Embroidering for Peace
For something different, every afternoon during the week before Mother’s Day, I’d find a quiet spot out of the brutal May heat to sit down and work with needle and thread. My project was a small square of white cloth with a poppy-looking flower and leaves outlined in green. After a lot of consideration, beside the flower I penciled in my words for the children lost to violence before stitching it in red floss. It was in honour of Mother’s Day after all.
Years ago, just before the reign of Peña Nieto, and very shortly after we arrived in Mexico I happened upon an article about “Bordando por la Paz.” Embroidering for Peace? I laughed, wondering at the effectiveness of sewing circles in lowering Mexico’s impressive crime statistics. At the time, I was finishing up my Masters degree from Royal Roads University in Human Security and Peacebuilding. We had studied structures and methods for peace-making in international and civil conflicts, but obviously, embroidery had not come up as a tactic in any of my coursework.
Still, I followed Bordando por la Paz pages on Facebook and read articles about the phenomenon because something about the dignified resilience captured my attention. Women, but occasionally men too, would meet up in the plaza of big cities and sit for hours embroidering. Mostly their projects were small white handkerchiefs with bold red letters bearing the names of the disappeared and murdered and missing in Mexico. Between the War on Drugs, cartel rivalries and drug violence, government crackdown on cartel operations, the silencing of journalists, forced disappearances, violence against women, and the corruption that has doggedly burdened this country since its inception, there is never a shortage of names to be embroidered. Names, and the unnamed, the unknowns.
More than eight years later, we’re still in Mexico, and still in love with this complex and beautiful, resourceful and vibrant country. Bordando por la Paz still shows up on my newsfeed. Only recently it popped up again in relation to Mother’s Day—a holiday which is taken very seriously in Mexico. Shops close up early so people can return home and spend time with their mothers. Some children get the day off school, while other schools host massive celebrations of dancing and singing children to honour their mothers. The flower shops take over the sidewalk as well as part of the street with extra tents to hold all the bouquets for sale.
But, what about all the mothers whose children are missing or disappeared or dead on this day? Some Bordando por la Paz chapters were hosting embroidery meet-ups. I decided I needed to try some peace-making with a needle and thread in honour of the thousands of mothers who lost children this year, and children who lost mothers in the selectively violent conflict. Because we, in our quiet little lives, see none of the danger and death.
I had never embroidered before, so I tentatively headed to our town’s chaotic craft store, with its two locations three doors apart from each other; both shops with tidbits of everything exploding off the shelves: ribbons and fabric and buttons and zippers and fake flowers and sew-on patches in a thousand different designs. Items dangled from the ceiling and fell into the aisles, but the shops usually had everything I needed, as well as the things that I didn’t, like their remarkably unpleasant staff: ¿Que te vas a llevar?’ they barked at me in greeting.
The little cloth banners, handkerchief size, like what the Bordando por la Paz folks use, are in the neighbouring location, I was curtly informed. The embroidery thread and the hoop? In this store, obviously. I made my purchases: the essential red, and a pretty green and yellow.
After a six-minute Youtube tutorial on various stitches, I was ready. I don’t live anywhere near to a chapter meet-up, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t do some sewing for this Mother’s Day.
The afternoon sun shone through the trees and I sat on the floor of the balcony, with its cool tiles, the tree branches casting whispers of shade across my lap. The birds’ afternoon songs are more relaxed than the morning, as if they realize it is the end of the day. I started with the flower printed on my small handkerchief, stitching yellow French knots along the edge of the petal. In the spirit of transparency, I confess there were more knots than the stitch really required, and I had to keep my scissors close by.
I hadn’t stitched since I was a kid as my creative work has been focused on writing, which has its own sorts of knots. Me, who feels too much and feels the ache of the world and the ache of my neighbours, and my own burden of history that I sometimes forget to put down and rest—I feel it all. Writing, like a magic wand releases me from these burdens. With time, I realized it more and more. When there’s another massacre, I write. When a dog dies, I write. When I don’t know what to do, I write. When the planet is going extinct, write. When I meet a migrant crossing the country, write.
Indeed, when the brokenness of the world gets too much to bear, make something. Sing, write, dance, cook, be creative in all the ways that you can. It is a small redemption, that something beautiful can come out of the struggle.
However, for mother’s day in Mexico—Mexico with its long history of embroidering—for this day, in this place, I stitched. In doing so, I started to grasp at what embroidering for the peace actually is all about.
The act is defiance. It only looks like I’m sewing. Instead, what is in my hand is nothing less than revolution. Each small knot is connected to other threads, other stories, other knots. The tapestry is both beautiful and messy. What happens on one side of a border or a handkerchief affects the other side too. And when there is a critical mass of movement, of mothers, of sewing circles, of poets, what happens are things like Arab Springs, Velvet Revolutions. What happens is change.
Also, this embroidery is a way to not forget. So, I stitched and remembered many things. For example, years ago, I lived in East Africa and once met a three-month-old baby—severely malnourished and living in a mud hut far away from a medical clinic, and I was there just the day before he died. Some might say, What did it matter anyhow? His mother would have more children, right? Millions of infants keep on dying, just like he did. No. I refused to accept that. His name was Arafat. His life mattered. I couldn’t help him. At the time I wrote, and I still have not forgotten him. It must mean something that I found ways to keep remembering him. Through these tiny threads on a tiny banner, I found a distinctly Mexican way to remember, to revolt, to defy, and to remind others of this ongoing tragedy.
This embroidery is also determination. Unlike poetry and essays, filled with endless rejection letters from editors across the globe, my embroidery is for me and not open to critique, because its purpose is just to exist as a symbol and a sign. It refuses to bow. It is perfectly imperfect and full of flaws, just like mothers and children, just like countries and policies. No one can stop a woman from embroidering.
I stretched my tiny Mother’s Day handkerchief into a month-long project. I’m only a beginner after all. But, big changes at an international level take time. Peace-making takes time. Raising children takes time. I’m learning so much about all of these things. But the redemption story rolls on. With my frail belief and through small ways and small stitches, in my small corner of the globe, I am here. I’m doing my small part.
Lisa López Smith lives and writes from her farm in Mexico. When not wrangling kids or rescue dogs or goats, you can probably find her riding her bike. Recent publications include: TJ Eckleburg Review, Sky Island Review, Tilde, Mothers Always Write, SAND, Lacuna Magazine, and Coal Hill Review.