How the arts can help asylum-seekers make their way now in the U.S.A. ~ Artisans Beyond Borders Update, Summer/Fall 2021

In Tucson, we Cultural Arts Workers are putting embroideries on the line sent to us from towns across the U.S., where migrant families are hanging on by the teeth as they wait for asylum hearings. 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.

Fresh Mantas made by asylum-seekers and sent to Tucson from across the U.S.

We are relieved that our embroiderers and others are in safer conditions now but for most, their challenges are just beginning, like the immigrant mother surviving on babysitter wages in the NYTimes profile “$100 a Week”:

“Behind these scenes of domestic joy (of newly arrived families), are financial straits so dire that they can be hard to comprehend.” NY Times, June 3, 2021

Those who have been able to finally reunify with their family in the U.S. often find that those families are barely scraping by themselves. Not eligible for publicly funded assistance, children can go to bed hungry. To survive, many rely on free school lunches, programs at local churches, and the tireless efforts of immigrant advocacy groups to survive.

Artisans Beyond Borders U.S. Initiative

We Tucson Friends of Artisans Beyond Borders formed the U.S. Embroidering Hope (Bordando Esperanza) group to help meet the needs of our 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.

Artisanal Embroiderer waiting to depart Casa Alitas, Tucson’s lead migrant shelter

ABB Outreach: Bordado supplies and support at Casa Alitas Shelter

Separated for 17 years, Abby Reunites with her Mom

With the help of the lawyers at Justice for our Neighbors, Abby, one of our dear embroiderers in Nogales, made it across the border in June. The thin soft-spoken 22-year-old mother of two girls ages 5 and 1 year, was only 5 years old herself when her own mother left Guerrero, Mexico and migrated to the U.S.  After 17 years, she was finally able to see her mother’s face.

“Meeting my mother again after all these years was so exciting, there were many mixed feelings,” Abby said. “I can finally hug her again and now we can give each other that affection that we could not give each other in all the years that we were not together.”

When I first met Abby in the summer of 2020 at La Casa de Misericordia shelter in Nogales, Sonora, she embroidered the cloth in her lap while feeding her infant at the breast. She takes pride in her work and now she’s one of our best.

Hand-embroidered manta by Abby who is finally home now with her Mother in the U.S.

“Es curative para mi. It is healing for me because I put every feeling that I carry inside me in each embroidery,” Abby says.

Social Investment: Community and Cultural Arts

Right now, Abby is embroidering two mantas for two donors whose generous donation seeded the U.S. Bordando Esperanza group this summer making it possible to help new arrivals. Residents of Northern California, newly retired Kim Kocher and soon to be retired Karen Ashford are the models of social investment though they may not see themselves that way.

Each year they gather goods from all their neighbors and host a much anticipated 3-day yard sale. All items are priced so low that the sale itself directly helps individual members of the community. They match the proceeds and disperse the funds to what or whom they feel needs the help the most. In years past, they have raised money for their local Food Bank, put a young undocumented man with no DACA support through cooking school, and sent money to No More Deaths. This year they chose to help Artisans Beyond Borders and we are so grateful. 

“We are all migrants,” Kim writes in an email. We are blessed and honored to help these incredible women.”Kim Kocher’s own grandparents emigrated in the 1880’s to the U.S.A from Norway by ship, by themselves at 14 years of age. “I believe immigrants are the bravest, strongest, and most loving of all human beings, and we welcome them in our community, “she adds.  

At the age of five, Kim recalls, she walked with that same grandmother through San Francisco to deliver a bag of tomatoes to her grandmother’s friend cooking out of a big pot in her yard for WWII veterans waiting in line. “Those few steps we took together taught me everything I know today about helping within the community,” Kim says.

The Maker Model

New immigrants and refugees, especially women, make a living with their hands, with their cultural crafts, culinary arts, and caregiving. This is the Maker Model, a smart and scalable way for families to navigate immigration. Our makers from Florida to California, create servilletas, using manta cloth to wrap foods with natural cotton instead of plastic. The benefit to our kitchens and our homes as we adopt this one custom in particular, is incalculable, and just one of a myriad of ways that immigrants enrich our culture.

Bordado Embroidered mantas used as servilletas in the kitchen

Miguel, the young man who Kim and Karin helped get through cooking school became the best in his class and is now the head chef at a Domaine Chandon in Napa, California.

“Because of his success, his two younger brothers found a way to attend college as well. Kim said. “It’s a ripple effect, not unlike the tomatoes my grandmother and I carried up the hill in the Mission sixty years ago.”

ABB in Mexico

ABB continues to provide assistance to 25+ migrating families at 3 shelters and on the streets in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico.   Our long-term goal has always been to support the formation of collective(s) in Mexico where the artisans themselves, even in the throes of migration, can become independent and have full agency over their own creations. Now, we are beginning to see our goal met in new Mexican-run programs at the shelters leading in this direction. We are hopeful that, with support on both sides of the border, these artisan collectives will become increasingly independent.

Artisans Beyond Borders at la Casa de Misericordia migrant shelter, Nogales, Sonora
Bordando Esperanza outside the bus station, Nogales, Sonora

Going Forward: Educate, Inspire, and Partner

As volunteers and longtime cultural arts workers on the border, our mission is becoming more educational in nature. A number of churches nationwide are interested in hosting a traveling exhibition of original Bordados Devocionales: Devotional Embroideries, created by our embroiderers. These mantas are awesome faith-filled retablos, windows on immigrant life during the pandemic. When available, the exhibition may also include Leaving Home: Immigration through the Eyes of Children, artwork by refugee youth.

If your school, place of worship or community facility would like an exhibition in 2022-2023 email for the prospectus.  

Be a Cultural Change Agent

Help market the artisan’s work through the Fall and into the Christmas season. Work remotely from home or at Tucson’s Artisans Beyond Borders office. Communications and Social media experience super helpful. Bi-lingual preferred but not a deal breaker. Email us at

Wish List

A Serger with a volunteer to use it for the common good.

A volunteer or two to periodically receive, wash, and iron the artisan’s new offerings, and/or compile familial craft activity bags for folks migrating through the Tucson shelters.

Artisans Beyond Borders ~ Bordando Esperanza: Healing trauma through the Arts and upholding the Maker Tradition since 2018. All donations and sales from the artisan’s Etsy shop go directly to the artists and to fund the program. A.B.B. is a Border Arts Ministry of Tucson’s progressive Grace St. Paul’s Episcopal Church 



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