that just speaks a lot without having to speak a lot. 


BLUMBERG: An older couple joins us on the rest of the tour. Walking into the next gray walled room of the exhibit, more quilts are hanging and more artifacts are waiting to be seen. 

And in the center of the room is a sculpture made out of objects found in the desert that shows that adults are not the only ones crossing the border, families are also crossing, children, babies. 

FAJARDO: And then this piece of art here in the middle is what we call migrant world. And it’s made with artifacts that are found along the migrant trail. So here you have a backpack that was found. And nothing’s been taken out. So it’s attached, they’ve opened it, but in it you’ll have, you know, baby powder, talcum powder, there’s a pair of socks in there, I believe.

BLUMBERG: One quilt in the same room shows the literal border wall splitting the quilt. Above it are buzzwords or keywords that describe what migrants seek when they leave their homeland,–security, hope, and safety. Below the border wall, the buzzwords describe what migrants experience as they get closer to the wall or along their journey – rape, drugs, and violence. 

FAJARDO: And that’s buzzwords where, you know, half of the people want to talk about these and half the people don’t want to talk about them. You can talk about these individuals coming over as gangs, but you can’t talk about these female individuals coming over who are experiencing abuse and rape and different things like that, because that’s almost like the no no word that you don’t use. 

BLUMBERG: Vanessa has been planning this exhibit for about 9 months, and it opened to the public earlier this year. 

Jody Ipsen, founder and former director of the Migrant Quilt Project, radiates positive energy, has a beaming smile, and short hair. Soon after the first quilt was made in 2007, Jody met someone here in Tucson who volunteered on border issues and is a friend of the project curator, Peggy Hazard. Peggy assisted in arranging the showing of the quilts in exhibits around the country. This exhibit is the first time the quilts have been hung all together, something that Jody really wanted to happen. 

FAJARDO: And she actually got super emotional, she’s like they’ve never all been up together. 


BLUMBERG: Jody reads the names of migrants who have died in the desert –she reads the names from the Pima County Office of Medical Examiner list on her laptop. This project started in 2007 after a trip Jody took to Central America and Mexico. She was inspired by the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, made in the late 80s, commemorating people who died of AIDS-related causes. When she came back from her trip, Jody wondered what she could do to help. 


JODY IPSEN: But when I got back from Central America, Mexico and met with those families, I came back and I had a huge bout of depression. And I felt extremely powerless. Because I could not give them money, enough money, I did not have the money, I could not lift them up out of their distress, you know, I couldn’t lift them out of abject poverty, there was just no way I could do that for everyone. 

BLUMBERG: One day, while she was out on a hike through the desert with volunteers of local Tucson organizations, Jody came across a camp site where migrants abandon their belongings to continue their journey. This is the moment she knew that she could find solace in making quilts. 

IPSEN: I was collecting these things in the desert, you know, Bluejeans, shirts, shoes, I would collect shoes just for exhibit purposes. There’s a lot of bandanas out there. There’s a lot of different kinds of clothing materials like children’s clothing, children’s T shirts, children’s backpacks, I found a Winnie the Pooh backpack with a lot of supplies in there for a small child or infant you know, that included some diapers and clothing. 

BLUMBERG: Everything fell into place, and before she knew it, the first quilt had been made. At the time she didn’t think these could end up inside a museum.

The growth of the exhibit over the past 15 years has been remarkable, as these quilts have been shown around the United States, including Oro Valley, the Longworth Building near the Capitol in Washington D.C, and the Urban Edge Gallery in Waukegan, Illinois. The quilts help people near and far from the border learn about the journeys and experiences migrants face daily, but also help loved ones find closure, which Jody has witnessed on several occasions. 

IPSEN: There was one particular evening when we were in Waukegan, Illinois, and we were at the Urban edge art gallery. 

BLUMBERG: There, she met Josue, the cousin of Jaime Pasillas, who had died in August 2012, close to the Arizona-Mexico border. 

IPSEN: His cousin Josue went up to a quilt and found his cousin’s name on the quilt and, you know, for that one moment, he was able to see that people are memorializing those lives, people are giving names to the suffering, and to the people who did not make it. 

BLUMBERG: Peggy, curator of the project and Jody’s collaborator, is a lively woman with blonde curly hair and colorful prescription glasses. She hopes these quilts will eventually keep a record of what migration once was–someday, when people won’t have to die crossing the border. Peggy has full faith that the quilts will be taken and well preserved by the Arizona Historical Society for the foreseeable future. The oldest historical agency in Arizona, the Historical Society is the custodian of many artifacts and manuscript holdings that can be used for educational purposes, exhibits, and research. 

PEGGY HAZARD: And I can only hope that in the future, the, you know, immigration issue will have evolved and become more sane, and more compassionate and they’ll look back on these objects as referencing a time that wow, I can’t believe it used to be like that, you know, that’s what I really hope.


BLUMBERG: Vanessa is taking me through the exhibit, and we’re facing the 2019-2020 Quilt. It arrived just a week before the exhibit opened. It transports you from the museum to the Sonoran desert. The names and desconocidos, unidentified individuals, are outlined on the border of the quilt on jean fabric. Inside this border are pinks, blues, oranges, and yellows depicting the sunset behind mountains. The outlines or backsides of migrants crossing the border are stitched into this quilt and could resemble a painting. 

FAJARDO: So they’ve used actual dresses, to put a dress on this woman, they’ve used pants to put pants on the child, jeans to put on the man. And then the sweater is actually the backside layout of a sweater that’s been stitched on there as well. And then the sunset colors. They don’t have arms, except when obviously, the sweater is different, but there’s not hands attached to it or anything. 

BLUMBERG: Looking at the quilt, you don’t get the sense of these individuals being migrants – you don’t see their faces, they don’t look a certain way that makes them look like 

they are doing something wrong. And at the end of the day, this is what prompted these women to make these quilts, and to show these quilts – they want to change perceptions and start conversations about migration related issues. 


Music: Siddhartha Corsus, A Song for Peace

Featured photo: Courtesy of Michael Summers Howell.