Artisans Beyond Borders photo/ Valarie Lee James

Finished Mantas fresh from Mexico, hand-washed and dried on the line by Tucson's all-volunteer Friends of Artisans Beyond Borders.

Uprooted and vulnerable people have arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border for decades with the steadfast hope of seeking protection from harm in their home countries. And for decades MCC has provided support for displaced people across the world by working with partners to meet local needs with local solutions.

As asylum seeking adults, families, and unaccompanied children continue to arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border they are faced with the impossibility of entering the U.S., as asylum processing has been put to a halt. However, despite the perpetual barriers, the work of serving and caring for those who seek protection continues to be a focus for West Coast Mennonite Central Committee and is carried out alongside partner individuals and organizations.   

West Coast MCC partner Artisans Beyond Borders, a binational Migration Arts ministry that began in 2019 in the shelters of Nogales, Sonora, Mexico offers Manta cloth, the traditional cloth of Mexico with origins dating back to the Aztec empire, to asylum seeking families waiting at the port of entry.

The support that the Artisan’s group gives us for our labor embroidering the mantas is for me a great help to feed my children, the only thing I wish for is to live with my family in peace. - Patricia Zaragoza Martinez 

Donated materials alongside funds gifted through the "Artisan's Materials Fund" directly help these vulnerable families by “using the healing power of creativity to restore grace and agency through the work of the hands, solidarity among the artisans, and respect for cultural and familial arts across borders” says founder Valarie Lee James. 


 Patricia Zaragoza Martinez exhibits her embroidery work for the project "Bordando Esperanza/ Embroidering Hope." Funds for Patricia's work allows her to sustain her family as they wait at the U.S.-Mexico border to seek asylum. The canvas tote bag was sewn by women at the Co-op Dougla Prieta Trabajan, in Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico. Artisans Beyond Borders photo/ Valarie Lee James ​​

The Bordando Esperanza project that serves as art therapy for traumatized asylum seekers, grew quickly in 2020 to become a means to usher in the dignity of work. Sales made from their hand-embroidered craft enables families to afford diapers, medications, and bus fare across town to the Kino Border Initiative’s comedor to eat each day. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in the Spring and the border virtually shut down, the Tucson volunteers Friends of Artisans Beyond Borders struggled for a way to keep the vital binational program going.    

MCC’s Border and Migration Outreach Coordinator Katherine Smith volunteered to help. Katherine understood the value of traditional familial arts, never more important than when families are uprooted and forced to make the difficult decision to leave home. Through MCC’s SALT Serving and Learning Together program she lived with a host family in Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala where she watched her host mother stitch prized Mayan huipiles -embroidered blouses every evening under the one lightbulb in the house and then teach her children to embroider in turn. From Katherine, we learned about the quilting traditions that Mennonites are known for and also how the quilts they create often benefit displaced people in need.  To date, Katherine has made multiple trips to deliver the supplies the artisans need to create their work and also to pick up the Heritage craft they’ve so proudly completed for donors.  

“For me, all the memories are beautiful,” says Patricia Zaragoza Martinez, a 32-year-old single mother of three whose favorite things to embroider are flowers and fruit. Her family has always embroidered natural manta cloth this way to use as satchels to wrap warm tortillas in.

Finished Mantas fresh from Mexico, hand-washed and dried on the line by Tucson's all-volunteer Friends of Artisans Beyond Borders. Artisans Beyond Borders photo/ Valarie Lee James

Patricia’s garden in Guerrero, Mexico was “a field of flowers and fruit trees,” they tended until organized crime came to their beloved part of the world, killed male members of her family and threatened to kidnap the children. Patricia and her kids and a now fatherless nephew fled “through the forest” to Nogales, Mexico, to seek asylum at the U.S. Port of entry. “The support that the Artisan’s group gives us for our labor embroidering the mantas is for me a great help to feed my children,” she says. “The only thing I wish for is to live with my family in peace.”  

The bordadoras (embroiderers) stitch what they love in original compositions inspired by the natural world, memories of home, and the land they left behind.               -Valarie Lee James

In addition to the recuerdos tranquilos -tranquil memories, she fondly recalls when embroidering, Patricia now has personal agency. As just one of the handful of committed volunteers that make up the Tucson Friends of Artisans Beyond Borders, I am inspired everyday by the bordadora’s grit and self-determination. In the middle of a global pandemic that is just one more threat these families endure, we U.S. volunteers are profoundly humbled by their hope and faith for a future without fear.   

One of the artisan’s embroidered mantas given to Katherine, stitched by a 24-year-old asylum seeker, is perhaps not the most accomplished. It is instead an auténtica expression of the healing function of handwork and the nature of faith. Embroidered across the cloth by asylum-seeker Maria Alonzo, who also hails from the violent state of Guerrero, we read “Dios es Paz ~ God is peace.”  

 Embroidery work for the project "Bordando Esperanza/ Embroidering Hope," created by Maria Alonzo. MCC Photo/ Katherine Smith 

Thank you for your continued support for displaced people around the world. If you would like to better understand root causes of migration and learn how to better support asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico Border, please take a look at MCC’s 5 ways to show compassion to asylum seekers.  

Please consider sending a gift to Central American migrants to help both those who stay home and those who must leave or a gift to where needed most, which supports MCC’s work with displaced people and refugees all over the world.