Tens of thousands of asylum seekers who are stranded at the Mexican border face lives of desperation, daily violence, and poverty. To provide the asylum seekers with an income for their meager existence, Tucson’s Artisans Beyond Borders sells beautifully embroidered mantas, also known as servilletas through an Etsy shop.

So far this year, 90,314 people have applied for asylum in Mexico. They live in crime-ridden border towns like Tapachula, stalled by a dysfunctional asylum system.

Founder Valarie Lee James (right) with Tucson resident and Artisans Beyond Borders Volunteer Emily Sullivan.

Artisans Beyond Borders is a non-profit Border Arts Ministry. I discovered the organization at the recent Annual Fall Artisans Market at the Tucson Museum of Art. The charity was founded by artist Valarie Lee James.

“In Tucson, we cultural arts workers are putting embroideries for sale, sent to us from towns across the U.S., where migrant families are hanging on by the teeth as they wait for asylum hearings,” James said.

Mantas are traditionally used for wrapping ‘swaddling’ tortillas, bread, and other foodstuffs for one’s family, to keep food fresh and warm. The cloth is used as a satchel, an excellent alternative to plastic wrap. Artisans Beyond Border’s bordados are stitched on 100% cotton Manta cloth, the traditional cloth of Mexico with origins dating back to the Aztec empire. Manta cloth is 100% natural unbleached organic cotton providing thermal insulation and perfect breathability.

Many mantas become cherished table centerpieces. They can also be devotional.

“I am struck by how much we can learn about their lives from their handwork itself. My eye travels over stitching that ranges from fine and delicado to bold and bright. How the makers continue to come up with such original compositions and color choices while navigating the difficult transition to a new language and culture in the middle of immigration limbo is a testimony to the healing of familial handwork.”

Just the clothes on their backs

Artisans Beyond Borders formed the U.S. Embroidering Hope (Bordando Esperanza) group to help meet the needs of ou embroiderers lawfully crossing the border after waiting in Mexico for a year and a half to petition for asylum.

“They arrive with nothing save the clothes on their backs. They are not allowed by immigration officials to even carry their own embroidery supplies through the port of entry. We make sure that when they come across, they receive bags filled with all the supplies they need to begin again. Donations we send them in return for their original handwork, help pay for basics: food, transportation, diapers, and over-the-counter meds,” James said.

“When I was coming to the United States, the first thing I bring with me was a little bordado, a tablecloth I lay down for my prayerful space. Wherever I move, I take that with me because it reminds me where I come from,” said Laura Santos, Sister of the Holy Cross.

“Asylum seekers waiting at the port of entry, offer us their handcraft, a piece of themselves for our homes. In friendship and respect, we support and welcome them,” James said.

Images from the embroidery are turned into greeting cards, like this one that says “be strong.”

Heirlooms in the Sand

Since 2004 humanitarians and borderland artists began to find exquisite embroideries left behind in the desert south of Tucson — “Heirlooms in the Sand,” with smart feminine sensibilities in each stitch. They vowed to find a way to bring attention and respect to the unknown makers crossing the desert on foot.

Now, Arizonans have the opportunity to support asylum-seekers — waiting to cross or lawfully in the U.S. now by restoring grace and agency through the arts and respect for cultural and familial arts across borders.

In Tucson, you can find Artisan’s Beyond Borders original Heritage Arts at
the United Nations Association of Southern Arizona Center Store, at 6242 E Speedway Blvd, Tucson, AZ 85712.

Online, the artisans’ work can be found at their Etsy shop, BordandoEsperanza.

Artisans beyond Borders is a bi-national, not-for-profit initiative. It counts on donations and sales to pay the artisans for their work and subsidize the Artisans Materials Fund so they may purchase their own embroidery materials and supplies in Nogales, Mexico. Its wants makers to have agency and as many choices as possible while supporting the local economy.

All monetary donations go directly to the artisans and to fund the program. Donations can be
made through:

Find them on Facebook: www.facebook.com/BordandoEsperanzaSinFronteras/. For more info, see Artisans Profiles in Courage & Creativity, Artandfaithinthedesert.com.