Yonkers, New York – In a stifling cafeteria in St Peter’s School in Yonkers, N.Y., the electric fans worked hard and steady as did 18 women fastidiously embroidering tablecloths to be used by Pope Francis when he visits the area next month.
“I never thought I would do anything like this,” said Celia Valencia, a veteran seamstress. “This is such a beautiful experience. It is a great moment for us.”
Maribel Ortiz gently kept unspooling the royal blue thread for Valencia. Though she doesn’t know how to embroider, she said she came because of her devotion to the Pope and to support the women’s auxiliary group to Obreros Unidos, which helps undocumented workers find protection from work exploitation. The women’s group was founded three years ago to create a community for their wives.
This group is the result of a project of the Catholic Charities, a nonprofit aiming to fulfill the needs for communities that tend to be overlooked. When the Pope asked to meet with immigrants on his visit to New York City, Catholic Charities saw the opportunity to showcase the skills of a few carpenters within Obreros Unidos to help build a chair for the Pope — one of them had built one for Pope John Paul in Mexico a few years back.
Not long afterward, the women were asked to make the tablecloths that will be used at the school the pontiff will visit on Sept. 25 in East Harlem, and also for the altar at the Madison Square Garden mass the same day.
By showcasing their work and, at the same time, their faith, the pope has given these women a voice. “We are in a place we weren’t born but we share the same beliefs,” Ortiz said. “We are not criminals. We work very hard and we are happy to be seen as people.”
Each region in Mexico, where most of these women are from, has its own signature style of embroidery (in San Lucas, for example, they rely on a needlepoint move called punto de cruz) but the cloths for the pope’s visit were designed to be uniform and won’t showcase regional flourishes. Still, the work varies by the amount each design is raised or by the way they traced the curves of the C in Catholic Charities.
“It’s like cooking,” explained Erica Mejilla. “You can use the same ingredients but each dish will be a little unique.”
It seemed impossible they could concentrate in a warm room where the sound of their children playing tag and soccer (until they were made to stop) bounced off the walls. But the women were a calm patch in a sea of youthful energy, diligently spending up to 30 minutes on one letter — that's anywhere from three to five hours a day with needle and thread. So far, they have been working on the project for more than a week. Next week, they will hope to start on the altar piece.
“I try to keep focused on my work by remembering it’s for the Pope,” said Agueda Zavaleta, who learned embroidery from her mom and grandmother. She hasn’t seen them since she moved to the U.S. 13 years ago, but she called them to tell them about the project — her mother was elated.
“She said she is living her dreams through me,” Zavaleta said.
This project is just one of many that the women’s group participates in. They also have several skills classes, such as cutting hair, aimed to help them find work in winter when the day laborer jobs are scarce and their husbands less able to support their families.
But for women, finding work isn’t easy. Ignacia Gonzalez said she would like to work in the garment industry, but that type of work often requires at least a work permit, which she doesn’t have. Many of the women expressed disappointment that though they are raising their children and working to achieve the American dream, they are not considered part of the country whose economy they support. Which is why, Gonzalez said, the Pope is so special.
“To him, we are all equals,” she said.
Video produced by Bryan Llenas.
Soni Sangha is a freelance writer based in New York City.