BOWLING GREEN, Ohio — Skulls proliferate. Scraps of faded denim merge with handmade embroidery and store-bought Día de Muertos fabrics. Images of the Virgen de Guadalupe minister to innumerable names — hundreds, thousands — and an equally innumerable number of anonymous human remains, indicated as “unknown,” or by the analogue term in Spanish, desconocido. This is the Migrant Quilt Project, and it serves as a register of every soul whose remains have been found since 2000 in the Tucson Sector border-crossing area between Arizona and Mexico.
The project began when Arizona resident Jody Ipsen was motivated by a record 282 reported deaths in the Tucson Sector between 2004 and 2005 to begin a campaign to raise awareness of the human collateral behind what often amounts in the national discourse to abstract or racist politicking. Ipsen organized volunteers, working individually or in groups to visually represent the names of deceased migrants — information that the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office began recording in 2000. In the common circumstance that the remains could not be identified through personal effects, the identity is listed as “unknown” — and registered on quilts in this manner or as “desconocido.” Aside from including the names on the list, all other aesthetic and compositional decisions are left to the quilt makers.
Peggy Hazard became involved with the project in 2010, when she agreed to create a quilt for the 2005–2006 records, along with two friends, Suzanne Hesh and Alice Vinson.
“I retired from my job as a curator in 2010,” said Hazard in a phone interview with Hyperallergic. “That year, a friend of mine who has been pretty involved with border and immigration ministry in Tucson had heard about the Migrant Quilt Project.” Prior to her involvement with the project, Hazard says that border immigration wasn’t too much on her radar.
“I knew that there were problems on the border outside of Tucson, particularly from artwork that I had seen and even a piece I had shown in an exhibit where I had worked,” she said, “but it wasn’t something that I was involved with in any way.”
Hazard describes the process of making the quilt as deeply affecting, particularly sorting through the clothes and other personal items found abandoned in the desert, collected by Ipsen for use as material.
It’s all of these different kinds of denim pants and faded bandanas, and shirts,” said Hazard. “And we had some of the embroidery — they’re hand-embroidered, somebody made those and sent them with their loved one. Knowing that they were picked up in a garbage heap in the desert is just unfathomable to me. Alice was picking up the clothes and she picked up a little pair of 12-month sized overalls, and we just kind of lost it. That was just heart-wrenching.
Hazard returned to the project some years later, when she was called upon to curate an exhibition for the annual festival, Tucson Meet Yourself, and chose quilts with an activist cause as her subject.
“I decided to profile quilts that are used to make some kind of a difference,” said Hazard.
Whether they’re for fundraising for women’s cancers — or, we had one or two that were memorials to the shooting in Tucson, when our Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot. There were quilts made for foster children, a textural quilt made for blind children, we also had quilts for victims of HIV/AIDS. And it occurred to me to include some Migrant Quilts.
Since then, Hazard has been an active part of the entirely volunteer staff that coordinates the continued creation of quilts, promotion of the exhibition, and logistics that enables the works to travel to locations around the country. She has also gone on to write a research paper, “What the Eye Doesn’t See, Doesn’t Move the Heart: Migrant Quilts of Southern Arizona,” presented in 2016 at the annual seminar of the American Quilt Study Group, in Tempe, Arizona, and published in AQSG’s annual journal of its seminar papers, Uncoverings, in the same year.
“I like to think of myself as never having been an activist type of a person, but I feel like I have become one,” said Hazard. “Everyone I see, we end up talking about this. And I realized how much more — well, just from the research of writing a paper, how much more I know, now, and I follow the news much more closely.” The Migrant Quilt Project has a full roster of scheduled appearances over the next year, including an exhibition at University of Arizona’s Poetry Center in February, inclusion in the International Quilt Study and Museum in Lincoln, Nebraska in March. But their current goal is to get the quilts to Washington, DC where immigration policy continues to be a point of political stalemate.
“There definitely is this whole aspect of the immigration ‘conversation,’ to put it nicely, that people aren’t aware of — and that is the human collateral of the people that are dying,” said Hazard. “I doubt that any of them would come to see it, but we’d like to get them in the proximity of some of the politicians.”
Perhaps it is difficult to imagine that something as humble as a quilt could change the world — but witnessing the humanity drawn together, in known and unknown names, in personal artifacts, and in the abiding effort to salvage something beautiful from staggering loss, it seems harder to imagine that it could not, at least, change someone’s heart.
Pieces from the Migrant Quilt Project are on exhibit at University of Arizona’s Poetry Center in Tucson, Arizona beginning in February, and will be included in an upcoming exhibition at the International Quilt Study and Museum in Lincoln, Nebraska from March 15 through June 27.